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A Taste of French Sayings

by Meredith Mullins on April 20, 2015

Triptych of mustard, beans, and bread, showing the food focus of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

Inspiration for tasty French idioms—mustard, beans, and bread
© Meredith Mullins

French Idioms—A Focus on Food

You may never have had the pleasure of mustard up your nose.

You may never have felt the desperation of having no beans in the house.

You may not know the boredom of a long dreary day, which, in French lore, is “a day without bread.”

But, if you’re living in the world of French sayings, these expressions are common—and mean more than their literal translations. 

Oh, I See: A Culture Rich in Language . . . and in Food

The beauty of the French language is enhanced by the creative flavors of its idioms.

These expressions provide a glimpse into the traditions and history of France. They tell stories. And, in many cases, they have food at the core. Why? Because France is proud of its longstanding legacy of exceptional cuisine.

Since these edible idioms are well integrated into French life and food, we have invited some Paris food stars to be a part of this story.

Wall of mustard at Maille, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

The meaning of mustard
© Meredith Mullins

“La Moutarde lui Monte au Nez”—Ellsworth’s Chef Knows Her Mustard

The expression “La moutarde lui monte au nez” means to become impatient or angry, like mustard rising in your nose.

You may wonder how this expression got started (as in, why would anyone become a mustard sniffer and why would there be so many mustard sniffers that an idiom would be born?).

Jar of Maille mustard with spoon, showing the meaning of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

French mustard can be a nose-tickler.
© Meredith Mullins

However, if you’ve smelled fresh French mustard, you know that it is much more pungent than its American sisters.

Whether you sniff it or taste it by the spoonful, it can rile your nose, like something or someone who becomes increasingly annoying. You begin to react physically to the irritation.

It may be unfair to link young Canadian chef Hannah Kowalenko with this idiom. She has such a calm demeanor and gentle smile that she seems as if she never gets angry. But mustard is a part of her life.

Close up of Ellsworth corn dogs with mustard, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

Rabbit corn dogs at Ellsworth (with mustard!)
© Meredith Mullins

What’s a corn dog without mustard (even if made with rabbit)? And corn dogs are one of the signature dishes at Ellsworth Restaurant, the new Verjus family member, where Hannah is chef. (They also have killer fried chicken!)

The mustard is spicy, with hints of beer, orange juice, brown sugar, and cayenne. Like everything at this new gem of a restaurant, the ingredients are fresh, and they get to know each other in innovative ways.

Hannah Kowalenko at Ellsworth restaurant, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

Chef Hannah Kowalenko: The power of a dream
© Meredith Mullins

“Food—it’s all I think about,” Hannah says as she talks about her passion for cooking. “When I was younger, I had a dream that I didn’t go to cooking school. In the dream, my sister went instead.”

“When I woke up I was really angry—angry at myself for not following my passion and angry at my sister for doing what I wanted to do.” La moutarde lui monte au nez.

The anger didn’t last long. Hannah entered cooking school shortly thereafter and is now one of the rising young stars of the Paris restaurant scene.

A few beans on a blue plate, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

C’est la fin des haricots.
© Meredith Mullins

“C’est la Fin des Haricots”—A Story of the Little Camion that Could

“C’est la fin des haricots” (It’s the end of the beans) is an idiom of desperation. It means “It’s all over. All hope is gone.”

The expression comes from the last century when beans were a staple for the poor. When the beans ran out, it was the end of everything.

Kristen Frederick of La Camion qui Fume, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

Kristen Frederick of Le Camion Qui Fume: A model of persistence
© Meredith Mullins

Californian Kristen Frederick experienced many “last beans” in her quest to bring a hamburger food truck to Paris.

Since it was the first idea of its kind in the city (homemade burgers from a mobile kitchen), she battled mayors, commerce boards, written laws, laws that existed only in the minds of bureaucrats, and the not uncommon trait of officials saying “no” as a first answer to everything.

Kristin’s keys to success were a passion for food that “makes people feel good” and persistence in pushing through the barriers.

She believed that any “no” she received could be changed to a “yes” (or at least a “maybe”). Le Camion Qui Fume (the smoking truck) was destined for the streets of Paris.

Food truck, le camion qui fume, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

There is no “fin des hamburgers” at Le Camion Qui Fume food truck.
© Meredith Mullins

Now her three hamburger food trucks, two restaurants, and the future dream of a food-truck barge are all real. For her, there is no such thing as la fin des haricots. The possibilities are endless.

Woman in boulangerie with baguettes, Madame Martin, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

Paris boulangerie proprietor Mme Martin on the Ile St Louis: Never a day without bread.

“Long Comme un Jour sans Pain”—Alec Lobrano’s Bread Odyssey

Just how long can a boring event or a dreary day be? For the French, “it’s long like a day without bread.”

This expression comes from a time when bread was the fundamental part of the average person’s daily food regime. If there was no bread, there was little food. Hunger makes hours pass very slowly.

Djibril Boudian with baguette, showing the focus on food of French sayings. (Image © Melle Boudian Saly)

Bread means the world to Djibril Boudian, the 2015 winner of Best Baguette in Paris.
© Melle Boudian Saly

Paris food/travel writer Alec Lobrano has developed a deep appreciation for the subtleties of French bread. Here’s a snippet of his bread odyssey.

Growing up in an American suburb, I never paid any attention to bread, unless I was making a sandwich. It was, in those days, a generic product.

Alec Lobrano, Paris food writer, showing the focus on food of the French sayings. (Image © Stevan Rothfeld)

Alec Lobrano, food/travel writer who relishes the subtleties of French baguettes
© Stevan Rothfeld

It wasn’t until I moved to France twenty-five years ago that I really learned to love bread.

In the beginning, one baguette was as good as another, but as time went by, I learned that baking bread is a joyous and complex art that depends on a variety of different factors—the baker’s personality, the quality of the flour, the season, and many other things.

Now, the first thing I always crave when I get back to Paris after a trip away is a baguette tradition from my neighborhood boulangerie.

I love the contrast between the crispy crust and the lacey slightly sour interior and always eat one of the heels as soon as I step out the door. The other I save for when I get home with a hunk of good salt butter.

What I’ve learned, now, is that a day without bread is very long indeed.

In fact, a day without French flavors or French sayings is a very long day. It’s la moutarde lui monte au nez, c’est la fin des haricots, and long comme un jour sans pain all rolled into one.

Vive la France!

Thank you to Clotilde Dusoulier and her charming book, “Edible French,” for the inspiration to learn more about French food idioms.

For an amazing array of French mustards, visit the Maille Boutique at Place de Madeleine in Paris.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


2 thoughts on “A Taste of French Sayings

    • Hi Emily,
      Thanks for writing. Glad you enjoyed the story. I hope we never have a day long comme un jour sans pain. (I guess we came close on our 12-hour India train trip!) Not so likely to happen in Paris.

      All the best,


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