Belgium: Why French Fries Aren't French

Some of our readership may remember how, once* upon a time, some members of the United States Congress got cranky with the French government, and administered what somebody apparently considered a stinging rebuke by changing the name of the dish "French fries", in the Congressional cafeterias, to "Freedom Fries".

This kind of thing has happened fairly frequently in recent history -- as for example during World War II, when many foods with German names in the USA had new and more politically correct names slapped on them for the duration. Sauerkraut, for example, became "liberty cabbage", and even the innocent and theoretically all-American hamburger got turned into "victory steak". But this maneuver is at its funniest when there's enough confusion about the origin of the food for the gesture to be meaningless -- in the most recent case, because "French fries" are actually from Belgium.

Unfortunately, in our short-attention-span world, there are too few people who're either familiar with or concerned about the details of such events as World War I. In that war, American and Canadian soldiers assisting in the liberation of Belgium arrived in a French-speaking part of the country and were served extremely tasty fried potatoes, which they promptly started calling "French fries" even though they weren't particularly close to France at the time. By the time anyone noticed the error, it was too late: the name was stuck.

The French were probably as bemused by this as anyone else. France at that time just didn't have the "frying culture". But the Belgians (and the Dutch as well) had it in spades. They have it still. Even the smallest of Belgian villages has a frietkot, a little place to get your fries -- sometimes a shop or little restaurant, but often just a small mobile building or temporary structure of some kind, even a shack. (Please note, however, that some of these "shacks" have WiFi and/or broadband.)

Frietkots naturally sell other things too, such as sausages and burgers and various snacks that you might like, fried or grilled. But the fries (and the many tasty sauces that go with them) are always the star. Every frietkot prides itself on serving the quintessential Belgian frietjes (pronounced "FREET-yes"), cut thin so that they'll achieve the perfect level of crunch, and always fried twice.

If you're looking for online sources for sauces for friet / frites, please try this link: Belgian and Dutch Mayonnaise and Friet / Frites Sauces. Also -- are you a Belgian visitor looking for a frituur? Try VindEenFrituur.be.

(And hi there, JustHungry visitors! Make yourselves at home.)

The following recipe assumes that you have a domestic deep-fat fryer with a temperature control.

First: Peel about 1.3kg / 3 lb of a good all-round potato, or (if your locality has one) a potato known to be a good "chipper." In Britain and Ireland this usually means a potato like the Russet, Rooster, Nicola or Golden Wonder varieties. In places less blessed with single-purpose potatoes, use good-sized Idaho bakers or a similar large white potato.

Wash the potatoes well and cut them into sticks about 12mm wide. Dry them with a cloth dishtowel (or paper towels if you prefer).

Meanwhile, set the fryer's thermostat to 160° C / 320° F. (Here it should be noted that genuine Belgian frietjes are always cooked in beef dripping -- sometimes known as beef tallow. If you have a problem with this (and, granted, it's not something you should be eating every day), use a good vegetable oil or other frying fat instead, but note in advance that the flavor will be different and probably inferior to the result produced with dripping.)

Fry the potatoes in small batches, no more than 200-300 grams each. For the first frying, fry them for between 5-7 minutes until they are cooked through but not yet browned. Then remove them from the fryer, drain and allow to rest.


Brugge: the Belfort frietkot in the Markt square

Raise the temperature in the fryer to 175°C / 350°F. Again, in small batches, fry the fries until they are just brown and crunchy enough. Remove, drain, salt (lightly!) and enjoy.

Nothing can perfectly reproduce the effect of eating these straight out of the fryer at a frietkot, in the open air, while you listen to the bells of the clock tower in the town square (like those behind the famous frietkot to the right, said to be the country's best: click here for its GoogleMapped location) and consider which of the traditional Belgian friet sauces to add. But if you do these right, at least you'll be able to share the experience of that perfect crunch...

*Or maybe twice.

 

 

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