Belgium's Dutch and French-speakers unite on fries
Thu, 18 Feb 2010 10:20a.m.
In Belgium, everything from political parties to pigeon racing clubs is split into Dutch and French-speaking camps, and the country always seems on the verge of an acrimonious breakup.
But there's at least one thing that unites the Belgians - fries.
Nothing holds this conflicted nation together more than its hunger for deep-fried potato sticks served under landslides of mayonnaise and dozens of other sauces.
Research shows Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones average a weekly visit to one of their country's 5,000 or so fry shops and shacks.
Many are lowbrow joints in converted campers with drooping awnings, loud lights, corny names and an overwhelming smell of bubbling fat and pungent sauce.
Dutch-speakers call such shops "frietkotten." Francophones call them "baraques a frites." Both mean "fry hovel" - and it's meant as a term of endearment.
"The 'frietkot' is the best symbol you can imagine for Belgium," says Paul Ilegems, author of four not wholly tongue-in-cheek books about Belgians' love affair with fries.
A landmark event in their elevation as a national icon was the 2007 opening of a French fry museum in the medieval town of Bruges. It runs through the history of potatoes and displays French fry paintings, drawings and other collectibles. It used to exhibit a lard sculpture of a bag of fries but the smell got so bad it had to be tossed out.
50 000 people visited the museum in 2009.
It's "a little bit of Belgian culture," Peter Wellens, a University of Antwerp student, said has he munched on fries in the museum basement. "It's like Americans visiting the Statue of Liberty."
Denizens of neighbouring France mock the Belgian predilection for fries, often eaten with mussels steamed in white wine. But Ann van Schaeren and Dirk Dresselaers, visitors from the east Belgian city of Turnhout, said fries were a national treasure.
"Nothing to be ashamed of," said Van Schaeren. "Everytime we come back to Belgium from abroad the first thing we do is head for a fries shack."
While the Dutch and Germans treasure order and tidiness, "Belgians have a make-it-up-as-you-go-along culture," said Ilegems over a bag of fries at Max, an Antwerp fries shop of considerable repute.
That happy-go-lucky attitude is seen in an urban landscape haphazardly punctuated by stapled-together fry shacks leaning against churches, city halls, stadiums and rail stations, or propped up in market squares.
And the fries culture is classless: The hungry come on foot, by bike or in BMWs. And the dish is very different from American-style fast food, with its thin and uniformly measured portions.
Belgians fry shacks serve mounds of finger-thick fries wrapped in paper cones and topped by any of 20 or 30 sauces, from Sauce Andalouse (tomato and paprika), Sauce Dynamite (spicy!) or Sauce Crocodile (tamarind-flavoured).
Maison Antoine is a landmark Brussels "baraque a frites." It serves bureaucrats from the European Union headquarters and people in the pubs lining Place Jourdan, which has been the shack's home for decades.
Its most eye-popping offering: the 'Mitraillette' - French bread crammed with fries, mayonnaise and perhaps a sausage, then closed so it looks like an ammo belt. It costs almost US$5.50, about double the price of a standard serving.
A portion of fries with salt and mayonnaise can account for a third of an adult's daily caloric intake, said Guy De Backer, a cardiologist at the University Hospital of Ghent.
He warns against eating fries daily, but he's resigned to the impossibility of coming between Belgians and their fries.
De Backer was part of a medical project in the 1970s urging Belgian companies to serve healthy foods in their canteens.
"We encountered resistance, notably from the trade unions, to the removal of fries from the daily menu and to limiting fries to once or twice a week," he said.
Still, only 14.8 percent of Belgian men and 10.7 percent of women are overweight or obese, compared to 44.2 percent and 48.3 percent, respectively, in the United States.
"Apparently we either exercise more or take in fewer calories," De Backer said. "Belgians like to live well. And good food is part of a good life."
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