It’s a wintry night in Antwerp as I arrive off a late flight with a growling stomach.
Wandering the cobblestone streets of the old town in search of a snack, my eye is drawn to the Art Deco-style sign for Frituur No 1 [pictured above], a small fast-food restaurant just off one of the main squares, Grote Markt.
The aesthetics may be simple and the cutlery plastic, but my first taste of genuine Belgian fries comes as a revelation.
A glorious juxtaposition of crispy exterior and a buttery-soft inside, the fried potato strips are hearty, comforting and deliciously tangy, served with a dizzying array of dipping sauces. I am instantly hooked.
While the British may be savouring a fish-and-chip supper to mark the forthcoming National Chip Week in the UK, the Belgians celebrate their fries, or ‘frieten’ in Flemish, the entire year round.
The Dutch-speaking Flanders region of northern Belgium is home to the very finest frituur, a simple, informal eatery and a Belgian institution, where master friars prepare superior fries and serve them in a paper cone.
The best fries are prepared from Belgian Bintje potatoes, cut to a length of 11mm and fried twice for extra crispiness.
Antwerp alone boasts over 200 frituurs and they are seen as a place where people from walks of life can come together amongst Formica tables and plastic sauce dispensers to chew the fat.
Every town in Belgium has a frituur and many Belgians will still eat a take-away supper from the frituur at least once a week, with Thursday night and Sunday lunchtimes the most popular times to visit.
Belgium may be divided along linguistic and political divides, but all people are equal when it comes to standing in line at their local frituur.
Paul Ilegems, an art historian, who has devoted 25 years of his life to collecting images of the fried potato throughout history, explains:
“As a country with no obvious symbols of nationalism, the humble and improvised frituur is our only symbol. It reflects the ad-hoc nature of the Belgian personality, our indifference to aesthetics.”
We meet in his dark Antwerp study, where old paintings are stacked against the wall and a selection of dusty books scattered across the coffee table.
“There were already street kiosks selling fries as food for the poor when Belgium was founded in 1820. But all the kiosks (frietkot) have since been replaced by small cafes (frituur),” he explains, handing me copies of his books to browse, amongst them Frietgeheimen (Secrets of the Fries) and Het Volkomen Frietboek (The Complete Fries Book).
He adds: “Fries are originally Belgian with the term ‘French fries’ a corruption of the word.”
“The American slang term ‘to French’, meaning to cut into thin strips, was only brought to Europe by American troops after World War I.”
To learn the secret of cooking the perfect Belgian fries, I head for De Twee Vuistjes (The Two Fists), a name whispered in reverential, hushed tones amongst Antwerp’s chip-eating cognoscenti.
Here, against the garish backdrop of posters advertising such exotic delights as the berepoot, a meat kebab, vlampijpen, a spicy beef sausage resembling a small dumb bell and bitterballen, meat-filled fried balls, Kosovo-born Uka Gashi is busy heating the oil for the first batch of chips of the day.
The frying process hinges, he insists, on the fact that the fries are cooked twice, the first time for eight minutes at 130 degrees C, then for four minutes at 160 degrees C. He says:
“When the fries are singing, that is when the oil is sizzling, the fries are ready.”
After a second dip in the hot oil, Uka sets me loose on the fries for the final, crucial stage: tossing.
Under his watchful eye, I flip the fries in a stainless-steel cullender to drain off the excess fat and leave a perfect batch of crispy fries ready to be devoured.
They are accompanied by a meaty snack and dipped into one of 15 available sauces, ranging from mayonnaise to tartar via a selection of Belgian pickles.
After a snack lunch of fries and bitterballen with Uka, my tour of Antwerp’s frites-frying hotspots continues with a visit to Frietkot Max on Groenplaats.
It’s the oldest frituur in town, dating from 1842.
Here the tiny, upstairs dining room is devoted to artworks celebrating the history of fries with the current exhibition featuring a cheeky update of Antwerp-born Rubens’ 1597 painting of Adam and Eve.
The modern-day take on the Baroque painting features Adam seeking to tempt Eve with a cone-shaped bag of chips.
The last stop is Hauta Frituur on in the fashionable Het Zuid district. A new breed of frituur, this eatery aims for a higher-end clientele with Arne Jacobsen-style chairs, funky plastic tables and modernist artworks on the walls.
“We have a culture of uniformity with globalisation sweeping across Europe, hence I love the frituur for its aesthetics and its sense of individual freedom,” says Paul Ilegems, as we sit with cones of piping-hot fries in a neighbourhood frituur, watching the world go by.
“But then, I guess,” he smiles, “I’m just a fries-loving free thinker.”
National Chip Week runs February 16-22 in the UK.
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This article was first published in the Weekend FT in January 2008.
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