Oh, to have been born with the pedigree of Kornelius Lieuwes de Vries, one of the heroes of the modern potato. Or like Chris Verschueren, fry master extraordinaire who, along with Monsieur de Vries, is forever memorialized in the frietMuseum in Bruges, Belgium.
Monsieur de Vries was a hybridizer of potatoes whose combination of two strains of spuds – the bintje – firmly planted him as a spudmaster extraordinaire. Verschueren made it into the Guinness Book of world records for logging 83 consecutive hours manning the fryolator and serving 15,000 portions of frites.
Here’s a confession: I am a fry freak, an avid and enthusiastic consumer of what most nutritionists and dietary advisors decry as one of the World’s Worst Foods. But I don’t care. Expecting me to spend time in Belgium without indulging in frites is as unlikely as expecting me to spend time in France without sampling the wine.
As they say in these parts, “ain’t gonna happen, mon ami.” So that’s what brought us to the door of the friteMuseum,
on our own personal potato pilgrimage.
Call them “French fries” anywhere in Belgium and you’ll be quickly corrected (it was an American WWI soldier who, taking a Belgian who offered him a pommes frites for a Frenchman, incorrectly labeled the treat). This factoid is vigorously challenged by the French, who claim that pommes frites were first sampled on the streets of Paris in the 1930s. Belgians, however, point out that the first World War was done and dusted by the time the French claim to have discovered their delicacy, and to them it is a fait accompli that the French are at best misled by their own faulty history.
For these folks, frite history and the industry is as serious as a heart attack.
That’s why there are over 5,000 frites shops meticulously licensed to sell their perfectly fried wares (a license costs as much as 100,000 Euros a year), and why the Belgian Union of Potato Fryers established the National Order of the Gold Cornet to honor some of the giants of the potato frying profession.
The Silver Cross is awarded people with at least 15 years in the potato frying profession. There are Knight and Officer designations, too, but the MacDaddy of all is the Grand Officer distinction, awarded “for an exceptional commitment to the sector and an invaluable contribution to the defence of the potato frying.”
All this and much, much more awaits the intrepid history buff who enters the frietMuseum. This unassuming three-story structure tackles the history and evolution of the potato while immersing visitors with tons of information and luring them on with the tempting aromas of the frying kitchen at the end of the tour.
There’s plenty to chew on while the aroma grows stronger. For example, who knew that the Peruvians were the first to grow potatoes for human consumption? That’s why the International Potato Center is located in Lima. And quel supris! that Belgians make and play instruments out of potatoes. We heard and saw it for ourselves.
We saw an elaborate potato mobile made out of plastic replicas of different types and hues of spuds, suspended in an eerily-lighted display so as to give the potatoes an otherworldly glow. We saw display after display of hand-operated machines designed to peel and cut potatoes into perfect frite-sized bits, and replicas of all sorts of devices created over the years to expedite the process of producing perfectly fried spuds.
We learned about the different types of potatoes, pests and plagues associated with potato farming over the years, and of the unique Belgian obsession with frites. Answering the question, “Why are Belgian fries so delicious?”, the frietMuseum offers the following:
- The appropriate variety of potato is cooked with the appropriate type of cooking fat
- The potatoes are often freshly peeled and cooked
- The fries are cooked in unrefined beef tallow, known as “blanc de beouf.” (note: one display asserted that fries are best when cooked in fat laced with horse fat, but I think that practice has been abandoned over the years. If not, I don’t want to know.)
- Fries are cooked in two separate phases.
That means cooking the potatoes for six minutes in oil between 130 and 140 degrees, C, then leaving them to “sweat” for 10 minutes before subjecting them to another oil bath for 2-3 minutes at 165 to 170 degrees, C.
They must then be shaken, bathed in salt and served with enough mayonnaise to seize whatever arteries may survive unplugged from the fat and salt you’re about to eat. It’s a good thing Belgians spend so much time on bicycles. Between the beer and the fries, these folks would lead the world in obesity statistics as they hit middle age, and that’s irrespective of the Belgian beef stew and vast amounts of cheese that are dietary staples around here.
But health isn’t featured prominently in the frietMuseum, other than a casual reference to the fact that raw potatoes and their juice contain enormous amounts of vitamin C. One chart pointed out that frites contain about half the fat as potato chips, which kind of seems like justifying eating a Big Mac because it has less fat than a stick of butter.
The frietMuseum was the brilliant idea of the same guys who, apparently bent on cornering the market f memorializing decadent foodstuffs, brought the Chocolate Museum to Bruges. We didn’t make it to the Chocolate Museum, but a couple hours in the frietMuseum was thoroughly enjoyable and actually a great learning experience.
All good museum experiences conclude with a healthy sample of the wares, so at the end of our tour we enthusiastically tucked into an order of frites with Andalusian sauce and polished it off in short order.
I think Monsieur de Vries would have approved.