I’m surprised this funny exchange about French bread took 5 years to happen. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a misunderstanding or if my mother-in-law was messing with me. Let me tell you what happened. Tom and I were at a Sunday lunch at a rather large table a few weeks ago with his family. It was the kind of table where you had to ask someone next to you to pass the salt because it was too far away to grab yourself.
Pass the bread, please. That’s not “bread”!
In France, food culture rules. There are so many types of cheeses and wines, and well, breads. Yes, regular old bread isn’t always called bread and specifying is of utmost importance.
First things first: Bread in French is pain. Un pain is “a bread” like “a loaf of bread,” a finished product. Du pain is “some bread”.
So if Tom called me and said, Est-ce que tu peux acheter du pain ce soir (can you buy some bread tonight), I would ask him to specify what kind he wants… a baguette? A ficelle?
Now on the other hand, if you walk into a boulangerie and say Je veux un pain, s’il vous plait, you’re going to get a baguette-shaped type of bread that’s a bit thicker than a baguette.
There’s no shortage of types of French bread. Baguettes, boules, pain de mie (square sandwich bread), préfou, ficelle, etc. The list of types of bread goes on and on. Just consider all this background info, OK?
Let’s turn to wine for a second.
Now if you’re sitting at a table and there’s one bottle of wine on the table, it’s clear that if you ask someone to pass you the wine and point toward the bottle, they know you mean the only option on the table. If there were 2 bottles — a red and a white — it would make sense to say, “Please pass the red wine” if that’s what you wanted, to avoid confusion. If there’s just one bottle, there’s no need to ask for the Sauvignon Blanc. Likewise, they’re not going to hand you salt if you ask for wine.
So let me set the scene for my story about French bread.
At our lunch, here’s what was on the table:
— a few water and wine glasses
— a bottle of wine and pitcher of water
— a basket of sliced appetizer bread with chorizo baked into it
— a bowl of radishes
— salt and pepper
Baguette etiquette: What to do and not do with your bread >>
We were finishing up our apéro before the main course and there were a few pieces of this appetizer bread on the plate, so I asked my mother-in-law to please pass some down to me.
My words were (in French, no one speaks English except Tom), “Martine, could you pass me the bread please?” She looked at me, dead serious, “There’s no bread.”
Thinking she just didn’t see there was some left, I gestured toward the plate. She said, “Oh, you want some bread?” And I said, “Yes, please” but she still didn’t pass me anything.
Out of exasperation, I think I turned to her, laughed, and said in English, “Are you being serious right now?” still not sure if she was having vision problems because the half-full plate was just to her left.
I thought my mother-in-law was messing with me although she’s not much of a joking around type, but as it turns out, that wasn’t the case at all.
At this point, Tom jumped in and said, “Oh, you mean the pain apéro? Sure, here you go,” and he slid the plate my way.
So what was going on?
My mother-in-law was just trying to make sure I didn’t mistakenly think the pain apéro on the table was an actual baguette or a sliced boule. You know, actual “bread.” Or if I wanted her to go get a few pieces of baguette from the kitchen.
It was a simple misunderstanding. You see, to the French, if you say “pain” (bread), it means a normal baguette or a sliced boule. Anything beyond that needs to be specified.
So special appetizer bread is not “pain” (even if there’s nothing else on the table that resembles bread), but pain apéro or pain aperitif. If I had said pain au chorizo or pain apéro, she would have passed the the plate, no confusion. But I just said pain!
I still find this little French bread misunderstanding funny.
To me, anything that has flour and is baked into a bread shape (loaf, slice, ball, etc.) is called bread. It’s the overarching name for this type of food. It’s clearly not ice cream or mashed potatoes, you know?
To me, calling the pain apéro bread was correct. It was clear to me I wasn’t asking for wine or water. I could understand the misunderstanding better if there had been a bread basket of baguette slices in addition to the pain apéro, but there was not. In my mind, it was 100% clear that the “bread” I was asking for was the appetizer bread! But my mother-in-law thought I was asking for something that wasn’t on the table.
Many years ago, I was taking a French class at the Alliance Français in Paris. There was a Vietnamese boy in the class and the teacher asked him if he ate bread at home (eat-ce que vous mangez du pain chez vous?). He said no. The she asked if he used “baguettes”. The class was confused, not just me, but I remember thinking that she’d just asked about bread, so why was she bringing up baguettes specifically. She must have noticed the look of confusion on our faces, because she then explained that the word for chopsticks in French is “baguettes”.
