Apr 27, 2015

Other Cats to Whip: Mont des Cats


When will my French be perfect? When chickens have teeth. That's "when pigs fly" to us English speakers, but I guess chickens won't have teeth any sooner. Often, it's the idioms that get me, because you just can't translate them literally. But one thing I do know about French expressions is that if you don't know how to say it, try it starring a cat.

  • You may have other fish to fry, in English, but in French, you've got other cats to whip (avoir d'autres chats à fouetter).
  • We have a frog in our throat, but the French have...you guessed it...a cat (un chat dans la gorge).
  • That old idiom to "call a spade a spade" is, in French, "appeler un chat un chat" (to call a cat a cat)
  • "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" in English, but in French, we are told, wisely, that "Les chiens ne font pas des chats" (Dogs don't make cats).
  • Let sleeping dogs lie, unless you're in France, then you don't want to wake a sleeping cat (ne pas reveiller le chat qui dort).

They don't all involve cats, of course, but it does seem like even the more familiar French expressions use different animals than those we have in English:
  • Who's in the china shop? In English, it's a bull, in French, it's an elephant.
  • In English, it's not great to put your head in a lion's mouth. In French, you shouldn't throw yourself in the wolf's mouth (se jeter dans la gueule du loup).
  • Don't count your chickens before they're hatched, and you also shouldn't "vendre la peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tué" (sell the skin of the bear before you've killed it).
  • In English, a goose lays the golden egg, but in French it's a regular old poule (hen).
  • We put the cart before the horse, whereas the French mettent la charrue avant les boeufs (the plow before the oxen).
There are a few expressions that talk about cats in the English version and yet, perversely, don't in French. To wit:
  • "Curiosity killed the cat" has a couple options in French, neither of which involves cats. The more common translation and idiom is "La curiosité est un vilain défaut" (Curiosity is an evil flaw). But I think the meaning is closer (even if the connection is less obvious) to "Qui s'y frotte s'y pique," an expression attributed originally to King Louis XII that means, more literally, "He who rubs against it gets stung."
  • The lesser known idea that "a cat may look at a king" becomes, in French, "un chien regarde bien un évêque" (a dog looking carefully at a bishop).
  • "To let the cat out of the bag" is, in French, "vendre la mèche" (Selling the wick).
  • In France, it doesn't "rain cats and dogs," but rather "il pleut des cordes" (it rains ropes) or "Il tombe des cordes" (ropes fall).
In both French and English, un chat a neuf vies (a cat has nine lives). And speaking of life, death, and animals, this tombstone in the Montparnasse Cemetery includes a saying, "If there is a Paradise, it won't be Paradise unless I'm welcomed there by my dogs and my cats."

My French may be better than I think, because I stare at this for a while and finally have to ask a French passerby, "Is there an old-fashioned way to spell dogs with a T (chients, instead of chiens) that I don't know about?" They say "no" and agree with me that it is simply misspelled on this marker where this family is eating dandelions by the roots ("manger les pissenlits par les raciness," that is, or "pushing up the daisies").

THE CHEESE: Mont des Cats

The name of Mont des Cats comes from the Abbaye du Mont des Cats, in the Nord department of France, in French Flanders. The cheese, which is a raw cows' milk cheese, is not cooked at all, pressed, then aged fro two months till it's hard. It's been made this way since the 19th century by the monks in the monastery. The rusty color on the outside is due to annatto, the seeds of the achiote tree and the same thing that makes many Cheddars orange. Here it's only on the outside, however, as the annatto-infused brine is washed over the crust during aging.

It's a descendent of Port Salut, when Trappist Monks moved around France and brought their cheesemaking skills with them. Since 1970, the Monks have been an entirely dairy-based farm, and since 2004 have transformed 2 million liters of milk each year into cheese.

It's a buttery-textured hard cheese, that is to say creamy and melt-in-the-mouth. It's got a little bit of that foot-fungus stink characteristic of orange rind cheeses and nearly all cheeses from this northern region. But it's a relatively mild stink, not in the same league as Maroilles.


Some of my favorite French expressions are dairy themed: I've talked before about making a mountain out of a molehill; in French, you "en faire tout un fromage" (roughly "make a whole cheese about it"). And I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill, or a whole cheese about it, but darn! Another use for Dent du Chat cheese, yet no other cat-themed cheeses I can find.

Luckily, Mont des Cats looks like it would be about cats, though of course the word for "cats" in French is "chats" and not "Cats" at all. Well, it may not be the perfect connection, but I guess I can't always "have my cake and eat it, too." This is another favorite dairy-themed saying: in French, I would hope to "avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre" (have the butter and the money for the butter). My friend uses the fuller version of this saying: "avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre et la crémière avec" ("have the butter and the money for the butter and the dairy shop, too").


  1. If I may, you got one translation a bit wrong : " un chien regarde bien un évêque " doesn't mean "looks carefully" but " after all, doesn't a dog look at a bishop ? " ( just like the movie " They kill horses, don't they" has been translated " On achève BIEN les chevaux" )
    And I truly hope you don't resent my meddling ...
    If you do, just say so ! ( I never really dare "correcting" you. Not that it happens frequently, mind you, far from it, but still, I have already twice written a comment and not dared send it ... )

    1. On the contrary, I so appreciate your comments and corrections! My goal is to learn (and have my readers learn along with me) about France, and the French, and the French language, and French cheese, and what better way than to have a French person (named Francoise, no less) chime in? I love it. I haven't had a chance to go back yet and correct, because it's May, and that means we're constantly on a long weekend vacation, or catching up from a long weekend vacation, but I will. So any time you have a comment, please feel free to send it in! And if you really don't want it post it publicly, you can always send me a message through the "contact" page. But don't worry about embarrassing me by calling out my errors in public, because it doesn't bother me at all.

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