Mar 2, 2015

Why I Love a Complete Bastard: La Roche de Thônes


It's time for you to understand your French accent nicknamed the Chinese hat, even though, let's face it, the French don't really understand it themselves. Generations of French school kids have been despising them and getting marked off for their erroneous circumflex (circonflexe) accent placement.

One of the rules of thumb -- but keep in mind, this being French, it's a rule of thumb that only works sometimes and has more examples of exceptions than of words that follow -- is that the circumflex replaces a missing letter S (which begs the question: Why not just keep the S?). That makes these words somewhat recognizable in English: hôpital (hospital), hôte (host), île (island), prêtre (priest), pâte (paste or pasta), côte (coast), Pâques (Pascal, as in Easter or Passover), plâtre (plaster), fête (festival), coûte (cost), croûte (crust), pâtisserie (pastry), and, my favorite, bâtard, not just a bastard but also a kind of bread, so called because it's a combination (think: unholy pairing) of a classic baguette with a country loaf. And why is the one pictured a complete bastard? Because "complet" means "whole wheat". I love it.

The circumflex symbol, like a little Chinese hat over the vowel, is the joining of the regular accents (aigu and grave): é and è. In theory, it softens or elongates the vowel. In practice, it does nothing, or at least nothing in most circumstances and very little in the rest. It comes to us from Latin, in turn inherited from ancient Greek, and its uselessness gives me a glimpse into why both are dead languages. The circumflex started to appear regularly in modern French from the the 16th century, and it was at this point (in 1560), that a printer started using it to replace whichever letter S he felt like replacing. Perhaps he had a lisp?

There are words where the accent replaces the S, but that fact still won't help an English-speaker decipher them, like tête (head) and fenêtre (window), or, slightly more recognizably, vêtements (clothing, think vests) and guêpe (wasp: with the added S, it's similar, but it's a stretch). Then there are words where it doesn't replace an S at all. It may show that there used to be a double vowel -- as in âge formerly aage (age), and rôle formerly roole (role). In the word théâtre, it seems to be there to help with the pronunciation, separating the two vowel sounds; yet the word géant manages to do that with just the simple accent aigu.

Other words that are hatted for no good reason -- at least, no good modern reason -- include: pêche (peach), boîte (box), diplôme (diploma), arôme (aroma), dôme (dome), âme (soul), le nôtre and le vôtre (ours and yours), entraînement (training), même (same), bûche (log), and fraîche (fresh).

Here on our card game Les Bâtisseurs Moyen Âge (Builders of the Middle Ages) both of the letters A are wearing their Chinese hats, and even the R is wearing a crown -- but only to look pretty.

As if the arbitrary circumflex thrown in wasn't bad enough, in 1990, the French officially reformed the use of it, theoretically eliminating the accent over the letters I and U, except (always an exception) when marking the end of a conjugated verb and for words that have a different meaning when spelled without it: such as jeûne (fasting, as opposed to jeune, which means "young"); mûr (ripe, or blackberry, as opposed to mur, which means "wall"), or sûr (sure, as opposed to sur, which means "on").

According to a survey conducted in 2002, only 3.3% of students in the nation knew when they were supposed to eliminate the circumflex over the letter I. I'm willing to bet at least another 33.3% never knew when they were supposed to put the circumflex over the letter I in the first place.

Important 2016 update to the story: The Education Minister has recently announced that there will be changes in the spelling of many French words (ostensibly to "simplify" things) starting next school year and that some words will lose their circumflex. I'm not sure how this simplifies anything: not only do people have to re-learn many words, now there will be multiple spellings, as both old and new spellings will be considered correct. Also, the circumflex will be dropped over the i and u -- though of course there are exceptions to this -- and kept on a, o and e. There's a fabulous internet meme going around France about this change, pointing out how there's a big difference between "Je vais me faire un jeûne" and "Je vais me faire un jeune." With the accent it means "I'm going to do a fast." Without the accent it means "I'm going to do a young person" (yes, "do them" in that sense).

THE CHEESE: La Roche de Thônes

La Roche de Thônes -- the Rock from Thônes, a town in the department of Haute-Savoie  in the region of the Rhône-Alpes. It is a rock, too: a hard wheel-shaped tomme just about the size of the biggest rock you could pick up in your arms before you'd need to call in machinery.

Made from raw cows' milk, it's pressed without being cooked at all. In fact, it's made similarly to a Tomme de Savoie, one of its more famous neighboring cheeses. Both are aged at least three months in the cellars, and it's during this aging process that a host of uneven holes form in the cheese.

 La Roche de Thônes is sweet, fruity, and mildly herby. It's a hard cheese, but still quite creamy on the inside.


My first instinct here is to use L'Abbaye de Cîteaux, especially because the chapeau chinois there represents an obvious missing S: Cîteaux becomes Cistercian in English (a kind of abbey). But, alas, I've already used this cheese, along with Mâconnais, Dôme de Vézelay, Le Brûlon de Vigneron, and Bûche Rondin. But, luckily, I chance upon the La Roche de Thônes, from Rhône-Alpes, with a lovely little Chinese hat in both the name and region of origin. 

Better yet, in the photo I take in the store, the cheese itself looks like it's topped by a little circumflex. Why does it need the accent? I don't know, but now that I've written this much about it, at least I'll never forget to put it on the name "La Roche de Thônes" in the future.


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