Feb 26, 2014

Why I Like 69: Charolais


This is my 100th day of A Year in Fromage, and I would like to honor it by admitting that it is very, very hard for me to count to 100. In French, that is.

For those of you that don't speak French, you should know that the number all make sense until
#69, and after that it all goes to hell.

To say the #70 involves mental addition: "soixante-dix" literally means "sixty-ten." Fair enough, but that also means that #71 is "sixty-eleven" up to #76, which is "sixty-sixteen."

In English we start our "regular" teen numbers at #13, with eleven and twelve given special names. In Spanish, the switch happens at #16 (transitioning from "quince" to "dieciséis"). In French, it happens at #17, going from "seize" to "dix-sept" (literally "ten-seven").

This means that #77 is "sixty-ten-seven," continuing up to #79 ("sixty-ten-nine"), at which point we switch to multiplication.

To say #80 in French, you say "four-twenty" (as opposed to #24 which is "twenty-four"). Then we go back to addition, on top of the multiplication: #85, for example, is "four-twenty five." Then at ninety, you say "four-twenty ten" ... all the way up until my most dreaded numbers: #97, 98, and 99.

80=(4 x 20)
87=(4 x 20) + 7
90=(4 x 20) + 10
96=(4 x 20) + 16
97=(4 x 20) + 10 + 7
98=(4 x 20) + 10 + 8
99=(4 x 20) + 10 + 9

As you may have noticed, I am more of a word person. I mean, I made it through math classes just fine, but playing with numbers has never been particularly fun to me, whereas I regularly scramble letters from street signs around in my head just to see what I can create. So there I am, speaking French rapidly, fluently even, and suddenly I need to say the number #92. All time seems to stand still as I start doing the math in my head....

Phone numbers in France are eight digits long and broken into pairs when spoken out loud. So the number 12345678 is usually written and is read out "Twelve, thirty-four, fifty-six, seventy-eight." Our home phone and both of our cell phones contains lots of numbers over 70. I've found that more than one person has written my number down incorrectly, putting 60.12 when I do not say "soixante-douze" or "sixty-twelve" -- which is actually the number #72 -- fast enough.

Contrary to my own personal belief, it turns out the French did not come up with this counting system just to mess with my head, and my French.

This base-20 (or vigesimal) counting has Celtic origins, and appeared in French counting as early as the eleventh century after  William the Conqueror hit English shores and brought back with the Normans the concept of "skor" (as in four score and seven years ago....). Presumably, the base-twenty idea grew out of the fact that you can count to twenty using toes and fingers.

Oddly, Swiss French speakers don't count like this, but rather use the more logical, 10-based:

60 = soixante
70 = septante
80 = huitante
90 = novante

In researching this, I came across other counting systems that make me grateful to be living in France. Author Claudia Zaslavsky describes the Yoruba system in her book Africa Counts -- another vigesimal system but one that uses subtraction. Numbers in each group of ten from 1-4 are added to the tens place below, and numbers from 5-9 are subtracted from the tens place above. For example,

35 = (2 x 20) - 5
47 = (3 x 20) - 10 - 3
51 = (3 x 20) - 10 + 1

This is only true up to 200, after which, she writes, "the system becomes irregular." Holy hell. Then it gets irregular?!

Denmark also has vestiges of the vigesimal system, with things really kicking in after #50. So while #40 is simply #40, #50 is "four and half-third." This means: halfway toward the third group of twenty (which would be 60, and halfway there would be 50).

66 = 6 and third
73 = 3 and half fourth

There is, apparently, also a counting system based on 60 which is called sexagesimal. France does not use this system for primary counting, which is lucky for my brain but unlucky for my writing, as I am itching to make some sort of tacky "sexagesimal" pun. I think my cousin Kevin will be the first to come up with a zinger.

But don't think that means you are free from knowing what it's about, because we're all still using this system to some extent. The sexagesimal system started with the Sumerians (approx. 300BC) and went through the Babylonians all the way straight through to us today, which is why we tell time in chunks of 60 (sixty seconds to the minute, sixty minutes to the hour) and angles in terms of 360°. The reason is because 60 can be divided so neatly into so many components: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10,
12, 15, 20, 30, and 60 and, by extension, 360 can be divided into six groups of 60.

Researching this leads me to the book The Universal History of Numbers by Georges Ifrah, which I am intrigued enough to buy for our family to see if we all enjoy geeking out on it. How does this tie in? The author is French. You see? It all comes full circle. 100 postings done, and 265 more to come: You can count on it. But probably not in Yoruba, Danish, or even French.

THE CHEESE: Charolais (100 Jours)

Charolais is a raw goat's milk cheese from Burgundy. Underneath a thick, moldy crust is a dry, crumbly cheese. And perhaps none of that sounds very delicious, but the end product is quite tasty indeed. It's salty, with a hint of sweet and nutty as well.

And yes, you eat the crust, which develops over the ripening period -- generally 2-6 weeks. But those that are aged longer, like the 3 month-old version I taste, have an even thicker and more colorful, moldy crust. You are allowed to not eat the crust, of course; you won't be arrested, but I think it's delicious all mixed together.


French kids -- especially in the young grades -- often celebrate the 100th day of school. Today is the 100th posting of A Year in Fromage, and I've always known today would be the day I would write about numbers and Charolais, which is proudly touted by my local cheesemonger as being "100 day" cheese.


  1. French kids don't celebrate the 100th day of school!! Never heard of that, although I used to be a French kid and met lots of other French kids since then!!! Who did tell you that? haha!

    1. I think it's a pretty new thing (current generation). Our girls did it when they were in primary school here in Paris, and so did all the kids they know even in other French schools. Or perhaps it's just a Paris thing (though the French schools in the US also do it...). When I was a kid we didn't do anything like this, either.


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