Nostalgia, Jokes, and Secret Snacks: The Surprising Way French Cookies Are Viewed in France

Quick – name a French cookie!  If you couldn’t, don’t be disappointed. The French are known for their pastries, but they’re not a cookie culture.

No, “cookie culture” isn’t an actual term used to categorize civilizations. I made it up. But hopefully you get what I mean. There are some cultures, like the Anglo-Saxon one I was born into, for example, in which cookies play an important role and are even cultural touchstones. 

Cookies don’t have that role in France. But rest assured, fellow cookie lovers: There are French cookies, and many of them are delicious!  And while they aren’t as revered as foods like cheese and baguette, they do have a special role.

Let’s explore French cookies, from traditional varieties, to the ones you’ll find in every French grocery store.

How to say “cookie” in French

French madeleine cookies

There are two basic ways to say “cookie” in French, as well as a third, less common option:

un biscuit

The French usually consider themselves very different from the English, but when it comes to the word for cookie, both say biscuit.

Like a cookie itself, the word can be broken into two parts: bis,a way to say “two” or “twice”, and  cuit – “cooked”. This is because, for some old cookie recipes, the cookie was made once, then cooked a second time, or even multiple times.  Et voilà: un biscuit!

un gâteau

The other common way to say “cookie” in French is un gâteau.

Wait a minute! you might be thinking, you made a mistake there! Gâteau means “cake”!

Ah, if only it were that simple. Actually, in French, gâteau can mean either “cake” or “cookie”. It all depends on the context.  And believe me, this can be frustrating if you were expecting cake and got cookies, or vice versa. 

Sometimes, gâteau will be modified so that it’s clear that cookies are what’s on the menu. Petits gâteaux and gâteaux secs definitely mean “cookies”.

cookie

This term is less common than un biscuit and un gâteau and may not be understood by all French speakers. Essentially, it’s a case of using an American word to be trendy, since many American pastries like cupcakes and cheesecake are currently à la mode in France. 

That said, because cookie is associated with Anglo-Saxon culture, the kinds of cookies that it’s usually used with are those imported from the States or the UK, especially chocolate chip cookies.


Which French word for “cookie” is best? Personally, I like biscuit, since there can be no doubt as to what you’re talking about. But gâteau is so common that I’ve actually found myself using it at times, as well.

The history of cookies in France

Cookies have existed in some form or another since Ancient Egypt – and maybe even before that. More specific types of traditional French cookies that we know today came about in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, or even the 19th century.

As I mentioned in the section about the French words for “cookie”, biscuit gives a sense of dough being cooked twice. Dry cookies are often tied to seafaring people – fishermen, merchants, corsairs, and so on –  who would eat hard biscuits called “hardtack”, or biscuits de mer (sea biscuits) in French.

ship wheel

Although biscuits de mer don’t seem very appetizing, those who ate them came to appreciate them, and wanted to have some kind of hard biscuit on land, as well. Merchants who’d made their fortunes, especially in northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, were among those craving biscuits de mer, and local bakeries and then entire factories, were eager to answer the call (and make a nice profit).  In other parts of France, like the east, near Germany, and the south, cultural influences from other places played their own roles in inspiring local cookie creations.

Despite their long presence in France (there are clear mentions of them at least from the 15th century CE), cookies have never been a French cultural cornerstone. For one thing, whether they were influenced by the seagoing life or other cultures, they’ve never been a purely French invention. But they have been eaten and appreciated by countless generations of French people.

Types of French cookies

Go to any French grocery store and you’ll see a pretty impressive variety of cookies. The simplest way to classify them is probably by hard cookies (biscuits secs/gâteaux secs) and soft cookies (biscuits moelleux/gâteaux moelleux).

There are many kinds of popular cookies in France that weren’t created there. They often find their origin in more cookie-friendly countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and the US.  Still, they’ve been adopted firmly into French life to a certain extent, from longtime favorites like spéculoos  and Prince sandwich cookies from Belgium, to Oreos from America.

As for cookies that were first made in France, here are some of the most common varieties you’ll see (and maybe eat) today:

le sabléshortbread cookie

These are often round in shape and a normal cookie size, but many bakeries sell large-sized ones, sometimes with chocolate chips added to the top (un sablé aux pépites de chocolat).I’ve always appreciated this cookie’s name, since sablé can mean “sandy”, which suggests the crumbs these cookies make. But when researching this article, I found out that the name actually comes from the place they were first made, the town of Sablé-sur-Sarthe. 

le biscuit à la cuillère – ladyfinger cookies

These long, sweet cookies are often used as accompaniments with desserts, or even, in the case of dishes like tiramisu, used as part of the dessert altogether.

