Belgian fries!

Posted on May 1, 2011 by

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Belgium. A tiny country in the middle of Europe with 9,5 million inhabitants or so. It is known for its complicated governmental structure and for recently having broken the world record for longest government formation period. On a brighter note, the country is also associated with chocolate, beer and waffles. One aspect of its culinary heritage, however, remains unacknowledged most of the time: French fries (i.e. chips, for Brits out there and, more relevantly, frites/frietjes in French/Dutch). The name is rather misleading, but French fries are a truly national dish in Belgium. Everywhere fry stands can be found and almost every family owns a frying pot. While some people argue that fries are French, the fact that there is no fry culture South of Paris provides enough evidence to prove that fries are more closely intertwined with Belgium than with France. A document of 1781 entitled: ‘Curiosités de la table dans le pays bas Belgique’ (Curiosities of the table in the Belgian lowcountries), moreover, describes how the poor population of Namen, a city East of Brussels, daily went to the river Meuse, to catch some fish. However, when the river was frozen in winter, potatoes were cut in the shape of small and thin fishes and were fried in a pot with boiling oil. This practice is said to have already existed in the 1680s.[1]

Belgium thus has a long fry tradition. Frying stands appeared at fairs or in big commercial streets in the 1840s. Back then, fries were considered a rare treat due to their high price. From 1875 onwards, fries could be bought in the vicinity of every reasonably sized railway station, industrial plant or sports event. Frying stands existed in different shapes. Around 1900, a transportable cart with a pot of boiling oil was the simplest form, while selling fries from a window of a private house was more advanced. Fries were appreciated in among all social classes – even King Leopold II (1835-1909) allegedly enjoyed eating them. [2]

During the first half of the 20th century, the ‘frietkoten’, ‘fritures’ or fry shacks appeared. These shacks offer rudimentary protection against the elements for clients or even contain a real seating area. They can only be found in Belgium, in some parts of Northern France and in the most Southern provinces of the Netherlands. Although the shacks can hardly be considered an aesthetic addition to the landscape, their culinary importance should not be underestimated. Nowadays fries can be bought both in shacks and in establishments that resemble snack bars. There are by consequence several degrees of luxury to be found among the approximately 5000 frietkoten or fritures in Belgium. This implies that literally each village or town has at least one frietkot at its disposal.

As a Belgian abroad, it is a very big source of frustration that authentic fries cannot be found. You can, of course, buy fries in one of the many fast food restaurants, but these are only pale reflections of what fries really are ought to be. Now, why is that? Traditional Belgian fries are generally thicker than their counterparts sold in fast food restaurants (not as thick as their British version, however) and are hand cut. They are also fried twice; the first time the temperature of the grease should be 160 degrees Celsius, while the second time it should be 180 degrees. When they have obtained a nice golden colour, they are served with salt and preferably with mayonnaise. [3] So, do yourself a pleasure, whenever you are in Belgium, ask around for the best frietkot or friture in town and get yourself a nice pack of fries. It will be worth you while.

 Friedel Geeraert

[1] Nationaal verbond van frituristen, ‘Historiek van de friet’, http://www.navefri-unafri.be/_nederlands/teksten.asp?nr=93&menu=Interessant, last accessed April 26, 2011.

[2] Jacobs, M. & Scholliers, P., ‘Nieuwe smaken, andere gewoonten en duurzame geneugten in de negentiende en twintigste eeuw. Uit eten gaan in België en Nederland ge(her)formuleerd’ in Buitenshuis eten in de Lage Landen sinds 1800, M. Jacobs & P. Scholliers (eds.), Brussel, 2002, 14.

[3] Scholliers, P., Food culture in Belgium (Food culture around the world), Westport, 2009, 130-133.

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