Belgium - a paradise for fries. Without a doubt! But fries come from somewhere else.
Nobody panic. Belgium is the only country in the world where baking fries belongs to its culinary heritage and has been elevated to a true art form, and it always will be.
We Belgians cannot claim to have invented fries. A certain Jo Gérard, a historical writer, cited from a manuscript from 1781 by Joseph Gérard, one of his distant ancestors. Joseph claimed to recall that, for over a hundred years, it had been chiefly the poor residents of Namur, Andenne and Dinant who were supplementing their frugal daily meal with small fish from the Maas, known as the menu fretin, loosely translated as ‘inferior catch’. They then fried these in oil. When the water froze in the winter and fishing became risky, they sliced potatoes into small thin strips in the shape of a fish. These went into the oil too. Naturally, this is a story that will raise quite a few eyebrows. Joseph's memory could not possibly reach back one hundred years ago, Jo never published this famous manuscript and, to cap it all, the first mention of potatoes in Wallonia was not until 1709. So, that puts Jo Gérard's fishing story to bed.
Our French friends, undeniably masters of the art of haute cuisine, cannot claim the credit for it either. They place the first tray of chips at Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, in 1810. They have sadly forgotten the name of their pioneer. Not true. Fries had been baked even earlier, during fairs and village fêtes in the French countryside. The idea that Thomas Jefferson, an envoy in Paris from 1784 to 1789 and the third American President from 1801 to 1809, introduced fries at the White House and was the originator of the term French fries has also been plucked out of the air. As a matter of fact, to French dates from only 1894 and means ‘to cut into strips’ in America.
No, the roots of fries lie in Seville, Spain. In 1575, Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) entered the cloister of the Discalced Carmelites, Los Remedios. She knew about the potato via her father and brothers who lived in South America, the source area of the tuber, and as a happy gourmet cook, always praised tasty food as a tried-and-tested remedy for melancholy and loneliness. At her insistence, potatoes were grown in the cloister garden. Inspired by her creativity and the doctrine of transubstantiation, one day she cut some small figures of Christ out of a potato, fried them in hot oil and consumed them with relish. From time to time an arm or a leg fell of the figures, but the fry was born.
What is it in fact that makes Belgium the pre-eminent country of fries? The optimum and unrivalled preparation method using unrefined beef fat for frying, ideally with some horse fat or goat fat too. Getting the ratios right is naturally the secret of every baker of fries. As well as the pre-frying and post-frying, of course. Or the wide range of friterie types: the fries van, caravan, bus, shed, chalet, in one word ‘fritkot’. A piece of popular culture in itself