Love Pumpkin Spice? Then You’ve Gotta Know These 8 Zesty French Words for the Holidays
It’s that time of year again.
After a brisk walk over fallen leaves crunching beneath our feet, we curl up by the fire, put on some streaming, feel-good films and grab that hot chocolate, spiced chai or cider.
And of course, we get to witness the advent of pumpkin being poured and baked into everything. I mean, everything. I understand that they even make pumpkin-flavored Jell-O and gum now.
Add some holiday spice to your speech by infusing these French vocabulary words into your everyday language. Or, you know, impress all of your francophone friends.
Just think of how awesome they’ll think you are once you drop these bad boys on your tongue as the leaves change and the snow falls this year. At the very least, you’ll gain cool points as you lean against the serving table at that holiday party, holding a piping hot beverage in your hand with a cinnamon stick poking out of it, as you effortlessly recite your favorite, sophisticated flavors and spices in front of other francophone guests.
As if you’ve been speaking French for years. Or as if you were a cultured world traveler engaging in important food things—ahem, I mean, la gastronomie.
It’s a win-win, really. So let’s get right to it:
8 Flavorsome French Words to Learn This Holiday Season
Cannelle (f.) is the French name for “cinnamon.” The word itself is a tricky one, as it looks a lot like “caramel” in English, so try not to mistake these near-faux amis (false friends)–a pair of words that may appear similar, but actually have different meanings.
Cannelle is indeed the spicy, brown powder used to wake up cakes, breads, cookies and some savory dishes, too. You’ll want to add emphasis on -nelle, at the end of the word. Cannelle can be used on its own, as in, Ajouter un peu de cannelle à la poêle (Add a bit of cinnamon to the pan), or after the preposition à to describe something that is cinnamon flavored: J’aime manger du gâteau à la cannelle pendant les fêtes (I like eating cinnamon cake during the holiday season).
A pretty crucial ingredient this time of year, this is a good word to know when you’re in the kitchen with your new French-speaking sweetie as you throw down your baking skills.
Menthe (f.) is French for “mint.” Just remember that the h in menthe is silent. You’ve probably seen this word inscribed on lots of fancy, English-language packaging, typically used to lend a certain culinary sophistication for plain-old mint-flavored foods.
But beware the difference between “fresh mint” and “peppermint”—the latter usually notes poivrée (literally meaning “peppered”) following menthe. All alone, menthe is that fresh sprig of mint was used to top say, a fresh fruit salad tossed with rosewater.
However, à la menthe points to, generally, a food being “mint-flavored” or “peppermint-flavored”—think candy canes, flavored coffee creamers and the like. Basically, the red and white-striped, sugary fare that’ll draw most kids out of the woodwork with a quickness.
Caramel (m.) is an easy one. Lucky for you, caramel both looks and means the same thing in both English and French. And probably some other romance languages out there, too. The only note here is that you’ll want to place emphasis on the -mel.
Also, you’ll want to add an au in front of the word if you’re talking about serving a dish with caramel sauce, such as:
Je viens d’acheter des pommes confites au caramel.
(I just bought some caramelized apples.)
I didn’t, actually–I recently bought some kettle corn lightly glazed in caramel instead, but I digress.
4. Patate Douce
Patate douce (f.) is the French vocabulary word for the root vegetable, “sweet potato.” Patate douce literally means “mild/sweet potato” (not to be confused with pomme de terre, which simply means “potato”).
For example, to talk about your delightful plans to eat a pie made with this often-used type of potato around this time of year, you could say, “Je mangerai de la tarte aux patates douces ce soir” (I will eat some sweet potato pie tonight). Just remember to add the preposition aux to allow patates douces, in its noun form, to describe what kind of pie you’re eating: tarte aux patates douces.
5. Pain d’épices
Pain d’épices (m.) is French for “gingerbread.” Notice that the actual word for “ginger”—which we’ll get to down in #6—is nowhere to be found in pain d’épices. The word literally means “bread of spices.” You can use the word on its own as a noun, or as a flavor.
Here’s an example:
Les enfants vont construire une maison en pain d’épices.
(The children are going to build a gingerbread house.)
Again, its descriptive form can be accomplished by adding a preposition—in this case, with en preceding the whole word. Notice the lack of the accent aigu (acute accent) on the second “e” in épices, which points to the word meaning “spices” as opposed to “spiced.”
Gingembre (m.) means “ginger” in French. As with most of the words already noted above, it can act on its own as a noun, or can describe a ginger flavor by adding the preposition au in front. The pronunciation is interesting—and kinda fun, in my opinion.
Oh, and please don’t use this word to refer to red-haired, fair-skinned individuals. It simply doesn’t translate, and you’ll probably get funny looks from lots of French-speaking folks.
Confit (m. singular), confits (m. plural), confite (f. singular) and confites (f. plural) act as the past participle of confire, which technically means “to preserve.” While not exactly a vocabulary word on its own, the past participle form is often used as an adjective to describe candied food items. Which is really convenient, because most fruit and root vegetables pair well with this word, translating into “fried,” “sautéed” or “caramelized.”
Just make sure that the past participle of confire reflects the noun quantity and gender. For example:
Je prépare des poires confites.
(I am making candied pears.)
Here, by ending in -es, confites reflects the fact that les poires is feminine and plural. I know, I know—always cooking fruit in most of these examples. But you know, the holidays are nigh and all…
Citrouille (f.), of course, means “pumpkin” in French. Potiron (m.) could also be used as a stand-in for the big, round orange squash. To remember the latter, I try to think of, literally, a “pot iron” that I would cook a pumpkin in.
France doesn’t typically celebrate federal holidays around harvest time, but in French-speaking Canada and in some West African countries, les citrouilles and les potirons, yams and other squash are celebrated during Halloween (Canada), Thanksgiving (Canada), Homowo (Ghana) and the New Yam Festival (Ghana, Nigeria).
Instead of shelling out almost 10 bucks for yet another pumpkin spice latte, you’ll probably find me researching traditional ways to make Ghanaian-style pumpkin-seed walnut soup. I’m just sayin’.
So there you have it. Eight fun ingredients to try out in the kitchen this year, pepper your holiday conversation with… or both. I know I wanna look good flexing my French skills and experimenting with fun foods this year. How about you?