Let’s Talk About Amuse-Bouche

Gougères, cheese choux puffs, these mini ones are made with comté (Photo: viv)

OK, I get the amuse bit, I also get that amuse-bouche is a little nibble. Think of an hors d’oeuvre, or a crudité. French again? More French? We’re not done, there’s another version of amuse-bouche. Have you seen this one before? Amuse-gueule. 

Just give me a nibble, please. Nibble is convenient, it sounds delicious and it really gets the appetite going, plus it’s easier to pronounce and to spell. Give me any word that has more than three vowels in succession — oeuvre and gueule, for instance — I get an uncomfortable itch in the eye: oeu? ueu? eew! 

But let’s nibble on all these words, shall we?

Amuse-bouche, to amuse the mouth. Amuse-gueule has the same meaning. Bouche, gueule, they both mean mouth, though gueule has more layers of meaning: face, look, mouth of a human, mouth of an animal. You know that angry exclamation, “Shut your mouth!” — it looks like this: ta gueule, literally meaning “your mouth.”

If, for reasons of this ugly association, you feel more compelled to call a fancy little appetizer you’ve made for your guests at home an amuse-bouche rather than an amuse-gueule, go for it. But there’s actually a fine difference between amuse-bouche and amuse-gueule, so my gourmand French friend from Lyon tells me:

Amuse-bouche has a more refined reference to food, mostly used in higher-end restaurants. Amuse-gueule is also used a lot but mostly out of restaurants, at home, referring to casual pre-meal or aperitif nibbles. In any case, regardless of our perceived sophistication, we are just mostly animals.

His animal commentary was a rejoinder to my gueule reference to an animal’s mouth.

Animal or not animal, we’re all drawn to nibbles. I, personally, am not a fan of crudité — those raw sticks of vegetables arranged in a loud, bold array of rainbow colors around some kind of sauce, mayonnaise, hummus, I don’t know what else. In French, crudité refers to rawness, crudity. 

Eating crudité makes me feel like a rabbit — gueule, all right! So give me a real hors d’oeuvre, something savory, crunchy, how about a pissaladière, some vol-au-vent, or gougères, I love gougères!

Pissaladière, a Provençal pizza, mostly rectangular in shape, topped with caramelized onion, then criss-crossed with slivers of anchovy over slices of vine-ripened tomatoes dotted with olives. This was my first attempt at it, 4 July 2011. (Photo: viv)

Now, what does hors d’oeuvre mean? Outside of the work. So elegant and poetic, isn’t it? It triggers our hungry neurons to expect a build-up to a grand work, a grand dish. Nibbles, after all, are like overtures, aren’t they?They’re the notes and the music that carry us from here to there. 

Pronunciation notes

  • amuse-bouche – ah-muse-boosh (keep the “u” in amuse flat, like the “u” in the Chinese word for fish, yu
  • amuse-gueule – ah-muse-guhl 
  • crudité – kru-dee-tay
  • hors d’oeuvre – or durve 

Let’s Talk About is a series of reflections offering insights on French pastries, dishes, plus cooking and pastry terms, and how to pronounce them all.

 Our next word: gateau

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