Crème fraîche is not "fresh cream"

Certain food items borrowed from European traditions are readily translated in English, while others are not, and at times the translations themselves can refer to something entirely different. The vanilla-flavored whipped cream known as crème Chantilly may also legitimately be called "Chantilly cream" in English without any change in meaning. The custard sauce Crème anglaise, which is French for "English cream" (despite the dubiousness of the sauce's English origins) may be called "English cream" in English but usually retains its French name.

In contrast, crème fraîche should never be called by its literal translation "fresh cream," especially since it is most akin to what English speakers generally know as "sour cream." Indeed, the dairy product is essentially fresh cream that has been matured or soured. The French name persists in English. By the same token, the French name crème brûlée is almost always used in English instead of the translation "burnt caramel" for the dessert that is not just burnt caramel, per se, but a rich custard served cold and topped with a warm layer of hard (perhaps burnt) caramel.

Similarly, the "croissant," which literally means "crescent" (due to the shape of the buttery pastry) is occasionally (albeit somewhat rarely) called a "crescent" or "crescent roll" in English. However, in some English-speaking countries, this could cause confusion, as a crescent roll may generally refer to a different type of crescent-shaped, often savory pastry that is made with far fewer layers of dough than a typical croissant.

The pastry known as the "mille-feuilles" in French is generally not translated in English literally as "thousand-leaf" or "thousand-leaf pastry." In Australia and the UK, it is often called a vanilla slice. In New Zealand, it is a custard square. In South Africa, it is a custard slice. In the USA (and, incidentally, in a number of non-English-speaking countries), it is called a napoleon, not derived initially from the emperor but from the city of Naples, Italy. Interestingly, in French, a "Napoléon" refers specifically to a "mille-feuilles" pastry filled with almond paste. Canada proves to be an exception, however, as it is often called a "mille-feuilles" in French and in English there as a viable alternative to the term napoleon in English.

And as we are speaking of pastries frequently served in cafes, what to call coffee drinks made with milk can be confusing. A café au lait is a "French-style beverage made with drip coffee and boiled milk". A café con leche is a "1 1/2 ounce espresso with enough steamed milk to fill an 8-ounce cup." A caffè latte is "a shot of espresso, with a healthy covering of hot steamed milk and up to a quarter inch of foamed milk on top" (references taken from here). Yet they all mean "coffee with milk" in French, Spanish, and Italian, respectively! To complicate the issue, there is an entirely different drink, "coffee milk," which is cold milk mixed with coffee syrup and is the state drink of Rhode Island!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Unknown said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I always debate with people who try to tell me I should pronounce crème fraîche as crème fresh. It really bugs me when people combine french and english, so its excellent to read about crème brûlée etc. I will remember those to use as examples of why its crème fraîche and not crème fresh :D

Margaret Larkin said...

Thanks :D