A specialty cheese counter can be an intimidating place. You walk up and are presented with 400 different types of cheese all sitting together, begging for your attention.
If you don’t know what you want, it can be a struggle to pick something out from the multitude before you. (Luckily, that’s what cheesemongers are for—to help you find something to try!)
If you do know what you want, that makes it easier, right?
Well, yes and no. There are plenty of folks who walk up with confidence, say what they are looking for, grab it, and get a move on. But there are just as many—if not more—who approach the cheese counter with apprehension.
One of the most common ways that customers start conversations with us is not by saying “hello,” but rather with the words, “I’m not going to say this right…” Sometimes they try to pronounce the name; other times they won’t even try for fear of getting it wrong.
Not only is the sea of cheeses overwhelming, but the names for all those cheeses come from a variety of linguistic backgrounds. Given that only one in five Americans learns a foreign language before college (and not everyone goes to college!),[i] it is unsurprising that cheese names present a challenge to the average consumer. And even those 20-plus percent of Americans who speak a language other than English at home[ii] can’t be expected to know how to pronounce words outside of their own frame of reference.
There is no shame in not knowing how to pronounce an unfamiliar word.
Now if you do know French or Spanish and can say the names with gusto, then have at it! But not everyone in this country is privileged to have had access to much linguistic training.
If you do want an added bump of confidence at the cheese counter, here are 10 of the most intimidating names customers encounter at my shop, with some tips on how to say them without worry. These tips are specifically for American cheese buyers, so they are not intended to perfectly match the pronunciations of the cheese names in their original languages.
- Gruyère (Grew-yerr) – An Alpine-style cheese from Switzerland, great for cooking, melting, and snacking.
2. Comté (Comm-tay) – An Alpine-style cheese from France, a distant cousin of Gruyère, great for cooking, melting, and snacking.
3. Parmigiano Reggiano (Par-mih-jah-no Reh-gee-ah-no) – A hard, aged cheese from Italy, the real-deal Parmesan.
4. Dèlice de Bourgogne (Deh-lis duh Bore-go-nyeh) – An earthy and salty triple-cream bloomy rind cheese from France.
5. Chèvre (Sheh-vreh) – A soft, fresh goat’s milk cheese that is too young to grow a rind and is great for spreading, smearing, and gently cooking; while fresh goat cheeses are made all over, the name comes from the French word for goat.
6. Garrotxa (Gah-row-cha) – A firm, Spanish goat’s cheese; before the Franco dictatorship, it was an aged, bloomy-rind cheese, but the style died out and was revived by a new generation of artisan cheesemakers.
7. Tres Leches (Trace lay-chase) – A firm, Spanish cheese made with cow, sheep, and goat’s milk; the style is similar to Manchego, but not exactly.
8. Mascarpone (Mask-ar-po-nay) – A buttery and spreadable double- or triple-cream cow’s milk cheese from Italy; it is a key ingredient in delicious desserts like Tiramisu.
9. Pâté (Paa-tay) – A mixture of seasoned meat or vegetables molded into a loaf and cooked, it can be a creamy and spreadable mousse-style or a firm and chunky country-style; the name translates to the very un-sexy word “paste” in French.
10. Pancetta (Pan-cheh-ta) – Seasoned, salt-cured pork belly in the Italian tradition; it is different from bacon in that it is not smoked.
At the end of the day, it is not essential to know how to pronounce every cheese name correctly. Most cheesemongers encounter mispronunciations and unsurety with the names enough that they are able to figure out what you are looking for—especially if you can show them the name written down on your shopping list.
I’ll add a side note that it is never cool to use your knowledge of a language to try to make others feel bad for not pronouncing a name perfectly. Most American cheesemongers have had “that one customer” who gives them shit for not pronouncing “Gouda” the Dutch way. (We even had a woman attend a class one time whose only feedback was that because someone pronounced “Gouda” the American way, we were all unfit to teach a class on Parmigiano Reggiano.)
Many words adapt to the language and culture where they are being used, so the American word “Gouda” is pronounced differently than it is in Dutch. Cheesemongers may know the “real pronunciation,” but not use it in every interaction.
This is, after all, how we got the word “Parmesan” from “Parmigiano Reggiano”: from French cheese lovers adapting the Italian name within their own language.[iii]
This may be an unpopular opinion, but if a cheesemonger corrected every customer for saying “goo-duh” instead of “how-dah,” they would alienate far more people than they might convince to change their way of speaking. In the United States, our audience is “Americans,” so most of us use the language Americans are used to—just as cheesemongers do in Canada or France or Turkey or Japan.
(And yes, I am making this point because I have had plenty of internet trolls upbraid me in previous posts for telling Americans how to pronounce words “the American way” instead of insisting on perfect linguistic mastery. Never mind that it is rude to be a troll/bully in the first place; as someone who is fluent in English and German with a working knowledge of French, Russian, and Spanish, I do not expect everyone I meet to want to learn everything I know.)
