In Brussels, potato fries are a delicacy, but then, it is the “Yellow Gold” capital of the world. Our reporter munched his way from kiosk to kiosk. How much grease can one man stomach?
Nine in the morning and I’m eating french fries in the rain. Only myself to blame! It was my idea to spend two days tracking down the best frites in Brussels. And I’m not even a big fan! Back home in Germany, I associate fries with snack bars, outdoor swimming pools, twin streaks of ketchup and mayonnaise. In Brussels, it’s different; frites are both street snack and delicacy – fast food, slow enjoyment. Here at Frit’n Toast in the tourist slipstream, the frites are disappointing. Bad for me, good for my story. I wipe my chops and move on.
Fries are a Belgian cultural treasure. All Belgians swear by one particular potato variety, one sauce, one way to cook them – and if they don’t, they are not truly Belgian. The fritkot (fries kiosk)rankings are the subject of passionate debate, not least at the fritkots themselves. How does my local kiosk rate? Which should I avoid? The Michelin Guide is a joke by comparison.
Finishing my first sample was a mistake. And it would have been sacrilege to throw away the second. Manneken Pis, Brussels’ famous “Little Man Pee” statue, is not far off. I eat, sigh, float, bloated but still popping them in. Is it really too early for a beer? Fry after fry after fry – Little Man Gorge more like!
In Belgium, making fries borders on alchemy. The thickness of the potato batons, measured in millimeters, is ideally between 10 and 12. German fries are much thinner. Golden rules apply to the production of this yellow gold: There is consensus on two rounds in the deep fryer, but the battle lines are drawn on the subjects of fat and potatoes. Which make the best fries? Horse fat or suet (ox or beef)? Bintje, Agria or Désirée potatoes?
Outside Café Georgette, velvet ropes keep customers in line. The frites are not so fine – in fact, they are boring, without any hint of je ne sais quoi. Better than the first lot, worse than the last. Wiping a drip of dip off my coat, I head north for Friterie du Miroir, where Ken Knecht produces a hazelnutty flavor by frying with beef suet. Sure, the Belgians could save bags of money by using cheaper frying oil, but in the old English spirit of “not spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar,” they prefer not to minimize costs, but to maximize on taste for fantastic fries.
Knecht always samples the first fry of the day. “So I know what I’m serving. Potatoes are moody.” He stands here 365 days a year; even now, despite the sleet, his counter is crowded. Fries are an all-weather meal – his especially: hot, spicy, and with bite. When the photographer refuses sauce, Knecht looks horrified. Belgians are as proud of their sauces as they are of their fries – and the paper bags they serve them in. Paper keeps in the heat, absorbs fat, and lets air circulate. Apparently there’s even an association for the preservation of the paper bag.
We move out to the commuter belt, the fleshpots of the city – and another frites paradise, though different from downtown. Friterie de Corte is right outside the Metro. As fryer Steve Peeters fills my sauce-coated fries into a paper cone, he describes the cooking process: First fry the potatoes at 120 degrees to cook them on the inside, let them rest, then fry them at 180 degrees for a crisp finish that seals in the flavor. Pinch out a piece between thumb and index finger to test. A woman comes in. Ça va? Ça va!
Nowhere do the Belgians seem more at home than at the friterie. It is to them what the pub is to the Brits, the coffee house to the Austrians and the boulangerie to the French: a forum where ordinary people air extraordinary cares. That’s why the Friterie de la Chapelle is right outside a church. Fries are a common denominator on which even Walloons and Flemings can agree. The bag we get near the church is substantial, but I’m fed up with “substantial” and throw half of it away.
I always sample the first fry. Potatoes are moody
Who invented fries is a moot point for the Belgians and the French. A document said to date from 1781 states that the fisherfolk of the Meuse River in Belgium fried potatoes of the same size when the river froze over in winter. The French also claim the idea for their own. Academia has deliberated on the subject but so far has reached no definitive conclusion.
Various fritkots later, I take the easy road and decide that frites were invented by God. The proof: Frit Flagey, a shack with a chimney! I arrive with no appetite at all and place my umpteenth order, a mound of fries with pepper sauce – and end up wolfing them down. A joy, poetry in potato, a winner! Pigeons flock around me as though it were my Christian duty to share with them. Sorry, my feathered friends, but not today. Not even the legendary Maison Antoine is a patch on Flagey.
As I leave town, a whiff of fries clings to my clothes. I decide to leave off them for a while, not because I didn’t enjoy them, but because now I know that Belgian frites are unbeatable.
Moritz Herrmann, travel reporter, is from the city of Hamburg, where he attended the Henri Nannen School of Journalism. He lived in India for a year without finding his center, so he moved on, traveling to Las Vegas, Cuba, Brussels and Portugal for Lufthansa Magazin. He likes to bring home beverages from each country he visits, but never shares them with anyone in the editorial office. Moritz writes long articles for other magazines, too, on society, washed-up characters and sports.