Welcome to Chez Gram

This is a compendium of terms connected with food. It focuses on the origins of such terms, their history and, often, their etymologies (and their folk etymologies), their connotations and their usage (and misuse). The posts will tend to highlight little-known aspects of a dish, product or personality and will make no attempt to be comprehensive. That is the job of food encyclopaedias, such as the authoritative Oxford Companion to Food. The tone of the posts will range from enthusiasm (for tarte Tatin or for certain chefs, for example) to rants (against McDonald’s and other egregious purveyors of malbouffe). Having lived in France for most of my life, I make no excuse for the fact that there may be a certain bias in the selection of the topics discussed. But my remit is by no means restricted to things French. To find out, I can do no more than urge you, in the manner of the best-selling Victorian (and post-Victorian) encyclopaedia, to ‘enquire within’.

Chez Gram Sampler
Sampler made by Win Campbell

A word of explanation for Chez Gram as a domain name. When I emigrated to France all those years ago, I quickly realised that my surname, when given over the phone for, say, a restaurant booking, would almost always be écorché (literally ‘flayed’, i.e. figuratively ‘mistranscribed’). According to the International Phonetic Alphabet, my name is pronounced /ɡɹeɪ.əm/ or /ɡɹeəm/, but over the phone it would tend to get transcribed variously as ‘drenne’, ‘graine’ or of course ‘gramme’ or ‘gram’. Win Campbell, whose late husband designed and wrote for the London Review of Books, and was responsible more particularly for its memorable covers, was a teacher whose main hobbies were reading and tirelessly embroidering samplers for friends. She kindly thought of making a little sampler for me to hang on my kitchen wall: it reads ‘Chez Gram’. The most egregious example of a mispronunciation often heard on the French media, which it took me some time to decipher, was the mysterious American film producer and director, ‘Ovar Doogue’ - aka Howard Hughes.

Recent Entries


If you look up the word rocambole in a large English or French dictionary, you’ll find it has two definitions …

Cervelle de Canut

Before discussing this most outlandishly named dish – cervelle de canut (literally ‘silk worker’s brains’), which is basically just a concoction of cottage cheese with chopped chives – may I focus for a moment on the city it originates from and is most closely identified with: Lyon.

Cheese and its ‘infinite variety’

Imagine a world without cheese. A world where God or natural selection had organised things in such a way that milk – the primal food of every mammal, including humans – inexorably went rotten (like fish or meat) when left for a time at room temperature, instead of coagulating as it does, under the effect of natural bacteria and turning into a basic form of cheese. If milk did not possess that magical property, generations of men and women would never have invented the hundreds of different kinds of cheese now in existence, and the world would definitely be a poorer place.

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