It can really be confusing! Let’s not forget about la baguette magique. Nothing to do with bread at all — it’s a magic wand. Not a magic baguette but a magic wand!
Haha I’m cracking up at the thought of a magic baguette!
Taste of France says
That is a great story. I haven’t had the bread situation, but as I was reading it, I was nodding, because similar things have happened to me. Most involve my husband giving me a lecture about some fine point, so I have put them out of my mind!
There are so many opportunities for cultural confusion. When I was in Italy with my brothers, they would order coffee with their meals. The waiters would nod, but not bring it. My brothers would ask, and the waiters would say they hadn’t forgotten. But the coffee wouldn’t arrive until the very end of the meal. My brothers were flummoxed. But so were these waiter who couldn’t conceive of anybody drinking coffe with a meal.
I thought that by this point, I was familiar enough with my family’s food routine that misunderstandings were a thing of the past. Not so!
Yes, I’ve heard about how coffee and food don’t really mix in a lot of places. But hey, the customer is always right so as long as they aren’t making a mess or disrupting other customers, let them drink their coffee w/steak!
Unrelated question but a bread question – Do the French have “sweet breads” like banana bread or zucchini bread?
Hi Todd, the French have a few variations of sweet breads kind of like pound cake, but they wouldn’t call it bread (pain). Most popular would be the quatre-quatre (butter pound cake type of thing) or the marbré (marble cake), which has a swirl of chocolate in it. It’s a loaf shape and is usually sliced. The French would call this a type of gateau. To complicate things, they have something they call a cake in French (pronounced kind of like keck) but it’s savory, not sweet. Here’s one from Picard I like: http://www.picard.fr/produits/mini-cake-chevre-tomate-courgette-000000000000064236.html
There’s no equivalent of banana bread that I’ve seen here although the French like that sort of thing and maybe some trendy places make a version of it. When I’ve made banana bread, my French family can’t get enough. If it did exist, they’d be sure to call it gateau and definitely not pain!
Thanks Diane! I asked because just the day of your post my wife had brought some banana bread slices from starbucks. I love that stuff. If someone makes a loaf of it, I have to be kept away from the loaf itself because I just keep slicing and eating more and more. 🙂
I’m the same way! I love banana bread, or pumpkin bread. Any type of loaf bread is dangerous in my house!! Now that I’m thinking of it, I think I have some really ripe bananas…
Just a tiny correction:
– Quatre-quart” is the name of the pound cake (litteraly 4 quarter : 1 quarter eggs / 1 of butter / 1 of flour / 1 of sugar).
– Quatre-quatre is a 4×4, a 4WD car 😉
I guess you know that and was just a typing mistake, but who knows if one your readers searches a recipe for a quatre-quatre cake they might never find it 😀
Totally a typo, oops! Thanks for catching that. Pound cake and 4WD cars are very different!
je me rappelle du gâteau quatre-quarts, pas quatre-quatre, a moins que le nom a change depuis mon enfance !
Bon post et très éducatif avec les usages du mot ”pain”.
Wow, entertaining and enlightening vignette, Diane. I definitely would have done just as you did.
Thanks! It seems logical to refer to a savory baked good as bread, right? As I replied to Todd above, the gateau/cake distinction complicates the whole “pain” thing even more!
Joanne the crazy lady says
Talk about confusing, if it is baked and has a bread look and smell it is bread but not in France I take it
Right, in my case it’s pain apero! Totally different apparently!
I love those little language mishaps. And that bread sounds delicious!
It really was wonderful! Sometimes bakeries have fancy pain apero like that and it’s SO worth it!
While I was living in Korea, I thought I wasn’t a fan of their bread, but now I miss it! They had some nice breads with olives baked into them, etc. I also loved green tea cakes and other pastries. I never came around to the garlic bread with sugar on top, though.
Luckily there’s a Korean grocery store w/ bakery that we sometimes go to. I am not sure about my opinion on American bread yet. There are some good (expensive) loafs of bread, but pastries always seem to disappoint me. I’ve heard there’s a good new bakery here in Denver, though.
Haha. I’m tired and suffering from allergies. 🙂
Very cool about Korea. What brought you there? Did you pick up the language? American bread leaves a lot to be desired although you can find great bakeries sometimes!
I would have said the same thing so thanks for the heads up. I’ll try to remember pain apèro.
