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The secret to the best French fries in the world

The secret to the best French fries in the world

People line up in front of a french fries vendor near the Grand Place in central Brussels (AFP / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD)

By RFI correspondent in Brussels

With inflation reaching more than 11% at the end of 2022, Belgium has noticed how prices have risen. Also one with fries. The value of the bags bought in the supermarket ranges between 3 and 7 euros per kilo, which is also an increase due to the increase in sunflower oil, which is usually pre-cooked. In some establishments where potatoes are purchased, they have had to increase prices as well.

In the case of Freetland, a symbolic place of potato pilgrimage in the center of Brussels, where they admit that everything has gone up: gas, electricity … But prices have not gone up for now. The “paquet de frites”, as they say in Belgium, remained between 3 and 4 euros, depending on the size.

A woman eats french fries with mayonnaise on the day of the French potato revolution in Leuven, February 17, 2011 (AFP)
A woman eats french fries with mayonnaise on the day of the French potato revolution in Leuven, February 17, 2011 (AFP)

The secret formula

What is the secret of your recipe? “The potatoes must be 100% natural. Every morning, before opening, we peel and cut them by hand. Then we cook them twice in beef fat. That’s why they are excellent, “defends Julien, a chef from Fritland. He could smell the strong potato in the fat several meters away. Actually, herein lies the big difference. French fries made with oil don’t smell like potatoes cooked in fat.

Fritland Restaurant in Brussels (Esther Herrera/RFI)
Fritland Restaurant in Brussels (Esther Herrera/RFI)

It should be borne in mind that not just any potato is worth it, it must be Bintje. “They should be 1 cm thick and cooked twice. First, they are fried in fat at a temperature of 160 degrees for 5 minutes and left to rest for half an hour. After this time, the potatoes are fried again at a temperature of 180 degrees,” they explain from the main organization that Potato Skillet Workers Caucus, National Federation of Fungi (UNAFRI). Double cooking allows it to be soft on the inside and extra crunchy on the outside.

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“The secret is undoubtedly double cooking,” says Pascal, a trade unionist who stopped for lunch in Freetland before posing for the country’s public services. This place, attached to the stock exchange building, is the same place where the Lasi couple from Albania settled in 1948 with their six children. Three generations later, the same family is still in control.

There are currently 5,000 potato chip stands in Belgium. These places are often known as fritkoots, a compound word that unites frites (as potatoes are known in Belgium) with kot, which means hut in Dutch.

Many of these places have no seating, they are usually small houses where potatoes are taken and usually eaten on the way or in a nearby tavern. Belgium recognizes the Fritkoot culture as an intangible asset in the three regions of the country (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels), but despite the fact that preparations began in 2017 to bring the Fritkout culture to UNESCO, it is still in progress, among other issues because Each region has its own path. According to UNAFRI statistics, at least 19% of Belgians buy French fries once a week and nearly 80% at least once a year.

During the worst moments of confinement, during March and April 2020, Belgapom, an association that brings together potato exporting companies, defended that Belgians were not only praising health workers on balconies at eight o’clock at night, but also eating. French fries twice a week to help businesses and Fricotte owners.

It is common in the country to celebrate the ritual of eating fried potatoes and even encourage their consumption. Since the end of 2010, “La Semana de las Frites” has been celebrated, when for the first time all regions of the country decided to celebrate one of the country’s specialties. Since then, it is usually produced in late November – early December, with festive decorations and special sauces to put on the potatoes. There is also the International Belgian Potato Day, which is celebrated on August 1st.

A man eats french fries in Brussels (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
A man eats french fries in Brussels (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Belgian or French?

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However, its origin is in dispute. The official version asserts that French fries were born in Paris in the seventeenth century, when merchants used to eat a little meat with vegetables only once a day, and one day it occurred to them to introduce pieces of potato, a food that had become popular.

The Belgian version on its part is different. There is a legend that the first French fries were born in the 17th century in the city located in the south of the country – in Namur. Its inhabitants used to fish in the city’s river, the Meuse, and eat fried fish. But in a particularly harsh winter the river froze over, and they decided to fry potatoes instead.

The other legend is that in the mid-19th century, a man named Monsieur Fritz (hence the name frites, in Belgium, which has a similar pronunciation in French), began selling long-cut fried potatoes at folk festivals known as kermesses, common in spring in Belgium. During those days he was selling potatoes through a small mobile home. Mr. Fritz learned to prepare potatoes in this way … in the Montmartre district of the French capital.

Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel at the French fries house at Maison Antoine in Brussels (Maison Antoine/Twitter)
Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel at the French fries house at Maison Antoine in Brussels (Maison Antoine/Twitter)

“elegant frites”

Despite everything, french fries don’t always play popular. Nutrition experts warn that a high level of fat is not good for health, and its consumption should be reduced as much as possible within a balanced diet. It’s not just the level of fat used that is of concern, but also acrylamide: an organic compound that forms naturally when grains or potato-based products are fried, roasted, or roasted at temperatures above 120°C. The European Food Safety Agency considers acrylamide as a compound that increases potential carcinogenic risks.

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In 2017, the then Flemish Minister of Tourism, Ben Witts, asked the European Commission by letter if they would ban the cooking of Belgian fries and endanger part of the country’s gastronomy. The local press expressed alarm that the signature double fry might end due to legislative reform proposed by the executive branch.

Brussels had to get out of the way of criticism, as the society’s spokesperson at the time – (and now vice president of the foundation, Margaritis Schinas) – asserted that “frites are elegant” and denied that they would be banned by the new legislation. The regulation was approved in 2018, providing a series of recommendations for producers and chefs on how to fry potatoes.

Specifically, the maximum temperature of the potatoes should not exceed 175°C when frying and the fryer should be preheated to a temperature between 180°C and 220°C. The potatoes should cook until golden, but potatoes that are burning should be removed. The frying basket should not be filled too much, but only half full to avoid absorbing too much oil and extending the frying time.

Frites, for now, are safe. The vast majority of fritcoats advocate that they maintain the necessary measures and that they do not burn oil to avoid high temperatures. No one resisted the Belgian frets, not even former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who snuck in the middle of a European summit in 2016 to court them.

Originally Posted on RFI

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