Working in a cheese shop in a grocery store, you encounter a lot of different kinds of people. Some know more about cheese and charcuterie than others, some cook more or travel more, some are more educated, some are more adventurous, and some just want Velveeta or American cheese. It’s a mixed bag.
Over time, I’ve collected a list of commonly mispronounced cheese names.
Sometimes people have no idea how to even start saying a name. These people often try to say it by telling me first that they’re about to butcher the name, or by showing me what it looks like written on paper or on their phones (A for effort!). Others have heard an incorrect pronunciation and they keep it going. And others yet assume they know everything and are just gloating in their own ignorance.
It’s hard for me to not correct people when they say a name wrong, because as a former German language teacher it’s ingrained in me to model the correct pronunciation until the person I’m speaking with gets it right. Some people appreciate this. Other people think I’m an asshole.
I just love cheese and want you to love it as much as I do. Part of appreciating cheese is appreciating its culture and history, and those two concepts are tied up in language.
So let’s learn a little more about these cheeses today, by saying their names right. I’ll even throw in a few charcuterie items for balance. You can take just under 10 minutes out of your day to listen in, and/or you can read along with the transcript below.
(My apologies in advance, I get kind of excited about speaking French and shouting Italian words.)
So I might as well start out by saying that this post is about cheese and charcuterie. In France, it’s “shar-coo-tree,” and in America we can call it “shar-coo-tree.” A lot of people say “shar-coo-tuh-ree,” and that’s OK.
I also want to point out that this might sound like I’m making fun of people, and I’m not. I’m just hoping to use some examples for educational purposes. We all make mistakes; nobody is perfect. We’re just here to learn and grow together.
- Gruyère. I get “grew-yay” an awful lot. This stems from an assumption that you never pronounce the end of a French word. That is false, and I’m going to write more about that soon in another post. What you need to know now is that it is “Grew-yehr” you are looking for. “Grew-yehr.” As I would say in the French part of Switzerland, “Oui, je veux du Gruyère!”
- Comté. A lot of the pronunciation guides for Comté use an ‘n’ to help English speakers get the vowel sound right. So for every two people who come in asking for “com-tee” or “compt,” there is one person asking for “con-tay.” Those are all wrong, and I’ll tell you why: the ‘n’ helps English speakers get the high-nasally ‘o’ sound in “cohm-tay.” You’re essentially trying to swallow the ‘m’ sound, and that’s where it gets tricky. “Cohm-tay.” “Oui, je veux du Comté!”
- Jarlsberg. Every old person who comes into the store wants “Jar-uhls-burg.” They say it with such force and such authority that I’m almost always blown away by it. We’ve heard so many weird pronunciations of this cheese, that behind the counter we’ve started calling it Jarlybird and Jarselberry. As in German, the “j” in Norwegian and Swedish produces a “y” sound. So it’s actually “Yarls-burg.” “Yarls-burg”: it’s not that hard! (But don’t take my word for it, check out these three Scandinavian pronunciations.)
- Chèvre. Oh no, not another scary French word! People say “shev,” “shev-ree,” “chev,” and “chev-ray.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong. It’s “shev-ruh.” “Shev-ruh.” Or as I would say en France, “Oui, je veux un petit peu du Chèvre.”
- Papillon. This is both a brand of French cheeses, and the French word for butterfly. I crack up every time someone asks for “pap-ill-ee-on.” There’s no second ‘i’ in it, so I don’t understand where that comes from. Regardless, it’s “pap-ee-yon.” “Pap-ee-yon.” “Le fromage, ce’st le Papillon Roquefort!“
- Mimolette. I have heard cheese experts get this name wrong, and nothing makes me cringe more than that. Another mispronunciation based on assuming you don’t pronounce the second half of a French word—which is total bull—everybody seems to be totally content calling it “mee-mo-lay” or “mihm-oh-lay.” Nope. It’s “Mee-mo-lett.” “Mee-mo-lett.” “C’est pas un boulet de canon! C’est la Mimolette!”
- Asiago. Look at how this word is spelled: A-s-i-a-g-o. There is an ‘i’ before the second ‘a.’ Ignoring that fact, a lot of people come in looking for “ah-sa-zhee-oh.” I don’t know what that is, I don’t know if they think they’re trying to sound fancy, or what, but we do carry “ah-see-ah-go.” Once, a customer asked me for “uh-sah-zhee-oh;” so I took him over to the shelf and pointed to it, saying, “our Asiago is right here.” He gave me this dirty look, laughed, and said, “funny how there are different ways of saying things these days.” Not only did I walk away thinking he was a total jerk, but I was also pretty dumbfounded. If you can’t trust anyone in this world, you should be able to trust your cheesemonger. We know our shit, people!
- Parmesan. This is not even about getting Parmigiano Reggiano wrong. We have actually had people come in looking for “par-mee-see-an.” That’s not even a thing. Are you kidding me? Parmesian? But parmesan is a thing. “Par-meh-zhan.”
- Époisses. This is another fun one that Americans have a really hard time with. And it’s one of my favorite cheeses. People have shyly come up to the counter asking for “eh-poys,” “ep-oh-ees,” and “eh-pos.” It’s “ay-pwass.” All you have to know is that, “L’Époisse c’est bon!”
- Tres Leches. This cheese is Spanish, and so is its name. Yet some people insist on treating the name like it’s French. This contingent goes around calling it “tray lay-che.” In reality, this cheese is Spanish, so it is pronounced “trace leh-chays.”
So that’s it for the cheeses today, and now I’m going on to the mispronouncable meats, or the charcuterie items.
- Pâté. One of my ultimate pet peeves is when people come in all snooty, thinking they are going to sound fancy by asking for “paw-tay.” “Um, yes, give me three fingers of your truffle mousse ‘paw-tay.'” (And of course they don’t say please or thank you.) Unfortunately this subset of humans sounds to me like they don’t know any French, because if they did, they would know that the word is pronounced “pahh-tay.” “Moi, j’aime le Pâté de Canard!”
- Pancetta. People love to make carbonara with “pan-set,” “pan-set-ta,” or “pan-chet.” I personally prefer to cook with “pan-chet-ta.” “Pan-chet-ta!”
- Prosciutto. Proof that people are really more creative than they give themselves credit for, we’ve heard of “pro-shoot,” “pro-zhoot,” “pro-squee-to,” “pro-skew-to,” “pro-shwee-to”—the list goes on. But Italians would probably just like you to call it “pro-shoo-toh.” “Pro-shoo-toh!”
- Guanciale. Cured pork jowels—or face bacon, which sounds super appetizing!—are becoming popular, and more and more people are asking for “gwan-cee-ah-lay,” “gwan-chee-lay,” “gwan-see-al,” or “gwan-see-lay.” Yet what I believe they would actually love to cook with is “gwan-chah-lay.” “Gwan-chah-lay!”
- Bresaola. It makes sense that people would struggle with this one, because it’s not a common product. This air-dried beef has been called “bress-oh-lay,” “bress-ee-oh-lo,” “bress-la,” “bress-ee,” you name it. The poor, abused thing is actually called “bres-ah-oh-la,” or for Americans, “bres-oh-la.”
So go forth, my friends, and order things by their correct names!