Many years ago, I came across this quote regarding Switzerland:

Quelle pays sanguinaire, même le fromage est plein de trous.

What a bloody country, even the cheese is full of holes.

I seem to remember it was attributed to François, duc de la Rochefoucauld. And I might have read it in one of Nigel Rees's Quote ... Unquote books. Yet I don't believe I ever knew the original source—if I read it in one of Rees's books, and if that book had source information, I've forgotten.

So: what is the source of this cheesy quote? If it is indeed de la Rochefoucauld, when and where did he say or write it?

1 Answer 1


The quote comes from Tom Stoppard's play Travesties, written in 1974. The consular official Carr rants about Zurich:

... was it not, after all, La Rochefoucauld in his Maximes who had it that in Zurich in Spring in wartime a gentleman is hard put to find a vacant seat for the spurious spies peeping at police spies spying on spies eyeing counterspies what a bloody country even the cheese has got holes in it!!

Carr attributes the quote to Le Rochefoucauld, but I have been unable to find anything similar in the Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims. While it is difficult to prove a negative, this "quote" would seem to be Stoppard's invention. Carr's colleague, Bennett, later echoes the comment back in French:

Yes, sir - if I may quote La Rochefoucauld, 'Quel pays sanguinaire, meme le fromage est plein des trous.'

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    While I speak French, I don't do so well enough to know whether sanguinaire also carries the meaning of damned in addition to the literal one. I think it doesn't, which would make the French "quote" an amusing mistranslation. Is this bloody to mean "violent, full of blood" or bloody to mean awful as in "what an awful country"? I can read it as "this country has so much violence, so many shots fired, that even the cheese has holes" or "this stupid country is so obsessed with spying even the cheese has holes for the spies to peer through". Does the actual text make it any clearer?
    – terdon
    Commented May 2 at 18:38
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    @terdon Sanguinaire in this context is, to me, strictly "blood-thirsty", not bloody.
    – isanae
    Commented May 2 at 21:47
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    @terdon I'm pretty certain French doesn't have a direct equivalent to this (predominantly British) use of bloody; literal translations (based around sang) don't carry the meaning, and comparable intensifiers come with different meanings
    – Chris H
    Commented May 3 at 14:58
  • @ChrisH precisely. Hence my question since the literal use of bloody to mean violent doesn't seem to fit here in a discussion of "gentlemen" and "vacant seats" which, despite mention of wartime doesn't bring to mind a violent environment. As I understand it, this is a British writer, Tom Stoppard, making up a quote to attribute to a French character, so I think it is a mistranslation on the part of Stoppard who assumed that sanguinaire has the BrE meaning of bloody. After all, why would a violent, bloody country have holes in its cheese? My suggestion of bullet holes is pushing it.
    – terdon
    Commented May 3 at 15:05
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    Knowing Stoppard and his love of language jokes, it's probably deliberate that Bennet uses "schoolboy French" to almost-literally translate "bloody" as "sanguinaire". It's not supposed to be a correct translation". Commented May 4 at 21:36

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