As you may remember from this time last year, when we visited Naples and uncovered the history of one of the world’s favourite foods – pizza – we like to take a holiday every January in order to cheer ourselves up in the bleak post-Christmas period. After pizza and Italy last year, this time we went to another place known for the universally popular foods that it has given the world: Belgium, specifically the city of Bruges (described in my favourite movie of the last decade as: “canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff”). Of course we there for more than just food, but it was undoubtedly a big part of the appeal.
More than anything, Belgian food is known for chocolate. It’s fair to say that the country, not internationally known for a great deal, will always at least conjure up images of delicious chocolate coated pralines and truffles. In this cocoa-love Bruges shares more than just its scenic, beautifully preserved mediaeval streets with our home town of York and, like York, one of its many tourist attractions is a chocolate story museum. Like all the best museums, it’s one that doesn’t just cater to the visual sense, but also gives you a taste of its exhibits with chocolate demonstrations.
Chocolate isn’t the only foodstuff to earn itself its own museum in Bruges, however. Alongside the Choco-Story and a beer museum, the city also hosts the Frietmuseum, a museum of potato chips. Yes, much like Danish pastries (actually from Austria), so-called French fries are claimed by Belgium as one of the great culinary inventions that they have given to the world. Apparently, the Belgians have been slicing and frying potatoes as chips since the 1600s. It was Americans in the First World War (stationed more in France than Belgian) who brought them back to the States as “French” fries.
As the inventors of this perennial favourite, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Belgians are keen to show it off at any opportunity. Steak and chips (seen in the picture above in a restaurant that had the added novelty of cooking your own meat over a hot stone) are a no brainer, you’d expect that as a serving combination. Mussels, a hugely popular dish in this coastal nation, are also unsurprising – moules frites is after all one of the other dishes that Belgium is known for. Increasingly often, though, it seemed that a big bowl of chips just got brought out whatever was being served.
Big hearty pots of stew (often made with dark Belgian beers) are another popular meal option in Bruges and, even when you have potatoes in the stew already, that doesn’t seem to prevent the restaurant bringing out an enormous bowl of chips easily beyond what one person can eat to accompany what is already a pretty complete meal. You can only assume that Belgium has accumulated some massive chip mountain and is desperate to get rid of it. Being served this steak accompanied instead by a baked potato actually seemed like something of a relief after the endless heaps of chips. But, no, because it too was rapidly accompanied by a separate bowl of fries. I like potatoes. I like potatoes a lot. But I can never really understand the need for a dish to have double potatoes. It’s a starchy excess.
So, is there anything Belgians won’t serve with chips? Let’s return to the Choco-Story museum to answer that. It seems that the country’s two favourite foods may just be too deliciously popular to keep apart…
PREVIOUSLY IN CHIPS:
“There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Edwardian” – A comparison taste test of historic and modern chip frying methods