Oct 6, 2014

Say Monkey: Tommette de l'Epine

When you get your photo taken in English, you tell your subject "Say 'cheese'!" to get them to smile. That of course, is because your mouth automatically looks like a smile when you say the "eeee" sound. You will see many, many Anglophone tourists in France saying "fromage" when they have their picture taken. Their photos will all look dorky, with their mouths wide open saying "aaaah". The French may make cheese, and eat cheese, but they don't "say 'cheese'".

Instead, the French say "ouistiti" which is a kind of monkey -- a marmoset, more precisely. Now, if you go ahead and say "monkey" or "marmoset" or even "singe" (the French word for "monkey"), your mouth will also be weirdly twisted in your photos. On the other hand, "ouistiti" -- pronounced "wee-stee-TEEEEEEEEEEE" in front of the camera -- will give you a nice, big smile. Just so you know, or so you know I know, the monkey pictured above (from an exhibition at the Petit Palais) is not a ouistiti. On the other hand, he does look like he has a permanent smile.

These 18th century animals that were in a glass-worker's window in Paris and are now housed at the Carnavalet Museum, on the other hand, may very well be ouistitis.

That one on the right certainly has, er, an interesting, um, "smile". Quite lovely and photogenic.

While I'm on the subject, there's a French phrase "monnaie de singe" that means "funny money". The expression arose in the 13th century when Saint Louis (King Louis IX, who ascended the throne in 1226 upon the death of his father, King Louis VIII, knows as the Lion) put a tax on the bridge connecting Ile de la Cité and the Left Bank, currently the 5th arrondissement. The only people exempt from the tax were jugglers, wandering minstrels, and entertainers who could make their monkeys perform -- assuming they had monkeys -- in lieu of payment. I guess even if they couldn't make money, there were happy to have a smile on their face. Ouistiti!

THE CHEESE: Tommette de l'Epine

The Tommette de l'Epine, also known as the Tomette de l'Epine, is a hard, raw goat's milk cheese from Savoie. It's a classic style mountain cheese, even though it's goat and not cow. The crust is bumpy and thick, and the cheese itself is hard to the point of crumbly. It's salty, and works well in small shavings, or large chunks, just like a good Parmesan.

The word "épine" means thorn, but there are no thorns in the cheese, nor are there thorns used in the making of the cheese. Rather, it's named after the area in the Northwest of the department of Savoie where a part of the Massif (mountains and mesas) is known as the Chaîne de l'Épine, or "Thorny Chain". (Colorfully, another chain is know as the "Dent du Chat" or "Cat's Tooth".)


It's a thorny issue: When having your photo taken in France, you'll look like you're trying to show the flats of your molars to the dentist if you say "fromaaaaaaaage". But if you insist on saying some form of cheese to make you smile (I know forms of cheese always make me smile...), you could at least sing out "épine", pronounced "ay-PEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEN", till the shutter clicks.


  1. Just a slight "coquille" : Cat's TOOTH, and not tongue …
    I know you knew, but all the same …

    This cheese looks wonderful to me !
    I really wish I could find it in Brussels ...

    Françoise aka "chou de Bruxelles"

    1. Merci, Françoise! Cat's Tongue is a common expression in Japanese, and it's funny that I just automatically typed that. Thank you for catching the error (I've gone back and fixed it in the post). Just so you know: "Cat's tongue" in Japanese refers to somebody who has a sensitive tongue and can't eat really hot food (temperature hot, that is). Which describes me, in case you're wondering why I know that expression.


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