le boudoir – soft ladyfinger cookies 

Although ladyfinger cookies are sometimes called or translated as boudoirs, this is actually a slightly different variety. It’s shaped like a ladyfinger and has pretty much the same taste but is soft. Think of it as the cake version of a biscuit à la cuillère

Note that while my definitions of  un biscuit à la cuillère and un boudoir are based on both research and personal experience, it’s common to see the terms used interchangeably by many French people.

le financier – financier

This is a soft cookie (some would even call it a cake), with a texture and appearance similar to a madeleine. But financiers are almond-flavored, and their more rectangular shape is actually what gives them their name; supposedly, it’s supposed to evoke a bar of gold. The cookie also got its name from its reputation as a favorite among  financial district workers in 19th century Paris, since it’s easy to quickly eat or put into one’s pocket for later. Although most French people probably know what a financier is, these cookies aren’t as popular as they were in their 19th century heyday.

la crêpe dentelle  – a thin, hard crepe rolled into a small tube shape

This flaky cookie is usually served and eaten with ice cream. These are similar to another, arguably more popular French cookie, la cigarette russe (Russian cigarette). The difference is in the dough: While une crêpe dentelle is made with crepe dough, une cigarette russe is made with the same dough used for a langue de chat (cat’s tongue/finger biscuit).

la galette bretonne and le palet breton

A thick and a thin shortbread cookie.  Like several other cookies on this list, as their names suggest, the galette bretonne and the palet breton originated in the Bretagne (Brittany) region of France.

Be careful not to get confused with the name galette bretonne, since that can also mean “buckwheat crepe”. Usually, there won’t be any confusion, since no creperie I’ve ever seen is cruel enough to serve both! 

The difference between the galette bretonne and the palet bretonne is that the galette bretonne tends to be thicker, even bordering on slightly soft in texture, while the palet breton tends to be thin and very crispy.


To learn about some other traditional types of French cookies, check out this list.

Famous mass-produced French cookies

France is known for its tasteful cuisine, which uses the best and freshest ingredients. Interestingly, though, when it comes to cookies, this whole idea sort of goes out the window. 

Although some French people and bakeries might make their own cookies, most French people eat prepackaged, mass-produced cookies. So, while it’s important to know some of the traditional varieties of French cookies, it’s just as important to be familiar with the French cookies you’ll find in stores.

Many popular mass-produced cookies originated in other countries. The most famous French mass-produced cookies include:

le Petit Beurre, a shortbread cookie with a specific look.

Petit Beurre French cookies
The cookies on the left are Petit Beurres (or Petit Beurre knockoffs).

The Petit Beurre was first created in 1886 by Louis Lefèvre-Utile, founder of the famous LU cookie company, but over the years many other cookie companies have gotten into the act. A Petit Beurre, as well as most knock-offs, is a slightly rectangular-shaped cookie with decorative scalloped edges. For official Petit Beurres, the words “LU Petit Beurre Nantes” are inscribed on every cookie.

Today you’ll be able to find both the official LU Petit Beurre (noted as le Véritable Petit Beurre (The True Petit Beurre) on its packaging), and petit beurres from other brands, in just about any French grocery store.

Petits beurres are simple and ubiquitous cookies, and also the subject of my favorite French cookie joke, which I’ll share a little further on.

From a grammar point of view, when you’re referring to an official LU Petit Beurre, the cookie’s name should be capitalized, but if you’re talking about these cookies in a generic way, it would be written petit beurre.

le Petit Écolier (little schoolboy cookie)

Like the Petit Beurre, these cookies were first produced by the LU company. Today you’ll find a version from many other brands. The Petit Écolier (and its imitations) consists of a petit beurre with a slab of chocolate on it. There are several varieties of chocolate, from the traditional dark or milk, to white, to milk chocolate stuffed with a milky cream.

le Choco BN

Made by the Biscuiterie nantaise (BN) company since 1933, these consist of two roughly square-shaped, vaguely vanilla-flavored cookies with smiling faces, sandwiching chocolate-flavored cream in the middle. The cookies’ “faces” have cut-out eyes and mouths, which let the thick cream slightly come through. You can see a close-up photo of a Choco BN here.

Sadly, although they’ve been a popular treat for decades, Choco BNs were recently dropped by supermarket chain Carrefour, who claims their bundles of them aren’t selling well. The reason for this, many market analyses show, is that French consumers are starting to prefer “healthier” cookies with less sugar and artificial flavoring. These kinds of cookies are often called des biscuits bio (organic cookies) or biscuits diététiques  (enriched/healthy cookies).

I can personally attest to this trend. On playgrounds as well as in the houses of many of my son’s friends, I see more and more colorful packets of organic shortbread cookies…which are a sort of greyish in color, themselves.

Choco BN’s dropping sales figures made headlines in France, both because of the shocking idea that this iconic cookie may become less easy to find (Carrefour is a huge supermarket chain in France), and because many BN factory workers may lose their jobs.  It’s a sad situation.