In sum, I don’t mind if you say “Grew-yerr” or “Groo-err” or “Grrrr” when you walk up to my counter looking for Gruyère. I may correct you if you totally miss the mark, but the goal is never to make you feel stupid.
As a cheesemonger and a cheese educator, I want you to feel confident at the cheese counter. If having a grasp on tricky language empowers you, then great! And if it does not, but you still come get some cheese, then that’s great, too. Cheese is for everyone.
[i] Stein-Smith, Kathleen. “Foreign language classes becoming more scare.” American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 6 Feb. 2019. Web. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021. https://www.amacad.org/news/foreign-language-classes-becoming-more-scarce
[ii] Commission on Language Learning. “The State of Languages in the U.S.: A statistical portrait.” Humanities Indicators. American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2016. Web. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021. https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/academy/multimedia/pdfs/publications/researchpapersmonographs/State-of-Languages-in-US.pdf
[iii] Gibbons, David. “Parmigiano Reggiano.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Ed. Catherine Donnelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 539.
2 thoughts on “10 Intimidating Cheese Names and How to Say Them”
OMG Courtney, after finding your blog and reading this great article, I just had to say hello to you.
We have a lot in common. I am a former high school German teacher in Wisconsin, have a degree in German Lit and also share your exact list of other languages studied. These days, I speak more Spanish in my home, but that’s another story….
I found you because I was exploring some interesting cheeses that I saw at Aldi and I wanted to see if they might be decent. This blog title hooked me because of my language interests and now here I am writing you.
I have a specific question. Lately, I have not had any luck with blue cheeses in the USA. I am talking about grocery store cheeses. ARE there any good ones that don’t break the bank? I need something that I can make salad dressing with, put in salads, soups, etc. Years ago in the 70’s, my family thought Treasure Cave was special. Our grandpa would send a box of it every year and we took a few months to finish off those wonderful triangles. Well, I can get that cheese, but it leaves me completely wanting. And any brand of crumbles…they also aren’t doing it. (Did they ever?) In fact, it seems that a lot of blue cheeses (wedges or crumbles) spoil very quickly in my fridge, I guess I’m expecting too much of them, time-wise. I just remember how long the those Treasure Cave triangles lasted. More than a few months…it took us awhile to get through it. Some brands of crumbles that I used to think were “meh” but ok in a pinch for making my home made dressing, don’t seem to have the unctuous flavor they used to…they seem very dry.
Is there something going on in Blue Cheese World?
Costco had a decent one for awhile that I really liked for everyday, I think they put their Kirkland name on it. Then it disappeared and I don’t know why.
Can you recommend a good/decent blue cheese that we can consume on a regular basis that won’t break the bank?
And back to the languages and pronunciation of foreign words in the USA…some things bug me and some things don’t. Who the heck would understand gouda in an everyday American conversation if you pronounced it as in Dutch? That said, I sure do wish chefs would pronounce Mexican “crema” correctly, that one bugs me, maybe because it’s not hard to get it right and anyone could understand it. Overall though, I do not believe in snobbishness when it comes to languages. People pronounce the words as they encounter them in their own language/culture. My daughter is from Nicaragua and we laugh about how she grew up pronouncing “Made in USA”. You can probably figure: MAH-day en OOH-sa.
This is too long now, tut mir Leid.
I’m going to go read your beautiful blog and find out about your Street Cheese. (After trying Belgian French Fries back in the early 80’s, my friend and I wanted to have a food truck in Mpls called “Street Fries”.)
Thank you so much for stopping to say hello, Mary!
I think the question of blues really depends on what is available around you. We have some truly top-notch blues in the US, but every retailer is a bit different in what they offer. Thanks to the pandemic, too, many good cheeses can be ordered online and shipped directly from the cheesemaker. If you are still in Wisconsin, I know a lot of folks really enjoy Roth Buttermilk Blue (Roth is from Wisconsin). I’m not familiar with Treasure Cave, but it might be similar as a cheese that would go as nicely on a salad or steak as it would with a swirl of honey and some candied nuts. Some other good options that may be available near you might be Carr Valley Glacier Point Blue, Maytag Blue, Pt. Reyes Original Blue, St. Pete’s Select from the Caves of Faribault/Amablu, and maybe even Hooks Cheese’s Ewe Calf to Be Kidding (made with cow, sheep, and goat milks).
Spoilage is also a big question! If the cheese is already old when it gets to you, that can make it seem like it’s going bad faster in your fridge. Especially since cheese has gone up by so much in price in past years, some retailers find their cheeses sitting around longer before they find a home. During the worst parts of the pandemic, too, commodity cheeses were selling much faster than specialty cheeses, so that’s another reason some of the nicer blues may not have been at top quality when they got home with you. If you can, I’d suggest buying smaller wedges and replacing them more frequently, rather than stocking up on a big wedge. That way you know you have a fresher cheese more often.
Thank you also for the kind words. Anymore I get so many nasty comments from mean-spirited trolls that I stopped reading the comments on my posts (and posting in general). It meant a lot to find your note. I appreciate you stopping by!