I’m just a tad cynical when people, communities or countries claim to have “invented” a recipe. Quite honestly, individuals, communities, regions and countries – who before globalisation had limited or no contact with each other – all dabbled, experimented and fiddled with food. If they could grow the same kind of food and rear the same kind of animals many came up with some pretty similar ideas on how to improve texture, flavours and tastes. Which, brings me on to frietjes. Practically everyone I know in Belgium – particularly the children – are most indignant that a dish as delectable, loved and eaten all over the world as a chip is often referred to as a “French” not “Belgian” fry. For, – as anyone who has visited these parts knows – the Belgians claim to be the true inventor of the fry. In their cook book “Belgo” Denis Blaise and André Plisnier make a compelling case why there might just be some truth in this assertion. In reality the chances are that wherever a spud was cultivated people spontaneously came up with the idea of deep frying them in some fat. Shapes may have varied but the essential idea remains the same. Cut the potatoes in finger shaped pieces and deep-fry. In the UK we like to drench our “chips” in vinegar (yum) and gravy (what? I hear non-Brits say?!). I just love this video from Pulp Fiction where “Vince” and “Jules” are bemused by the idea the Dutch (like the Belgians) drown their “frietjes” in mayonnaise.
Lots and lots of large, floury potatoes.
Lard or beef drippings or goose fat
Sadly, in recent years, chips (in the UK), fries (in the US), frietjes (in Dutch), pommes frites (in French) have been falsely accused of being killer food. Rubbish! Frietjes prepared the traditional way are not unhealthy if they are eaten as part of a balanced diet. The biggest tragedy – and this makes me really want to hang my head and weep – is that our traditional animal fats have all been wiped out and replaced with cheap, processed, modern, novel, highly dubious vegetable fats – and peddled by the food industry as “safer” and “healthier” than our much-loved traditional, heritage fats. Belgian butchers – like many across Europe – used to sell packets of lard or beef drippings, which was melted into casserole pots to be used for frying chips or croquettes. After use the fat would be sieved for any food residue until it was clear again, covered with a lid and reused two or three times before being discarded. Lard was packaged in red. Beef drippings in blue. Rondou’s abandoned selling these fats years ago when everyone became scared of “saturated” fats. You can still get lard if you ask for it at Rondous. Filip and Siona told me they’d just thrown away a stack load of his father’s lard and drippings packaging. No one – not even in frietje friendly Belgium – ask for it anymore. Yet I can promise you that if you use lard or drippings your chip will taste 100 % better.
Peel and cut the frietjes to size. (I like to borrow my father-in-laws “friet cutter”. Very handy if you can get hold of one. Brilliant for cutting similar sized fingers and it goes much quicker than cutting endless potatoes individually.)
Leave the cut pieces to soak in water with a tea-spoon of salt for up to an hour. Drain and rinse the starch from the potatoes. Be sure to pat the chips dry with some kitchen paper or tea-towel to get a crispier end effect.
Frying in a casserole pot is a thing of the past. Practically everyone I know here owns a fat-fryer. The traditional frietje is fried in two goes. First at 150 degrees centigrade. Then it is removed, patted dry with a kitchen towel and cooled in the fridge for up to an hour. Then the fries are fried a second time at 175 degrees centigrade for four minutes. As I say, the Belgians have very sophisticated machines for their beloved frietjes these days that regulate temperature and smell. Most people I know, however, no longer fry in animal fats. There is no doubt that deep-fat frying gives a highly pleasing texture and taste but for the various reasons set out above I’ve decided to adapt the traditional recipe slightly and roast them in animal fat rather than deep frying them in a pan.
Spread the chips evenly over an oiled baking tray and add three to four table-spoons of goose fat, lard or beef drippings. Sprinkle with salt & pepper. If you want to can chop some rosemary and thyme finely and sprinkle over the chips. This is the kind of thing I love but which drives my children crazy who like it nice and simple with just salt and pepper! You decide. Place the prepared chips in a baking try and roast in a pre-heated oven for around 45 minutes, turning occasionally to brown them evenly.
I know from experience that when ever anyone makes frietjes the cook spends the meal standing in the kitchen preparing yet another batch of frietjes whilst everyone else has a merry time wolfing down a fresh batch within seconds. Where normally a family of six might be happy to eat 1.5 kg of boiled potatoes – when it comes to frietjes 5 kg of potatoes is never enough. Everyone clamours for more and more and more ….! If you intend to make these for a lot of people you better get peeling!