Thursday, 21 April 2016

Cooking up a French feast

Just as with other areas of daily life, the Normans laid much of the lexical foundation for our modern cooking and feasting. Although many Old English food words survived into modern English, with chicken, lamb, garlic and milk among the most prominent, Middle English took in a wide array of French terms, which last until today, with some fascinating insights into medieval life.

One of the most striking contrasts between words of French and English origin is that between animals and the meat from those animals. Indeed, the Old French word animal itself replaced the Old English deor, but deor didn't disappear, instead becoming specialised as modern deer. A fascinating fact about both these words is that they are from different roots meaning “breathe”. The Norman kings jealously guarded their rights to hunt deer, so much so that killing a deer was a capital offence. The fact that deer were the most hunted of animals is reflected in the root of the word for deer meat, venison, which literally means “hunted meat”. So, here we have clear signs that the reference to the live animal is English, while the reference to the meat on the table is French.

We can see the same in other words contrasting the farm animal with the cooked meat. When the English swine was cooked, it became French pork, although porc in Old French also denoted the animal. Similarly, the English cow became the French veal, originally veel, “calf”, in Old French, and the English bull became the French beef. Strangely, the words cow and beef are from the same historical root. While lamb is use for the baby sheep, whether gambolling in fields or topped with mint sauce, the English sheep was transformed into the French mutton, which itself referred to the animal in French. Another pork product, Latin lar, “bacon”, gives us lard and larder, which was originally a supply of pig-meat products, and then the place to keep them.

One particularly interesting contrast is between the English milk and the French cream. Anyone who is old enough to remember the gold-top bottles of milk delivered to the front door by the milkman will recall the difference between the milk, which occupied the bulk of the bottle, and the dollop of rich cream at the top. If milk had been delivered in this way after the Norman conquest, the irony would not have been lost on the English majority, reduced to peasants and serfs in their own country.

The culinary plant world also has many examples of French borrowing. The Old English laec, which gives us leek as well as the second half of garlic, originally denoted the bulb we know as the onion, from the Old French oignon, ultimately from the Latin unionem, so called because the leaves of the bulb formed a union as opposed a clove, as with garlic. Any onion farmers reading this might be tempted to form an organisation known as the Onion Union. Presumably Lenin and Stalin ate Soviet Onions. Maybe the first train to deliver these vegetables to San Francisco was known as the Onion Pacific. OK, enough of that.

The French also managed to give us mushroom, from mousseron, as well as mustard, vinegar, from vinaigre, “sour wine”, and parsley, from Latin petroselinum, “rock parsley”, borrowed ultimately from Greek. One interesting borrowing is lettuce, which supposedly got its name from the Latin lac, "milk", because of the milky sap which can be squeezed out. You also might want to top off your meal with a bit of fruit, itself from Latin fructus, “enjoyment, delight”. A peach, from Old French pesche, might go down fine, especially as it comes all the way from Persia, as supposed by the Latin malum Persicum, “Persian apple”. In fact, peaches come from China, but, for the ancients, Persia was far enough to the east.

We can't leave this subject without paying a visit to the bakery. We think of flour as being white and dusty, but it's actually a variant spelling of flower, from Old French flor, with the idea that the finest grains came from the flower of the meal. Add water, and flour becomes dough, pasta in Latin. Old French paste gave us pasty, much to the delight of the Cornish, presumably, and also modern pâté.

Finally, we have a some words from the French for bread which no longer have anything to do with it. You would share your bread, Latin pan, with someone known as your companion, “messmate”, who you would also travel with and presumably fight alongside. Your companions would then make up your company. You would also put your bread into a basket to carry on your horse, a pannier, though I doubt if modern bikers would take kindly to you stuffing bread into their panniers.

So there you are, some of the words the Normans and the French gave us for our food. No doubt you could go out foraging for other words and find a few interesting titbits to tuck into. Happy hunting!

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