The secret of the best French fries in the world

People queue in front of a French fries vendor near the Grand Place in central Brussels (AFP/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD)

By RFI’s Brussels correspondent

With inflation reaching over 11% at the end of 2022, Belgium has noticed how prices have risen. Also the one with the fries. The bags that are bought in supermarkets range between 3 and 7 euros per kilo, an increase also due to the increase in sunflower oil, with which they are usually pre-cooked. In some establishments where potatoes are bought, they have been forced to increase prices as well.

In the case of Fritland, an emblematic place of pilgrimage for potatoes in the center of Brussels, where they admit that everything has gone up: gas, electricity… but for the moment prices have not increased. A “paquet de frites”, as they say in Belgium, has remained between 3 and 4 euros, depending on the size.

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A woman eats French fries with mayonnaise on French Fry Revolution Day in Leuven on February 17, 2011 (AFP)

the secret formula

And what is the secret of your recipe? “The potatoes have to be 100% natural. Every morning, before opening, we peel and cut them by hand. Then we cook them with cow fat twice. That is why they are excellent”, defends Julien, chef from Fritland. The intense smell of potatoes in fat can be smelled several meters away. In fact, therein lies the big difference. A fried potato made with oil never smells the same as one cooked in fat.

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The Fritland restaurant in Brussels (Esther Herrera/RFI)

It must be taken into account that not just any potato is worth it, they must be the Bintje type. “They must have a thickness of 1 centimeter and cook them twice. First they are fried in the fat at a temperature of 160 degrees for 5 minutes and should be 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 brings together potato fryer workers, Union Nationale des Frituristes (UNAFRI). Double cooking allows it to be soft on the inside and very crunchy on the outside.

“The secret is undoubtedly double cooking,” says Pascal, a trade unionist who, before demonstrating in favor of the country’s public services, stops for lunch in Fritland. This place, attached to the Stock Exchange building, is the same place where the Laci couple from Albania settled in 1948 with their six children. After three generations, the same family is still in control.

Belgium currently has 5,000 potato chip stands. These places are often known as ‘fritkots’, a compound word that unites the word “frites” (as potatoes are known in Belgium) with kot, which means hut in Dutch.

Many of these places do not have places to sit, they are usually small houses where the potatoes are usually taken and eaten on the way or in a nearby bar. The fritkot culture is recognized by Belgium 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 fritkot culture to UNESCO, no still in step, among other issues because each region has gone its own way. According to UNAFRI statistics, at least 19% of Belgians buy French fries once a week and almost 80% at least once a year.

During the worst moments of the confinement, during the months of March and April 2020, Belgapom, an association that brings together potato exporting companies, defended that the Belgians not only applaud the health personnel on the balconies at eight at night, but also to eat French fries twice a week to help businesses and fritkot owners.

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

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

Belgian or French?

Even so, its origin is disputed. The official version assures that French fries were born in Paris in the 17th century, when merchants used to eat a little meat with vegetables just once a day and one day it occurred to them to introduce pieces of potato, a food that became popular.

The Belgian version, for its part, differs. There is a legend that the first French fries were born in the 17th century in the city 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, and they decided to fry potatoes instead.

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

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

The “frites are chic”

Despite everything, French fries do not always play with popularity. Nutritionists warn that the high level of fat is not good for health and its consumption should be reduced as much as possible within a balanced diet. And it is not only the level of fat used that is of concern, but also acrylamide: an organic compound that forms naturally when cereal or potato-based products are fried, baked or toasted at temperatures above 120°C. Acrylamide is considered by the European Food Safety Agency as a compound that increases the potential risk of developing cancer.

In 2017, the then Flemish Minister of Tourism, Ben Weyts, 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 was alarmed by the possibility of ending the characteristic double frying due to a legislative reform proposed by the Executive.

Brussels had to come out of the way of criticism, in which the community spokesperson at the time —(and now vice president of the institution, Margaritis Schinas)— assured that the “Frites are chic” and denied that they were going to be prohibited by the new legislation. The regulation was approved in 2018, in which it makes a series of recommendations to producers and cooks on how potatoes should be fried.

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 and 220 °C. The potatoes should be cooked until they are golden brown, but those that burn should be removed. The frying basket should not be overfilled either, but only half filled to avoid absorbing too much oil and prolonging the frying time.

The ‘frites’, for the moment, are safe. The vast majority of fritkots defend that they maintain the necessary measures and that they do not burn the oil to avoid high temperatures. No one has resisted Belgian frites, not even former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who snuck out in the middle of a European summit in 2016 to try them.

Originally Posted on RFI

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