As I wrote to CatherineRose below, if you’re in a group of French people who are familiar with English/Anglophone culture, they’d probably know what you meant. But in the case of my MIL who doesn’t speak any English and has never visited an English-speaking country, she really thought I was asking for sliced baguette and not the “bread” that was right in front of her. So it just depends!
Confusing to say the least of it. I notice that the ‘bread’ often is served after the soup which is odd to me as I like it with my soup! Everything else gets mopped up with the pain so why not the soup. I guess you just add your wine to the soup bowl and then slurp in out the bowl which I have seen very often when at a repas,
Bonne journée t’other Diane
I’m French & never heard the expression of “pain apéro” …. I think she was making a big deal of nothing ….
Really? It was just that she thought I was asking for plain baguette. Pain apéro is definitely a thing in my experience (seen it labeled that at the bakery, grocery stores, etc.)… what would you call it if it wasn’t a specially named bread like fougasse or préfou?
I’m French and i see exactly what kind of bread you’re talking about, but i’m a bit like Viviane. Maybe it’s sold as pain apéro but i don’t think i would call it that way. I think i would have just said “pain au chorizo” 🙂 But it may be different depending on the region you live in. (ever hear of the “pain au chocolat” vs. “chocolatine” battle?)
Right, but if there was only one type of bread on the table, why wouldn’t just “pain” suffice? Saying pain chorizo seems like overkill. Like if there was one type of wine on the table, I’d say pass the wine please not “Pass the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand”, you know?
First of all, I’m going to be polling everyone I know about this because I just find it so weird – it was so obvious what you were asking for!!!
This sparked a totally different argument between me and Hugo:
“Chéri, tu sais le pain qu’on achetait avec du chorizo ou de l’emmental ?”
“Oui, la fougasse.”
“Non, pas la fougasse, le pain, tu sais, avec le chorizo ? Qu’on achetait ?”
“Oui, c’est la fougasse.”
“Non! …Bref, si je te demande de me passer le pain et il y a que ce pain avec le chorizo sur la table, est-ce que tu comprendrais ce que je voulais ?”
“Oui, je comprendrais que tu voulais de la fougasse.”
So, on the one hand, Hugo is on your side of this argument, but on the other hand, I have a totally different concept of what a fougasse is than he does!
These specialty breads are fascinating!!
Just one thing to keep in mind when you poll. Hugo speaks English and is living in California so he understands anglophone culture and why someone might refer to a fougasse as bread. In my MIL’s case, she doesn’t speak any English beyond hello, is not an anglophile and has never visited an English-speaking country. I feel like people who know pain is bread in English and maybe know the culture a little might have just passed me the pain apero. But French folks who don’t speak English might react like my MIL, just thinking I was asking for sliced baguette!
Hi Diane, I’m a French guy who’s just discovered your blog because you are quoted in Courrier International. Your story is funny and very interesting because asking for some bread was somehow perfectly correct : chorizo bread is still bread. But I must admit my first reaction would probably have been the same as your mother-in-law had. And why do we react like this is not really clear to me.
Thinking more about it, I believe it has nothing to do with chorizo, but with the usage this bread is for. In France, we use bread during all our meals whatever we eat. So although it is food, it is also kind of a tool, like you need a fork and a knife to eat. So in your case when you were asking for some bread during an apéro, the link with this little appetizer bits was not obvious, even if these appetizer bits are made with special bread slices. This bread could have been replaced by anything else during an apéro : pizza bits, olives, nuts, whatever.
Suppose you were later on during the lunch and the very same bread was still there instead of baguette slices because your mother-in-lay thinks this chorizo flavor goes well with, say, some special goat cheese she was offering, the same request from you would have been crystal clear to her, I’m pretty sure…
Hi Philippe, welcome! What you’re saying makes a lot of sense. Thank you for your thoughtful explanation. I bet you’re right about the same bread being served at a later point during the meal.
Do you have any other French culture explanations for me? You’re good at this 😉 Maybe about men peeing in public, dog poop, politeness…
This is so funny. I hope this misunderstanding did not cause any issue with your mother-in-law. I must say, I love French bread. Every time we travel to France, my husband and I can’t get enough of it. There are not too many places in the US that can make French bread that tastes like French bread. It is a pity. We’ll be in France next month. I’ll be sure to remember the difference between the bread types so there won’t be any misunderstanding.
Hi Vida, nope, luckily it didn’t cause any issues other than a misunderstanding that lasted just a few minutes. We had a good laugh afterwards 😉
I agree, all the bread is wonderful! I love discovering new kinds!
I love these breads