Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Now That's Interesting: Cream

Food Words: Cream, Creme, Panna
The English name for the fat-rich portion of milk, like the French word from which it derives, has associations that are startling but appropriate to its status as a textural ideal.

Before the Norman Conquest,and to this day in some northern dialects, the English word for cream was ream, a simple offshoot of the Indo-European root that also gave the modern German Rahm. But the French connection introduced a remarkable hybrid term. In 6th-century Gaul, fatty milk was called crama, from the Latin cremor lactis, or "heat-thickened substance of milk." Then in the next few centuries it somehow became crossed with a religious term: chreme, or "consecrated oil," which stems from the Greek word chriein, "to annoint," that gave us Christ, "the annointed one." [And, also, I'm thinking ... chrism, which is the holy oil used for annointing in the Catholic Church.]

Why this confusion of ancient ritual with rich food? Linguistic accident or error, perhaps. On the other hand, annointing oil and butterfat are essentially the same substance, so perhaps it was inspiration. In the monastic or farm kitchens of Normandy, the addition of cream to other foods may have been considered not just an enrichment, but a kind of blessing.

The Italian word for cream, panna, has been traced back to the Latin pannus, or "cloth." This is apparently a homely allusion to the thin covering that cream provides for the milk surface.
Seriously dating myself, I will admit that my parents had this album and the cover used to fascinate me as a child. I'd look at it, wondering how it felt to be covered with all that whipped cream. Quite luxuriously soft and silky, wouldn't you think?

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