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.