Les œufs

On a fine spring morning when people are outside in the garden hunting for Easter eggs, it seems as good a time as any to dedicate a few lines to that most perfect of foods: les œufs.

The challenge with eggs in France is not eating them – we have no shortage of farm-fresh eggs and specialties ranging from omelettes, quiches, mousses, meringues and flans – but to spell and pronounce the words properly.

First we must get past that funny little vowel configuration created by the ‘o’ and the ‘e’. When these two characters get overly familiar and become one as in ‘œ’ this is called a ligature and has its own particular sound, somewhere between the two vowels. A bit like the ‘ou’ sound in enough. But it changes slightly depending on what comes after.

Un œuf (uhf) in the singular becomes des œufs (euh) in the plural. Put like that, it seems easy enough. But for some reason I’ve always struggled with these words.

For one thing, in French they have a weird similarity to eyes. Un œil (oy) and des yeux (yeuh). Am I imagining this?

Les oeufs dur

Eggs in France are almost always brown in the shell rather than the sterile white I grew up with in North America. They sometimes bear scraps of dirt and feather on the shell, reminding us of their origins. They are date-stamped with either the ‘date de ponte’ (date they were laid) or the ‘date limite de consommation recommandée’ (DCR or use-by date).

I recently learned of an easy trick you can use to tell if an egg is still fresh.

Here are a few of the ways you will find eggs on the menu in France:

  • Œufs au plat: fried eggs, usually served sunny side up
  • Œufs durs: hard-boiled eggs
  • Œufs à la coque: soft-boiled eggs
  • Œufs brouillés: scrambled eggs
  • Œufs pochés: poached eggs (my personal favourite)

And of course, les œufs de Pâques. Easter eggs. Preferably au chocolat. Hope you are enjoying the kind you like best on this holiday Sunday.

And, in case you’re wondering, this year the Easter bunny will not be on the menu.

Joyeuses Pâques!

16 comments

  1. phildange · April 21, 2019

    The spelling vs pronunciation trick of oeuf/oeufs works exactly the same with boeuf/boeufs .Hence the well known proverb : “Who steales an egg steales an ox” . Yeah I admit it’s not as fancy when translated . .
    What you find puzzling is just a rule we learn in early school : “eu” and “oeu” are two ways of writing the same sound, just like “au” and “eau” . By cons, I’m not sure about your hearing of “oeil” . You wrote “oy” while there is no “o” sound . the beginning sounds like oeuf, just a final “y” sound replaces the final “f” : un ” uh-y” .

    • MELewis · April 21, 2019

      Thanks, Phil and you are right, as ever. I tried to simplify the pronunciation of ‘oeil’ for English readers but clearly it is not an ‘o’ sound but more like ‘uh-ee’. The thing is, this complex sound does not really exist in our phonetic repertoire. BTW, my English professor self would rather say, ‘He who steals an egg, steals an ox’. 🧐

      • phildange · April 21, 2019

        Wow ! How big mistakes can I do … Thank you . Did you already hear the proverb ?

      • MELewis · April 21, 2019

        Yes! But I never fully got it before. 😃

      • phildange · April 21, 2019

        Qui vole un oeuf vole un boeuf : he who is able to steal a little thing will be later able to steal a bigger thing . The kid who steals a candy in your cupboard will one day steal your car, beware !

  2. Susanne · April 21, 2019

    I’m with you on the pronunciation problem. I always fumble it. No hunting au dehors ici. Spring is very slow in Ottawa this year. Happy Easter to you too!

    • MELewis · April 21, 2019

      Sorry to hear you guys are still struggling with the dregs of winter. I’m sure when it finally springs it will be glorious! 🤩

  3. Becky Ross Michael · April 21, 2019

    I actually remember this word from high school French classes. Your example of the word for eyes clearly shows how the letters that come after that oe combo affect the pronunciation! I’m assuming that eggs in France don’t need to be refrigerated, then?

    • MELewis · April 22, 2019

      Yes, that’s right! They can be stored at room temp if eaten within the dates. But old habits die hard — I can’t help but refrigerate them anyway!

  4. Joanne Sisco · April 21, 2019

    Thanks for the lesson. This was a detail I’ve often struggled with. My oeuf of choice is chocolate, of course 😉

    It’s been a glorious Easter Day here in Arras. I was not expecting such warm weather and we’ve been a little over-dressed. I’ve been seeing a lot of sunburnt faces the last few days 🌞

    • MELewis · April 21, 2019

      I know the feeling. We are transitioning (despite the ups and downs) far too fast! I am in Switzerland this weekend where the sun is hotter than Hades but the cool breezes can still catch you by surprise. Hope you are finding a good supply of chocolate eggs (also my preference) in northern France! 😎

      • Joanne Sisco · April 22, 2019

        All I can say is that the French really seem to love Nutella 😉

  5. M. K. Waller · April 21, 2019

    Definitely au chocolat. I can almost pronounce that one.

    • MELewis · April 21, 2019

      Funny that. Never had the least difficulty pronouncing those epic words. 😍

  6. Dale · April 23, 2019

    Things we Francophones take for granted…
    Fun stuff. And I now that in Europe they don’t wash the eggs, which is why you can keep them on the counter. The protective coat of crud makes all the différence, oui?

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