A History of Belgian Frites
“‘The frite is an intangible cultural heritage. It is a tradition that [Belgians] have frites once a week. We are asking people to increase that moment of joy an extra time in the week’, said Romain Cools, Belgapom [world’s largest exporter of frozen fries] secretary-general.”
–The Financial Times, commenting on piles of produce, normally served in restaurants, amassing during the coronavirus lockdown, May 2020
Following my post on Belgian frites, I found the history of the Belgian frite was a minefield of controversy, misunderstandings and vying between neighbouring nations. I am grateful and honoured when, Hugues Henry, founder of the Musée de la Frite and author of Carrément Frites (Ed. Renaissance du Livre), the first serious book written in French about Belgian frites and its culture, agreed to be a Saucy Dressings guest contributor.
Below he unravels the misinformation, and clarifies history’s murky waters on the subject, giving us a fuller and more accurate account of the history of Belgian frites.
The Musée de la Frite is hosting an exhibition of paintings of frites trucks and stalls which opens today, September 16, 2016. After tonight’s private view the exhibition is open, free, to the public every first week-end of the month or by appointment.
So what’s the real story of Belgian frites?
It’s a very big question!
In the mid-eighties, the Belgian historian, Jo Gérard (RIP), proudly announced that he’d discovered an old family manuscript from the end of the eighteenth century describing an old folk tradition from the end of the previous century originating from somewhere close to the city of Namur. According to the manuscript it was the custom for poor people of the region to fry small fish, but when the river iced over the could no longer fish for this treat so they began to fashion potatoes into the same shape and fry these ‘vegetable fish’ in their place.
Well, it all sounded very plausible, but on closer inspection the story doesn’t really hold up. For a start, no one has ever actually seen this manuscript. Then there’s the consideration that animal fat was very expensive at that time so it seems unlikely that poor people would have wantonly wasted such a precious commodity on frying potatoes. The final nail in the coffin of the veracity of this tale is the fact that the potato hadn’t actually reached the family tables of the locals of Namur in the seventeenth century.
So to find the real origin of Belgian frites we are better off looking carefully through research undertaken by Pierre Leclercq, a Belgian historian of gastronomy. His research was undertaken several years ago, when the Musée and Bibliothèque de la Gourmandise (in Hermalle-sous-Huy) invited him to investigate the origins of the frite, and more particularly, the Belgian frite, that is to say the fried STICK of patato.
Pierre Leclercq took a different line of investigation, looking into the life of a German, a Herr Krieger.
In the first part of the nineteenth century, Herr Krieger moved from his homeland to Paris in order to learn how to cook. And from Paris he went to Belgium – where he remained until death – wondering from one fair to another, and one city to another, selling his fritures and pommes de terre frites, made according to the method learnt in Paris. But pommes de terre frites are not frites!
Bear in mind that Pommes de terre frites are potatoes cut into slices and then fried, sometimes in butter – a far cry from authentic frites which have to be fried in animal fat and which have a characteristic stick shape.
Nevertheless, it was our Herr Krieger who, in a Belgian town, was to give birth to the modern day frite.
Leclercq spent months tracing the comings and goings of Herr Krieger. He began by examining communal registers because in those days fair grounds had to register in every town they visited. Then he looked in contemporary local newspapers, because Herr Krieger wasn’t just a good cook – he was also a talented marketer and, helpfully, published advertisements announcing his fried specialities in whichever city he happened to be plying his wares.
It was thanks to the advertisements that Leclercq discovered that Herr Krieger had changed his name to Mr Fritz and that, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, he’d become famous for his friture. He married a Belgian Flemish woman who became Mrs Fritz, billed by Mr Fritz’ marketing genius as the doyenne de la friture.
Then Leclercq discovered further, significant, evidence of Mr Fritz’ gift for marketing. He found the cook, inspired by politics, was developing new ways of selling his pommes de terre frites. Mr Fritz had been following the progress of the Crimean war and in 1854 he began calling the larger size of his pommes de terre frites ‘Russe’, and the smaller size, ‘Cosaque’. Leclercq comments that by doing so he may have marked a turning point in culinary history because in order to make his smaller cosaques he may have decided to change the way he cut his potatoes – from round slices to sticks – in order to imitate the shape of soldiers. There is an analogy with the so-called ‘mouillettes’ – bread cut in rectangular shapes – known in families throughout Belgium, France and the UK as ‘soldiers’ (ie the ‘marmite soldiers’ commonly served to children with a boiled egg).
One of the descendants of those fairground families, Dimitri Daskalides, who has also carried out his own extensive research into nineteenth century fairs, broadly agrees with Pierre Leclercq’s hypothesis. He agrees that Herr Krieger-Fritz was the creator of today’s frites, and that the invention occurred in Belgium, but, for purely pragmatic reasons, he doesn’t agree with the Crimean war hypothesis. He argues that Mr and Mrs Fritz were having so much success with their pommes de terre frites that they needed to find a way to increase and facilitate production, hence, some years earlier, around 1845, they began to cut their potatoes into sticks instead of slices. Sticks are easier and faster to fry and serve. The frite was born.
So the Belgian-born frite was developed by a German who had learnt to cook in Paris. It may be a famous icon of Belgium, but it incorporates other cultures too – like many other Belgian innovations.