Macarons and madeleines

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to name a French cookie. You might have thought of macarons or madeleines. But there’s some debate as to whether these count as cookies.

Most French people, companies, and websites qualify both as pâtisseries (pastries). This is understandable to me. Madeleines are like little pieces of cake, and macarons involve an elaborate baking process and have a different texture and taste from most other cookies.

On the other hand, madeleines are usually sold near or even among other cookies in French grocery stores.

Whether you’re team cookie or team pastry, the most important thing is that both of these pastries are delicious – and also iconic international symbols of French culture and cuisine.

That being said, when it comes to trendy and pretty macarons (which are currently Europe’s most Instagrammed food), the average French person doesn’t often eat them. This may partially be due to the fact that macarons aren’t made everywhere, so getting them isn’t necessarily as easy as heading to your neighborhood boulangerie.

Macarons

Macarons are also fairly expensive. For example, a single macaron at the legendary Ladurée costs about 2 euros 50. That’s more expensive than entire packet of some types of store-bought cookies. Even for other fresh-made, artisanal cookies at a comparable price, at least they’re substantial. The airy texture of a macaron means it’s not filling at all. Personally, I compare eating a one to having a flavored puff of air. I appreciate the artistry behind macarons and think they look adorable, but if I’m really craving a pastry to savor, that’s probably not going to be what I choose, and it seems like most French people tend to feel the same way.  For the French, macarons tend to be special treats or luxury indulgences.

Madeleines, on the other hand, might be served at high-end restaurants (if you get a chance, I definitely recommend the fresh-made ones at French celebrity chef Cyril Lignac’s bistro Le Chardenoux, for example) and bakeries. But you can also buy mass-produced madeleines in just about any French grocery store.

French author Marcel Proust described the sensation of eating a madeleine and feeling a rush of childhood memories in his famous work À la recherche du temps perdu. More than a hundred years later, the French still say un madeleine de Proust to describe an ordinary object or food that powerfully evokes memories.

Madeleines themselves aren’t necessarily expected to transport everyone who eats them back to their childhood. They’re just a typical treat in France today, just as they were in Proust’s time.

Other useful French cookie vocabulary

If you want to describe a particular cookie in French, or if you want to understand French cookie packaging, here are some common, helpful words:

sec(s) – dry (meaning a hard cookie as opposed to a moist or soft one).

moelleux/moelleuse(s) – moist, soft.

craquant(e) – crunchy, crispy. Craquant(e) can also mean that someone or something is really appealing or attractive. So, you could say : Ce gâteau est aussi craquant que Jude Law.

croquant(e) – crunchy. Un croquant is also a kind of crispy almond cookie

croustillant(e)– crunchy, crispy.

pépites – chips (i.e. small pieces), usually pépites de chocolat.

au/à la + qqchose – __ -flavored, or with ___. Example: des biscuits à la vanille (vanilla (flavored) cookies).

fourré(e)(s) – filled with something, usually chocolate or jam. Example: Ce sont des biscuits fourrés au chocolat. (These are chocolate-filled cookies.)

bio – organic. Note that this adjective remains singular. Example: Les biscuits bio sont de plus en plus populaires en France. (Organic cookies are becoming more and more popular in France.)

des biscuits diététiques – healthy cookies. These usually claim to have reduced sugar, no artificial flavorings or colors, and/or some nutritional value (granola, dried fruit, etc.). Like organic cookies, these are becoming increasingly popular in France, much to the dismay of sugar addicts like myself.

industriel(le) – mass-produced.  Example: La majorité des Français mangent des biscuits industriels. (The majority of French people eat mass-produced cookies.)

fait(e)(s) maison – homemade.

un lot de… – a bundle of…   In French supermarkets, cookies are often sold in bundles of multiple boxes, since they’re expected to be frequently used for breakfasts and children’s snacks.

un paquet – a packet (box).

cookie in the shape of a word bubble

French cookie expressions

Since France isn’t really a cookie culture, there aren’t any native French sayings that incorporate them…except for one. Tremper son biscuit (To dunk one’s biscuit/To dip one’s cookie) means “to have sex”. It often implies “sleeping around”, as well.  It’s considered humorous and vulgar, so not to be used in polite company or serious situations.

When do French people eat cookies?

If you look at different lists of French people’s favorite desserts, you’ll find some variations. But one thing you’ll never see on the top ten is cookies.

This is because cookies aren’t considered a dessert in France. They’re usually reserved for snacking.

Snacking, though, is generally considered a big no-no. The French believe in having three meals a day, usually at strict times. To them, any eating outside of this shows a lack of discipline and will probably make you gain weight. 

