One of the greatest joys of travel is sampling local foods (except perhaps for some of those weird foods like fermented shark or too-cute-to-eat items such as puffin). For me, tasting the authentic foods in Belgium was an easy–and delicious–task. I found yummy Belgian waffles, potent Belgian beer, luscious Belgian chocolates and salty French fries. Yes, French fries are extremely popular in Flanders, and historically, the Belgians– not the French–take credit for their name.
My European journey took me to Bruges, a marvelous medieval city center about an hour from Brussels. The entire old town complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a cutesy Handsel and Gretel place. Many people make Bruges a day-trip, but I suggest three days to fully explore and ingest the charm. You can take boat rides or carriage rides, and stroll around cobblestone streets. For fine dining and gourmet vegetarian meals, I recommend Réliva Restaurant.
While in Bruges, almost every entrée I ordered came with frietes (the local word for fries). However, in Belgium, frietes are served with mayonnaise, not ketchup.
Among the 27 museums you can explore in Bruges, one of the most fascinating is the friet museum. The Belgian Friet Museum, just a five-minute walk from the center of the old Market Square, resides in a historic home that resembles a typical Amsterdam canal style house. These buildings, usually 3-4 stories tall, feature a narrow width and gorgeous exterior details like stair step rooflines.
Everything About Fries
The Friet Museum is devoted solely to spuds and provides information in a fun atmosphere. On the self-tour, you wind your way through exhibits about the history of the potato, including its usage and benefits. (Okay, these are not really fun, but stay with me.) I learned how the potato traveled from Peru to Spain via early explorers and then made its way to the Canary Islands and on to Belgium.
The displays attribute the origin of the potato to Peru, a fact I remember well from an earlier trip to Latin America. In Peru, there are close to 4,000 distinct varieties of the starchy vegetable. But, museum signage warns, “All varieties are not good for making French fries.”
One sign explained the reason we call fries ‘French fries.’ The story goes back to Belgium in World War I. According to the museum, “Some French-speaking Belgian soldiers are said to have offered some “chips” (another word for fries) to the American soldiers. The American soldiers thought the Belgian soldiers were French, hence the origin of the name French fries.”
The museum’s second-floor houses cooking utensils and machines used to prepare fries throughout history. The slicing devices looked fascinating. Think; It slices, it dices.
The top floor is devoted to memorabilia about potatoes and fries. You know, French fry erasers, pencils, little toy figures, a potato clock, a model French fry delivery car, and stuffed potato friends like my stuffed Spuddy Buddy from Idaho. Noticeably missing, at least from my American perspective, was anything connected with McDonalds and their famous fries.
The center of the room highlights a French fry shop where you can pretend to work. Nearby sits a smaller French fry stand for children to role-play, but I squeezed myself in for a silly photo op. I also heard a video recording of a man playing a potato! The spud had holes carved throughout and the man placed his fingers over some holes and blew into another one.
By the time you are done, you have learned everything and more than you ever wanted to know about potatoes and French fries. Descend to the basement where you place your order at an authentic fry shop. Naturally, you must eat some. I watched as they prepared my fries using the double fry method. The museum claims this method is the best. They tasted delicious, but I opted for ketchup. Mayo just doesn’t do it for me.
According to the Belgium Friet Museum, Belgian fries are so delicious because:
- The appropriate variety of potato is cooked with the appropriate type of cooking fat
- The potatoes are freshly peeled and cooked
- The fries are cooked in unrefined beef tallow, known as “blanc de boeuf.”
- Fries are cooked twice- in two separate phases
Here are the secrets of the genuine Belgian fry that you might try in your own kitchen:
- Peel the potatoes, cut them in slices, rinse them, then drain and dry.
- Precook the fries for 6 minutes at a temperature of 130-140 degrees C. (266- 284 Fahrenheit).
- Leave the fries to rest (sweat) for 10 minutes
- Cook them a second time for 1 to 5 minutes (according to the size of the fry) at 165-170 degrees Celsius (330-338 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Lift out of the fryer, shake and sprinkle with salt.
Here are a few other tips for making good fries:
- After slicing the potatoes, dry the fries before placing in the fryer.
- Replace the fat or oil in the fryer after 8-10 uses. (Do not pour fresh oil on to the old oil. If you do not cook fries very often, replace the fat or oil after a certain time because of oxidation caused by contact with the oxygen in the air.)
- Avoid frying other types of food, such as fish in the same oil
- The higher the cooking temperature, the faster the oil or fat will deteriorate
- Do not leave bits of old fries in the fryer. — Story and photos by Debi Lander, RFT Contributor
If You Go:
Belgian Friet Museum