Although the body acceptance movement is making some progress in France, the French still tend to see being overweight as something controllable and undesirable. This doesn’t mean they’ll be outwardly rude to someone who’s overweight – in fact, paradoxically, if you have some sort of skill or charm, French people will judge what you look like a lot less than, say, Americans in the showbusiness industry. But generally speaking, gaining weight is something French people discourage.

I often marvel at the fact that French doctors will, in some cases, allow women to smoke while they’re pregnant, but pregnant women will be discouraged from eating too much sugar. And while there are anti-tobacco campaigns and warning labels on cigarettes, there are also obligatory warnings for fast food places and “junk food”.

But there is one exception to the French disapproval of snacking: le goûter.  This is a snack for kids, usually around 3-5pm.  Le goûter is pretty much an institution. French children will have their goûter when they come home from school, or, if they’re in an after-school program, it will be served there.

So, what do French kids eat for le goûter? According to a recent survey, fresh fruit is the top “choice” (let’s say adults are doing the choosing). But cookies come in an extremely close second, with only two percentage points’ difference.

That cookies and fruit are head-to-head for the title of goûter staple doesn’t surprise me at all. At my son’s after school program, for example, he’s usually served one or the other for his goûter (his top choice, of course, is cookies).

So, when do French adults eat cookies? Well, if they don’t cheat and have a snack anyway (which, in this horrified exposé, 38% percent of them admit to doing), they may have cookies at breakfast.

I’ve written before about how the typical French breakfast isn’t heavy and savory, but light and sweet. Cookies are often a part of that.

Interestingly, although you might dunk your cookie into coffee, tea, or milk at breakfast, cookies in France aren’t particularly associated with any kind of beverage.  For the goûter, kids are more likely to be given water (the most popular drink in France)with their cookies than anything else.

So, are cookies popular in France?

Happy woman looking at macarons

If you ask a French person to name a French cookie, I’m pretty sure just about any of them could. Even if they don’t like cookies or simply don’t eat them very much, cookies were probably a part of their childhood goûters, and may be what they give their own kids for le goûter today.

According to this study, France ranks in about the middle among cookie-consuming European countries (at the top of the list is another Francophone country (well, half-Francophone): Belgium).

Still, most French adults don’t regularly indulge in cookies, and don’t consider cookies their favorite sweet treat by a long shot. Cookies aren’t a part of French culture the way they are in countries like the UK, where biscuits are regularly served with tea, or the US, where cookies and milk are an iconic “all American” snack.

But while cookies aren’t important in French culinary culture, they do have a pretty solid place in French popular culture.

For example, there are lots of cookie commercials and print ads that French people easily recognize. This has been the case for more than a century, as a matter of fact! If you’ve ever bought a French vintage advertisement poster, there’s a chance the product it’s advertising might have been cookies!  This could be something obvious, like this classic one for LU cookies, or much more subtle, like this famous, magnificent Alfons Mucha Art Nouveau poster.

Of course, today if something is part of the pop culture zeitgeist, it will be mentioned and probably mocked online, which is the case for cookies. Here, for example, is a funny listicle that ranks the most depressing cookies.

My personal favorite French cookie pop culture moment comes from this 1996 comedy sketch from the duo Chevalier et Laspalès. In it, they talk about how to be good houseguests – getting it horribly wrong  – and complain about how they’ve been slighted by their hosts. A major complaint is that one of them bought a special gift for his hosts, who didn’t seem to care. The gift? Petit Beurre cookies, which he says, were each hand-engraved!  Petits beurres, as you now know, are among the most common, inexpensive mass-produced cookies in France. As for being hand-engraved, it’s true that each Petit Beurre has the name of the cookie on it…but that’s done by machine.

Here’s the entire sketch; the cookie part starts at the two-minute mark.  Note that the bit ends on a high note, with a clever pun – lu is the past participle of lire, of course, but it’s also the name of the company that created Petit Beurre cookies in the first place, and still makes them today (engraved name and all).

Should I try French cookies?

The answer to this question is a resounding OUI!

Although French cookies don’t have a place in French people’s hearts the way foods like cheese, pains au chocolat, and baguette do, they’re part of a typical French childhood, and a pop culture point of reference worth knowing.  Plus, most of them taste really good!

If you’re in France, simply head to a grocery store to get your hands on a few varieties.  If you’re not, you can find traditional French cookie recipes by searching online, or head to your own local grocery store, where you might find international exports like Petits Écoliers. If that doesn’t work, depending on where you’re located,  you may be able to order some types of French cookies online.

If none of those options work for you, , remember that just about any type of cookie is probably available somewhere in France. So, as you take a well-deserved bite, some French person is probably eating that same kind for their breakfast, or as an illicit snack!


What’s your favorite kind of French cookie? If you haven’t tried any French cookies yet, is there one that you especially want to try? 

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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