In the world’s only museum dedicated to the potato, Aruna Chandaraju delves into the tuber’s 10,000-year history.
You got to be careful before ordering French fries in Belgium. I mean saying “French” when ordering potato crispies. The Belgians may be offended. They believe these fries originated in Belgium and will offer lots of theories as proof. A popular story is they were wrongly attributed to the French because American soldiers who had arrived in Belgium (during World War I) tasted the fries and labelled them French since that was the official language then of the Belgian army. And, regrettably, the name has stuck since then, they say.
Belgians will also tell you with pride that these fries and the legendary Belgian chocolates are the most famous products of their country’s culinary expertise. Whichever theory you believe in, you have to hand it to the Belgians when it comes to celebrating potato crispy. Bruges (a.k.a Brugge) in Belgium houses the world’s first and perhaps only museum dedicated to potato fries.
Did you ask how much can one say or show about the potato? A whole museum? Well, then you have to visit Frietmuseum. Spread across its several rooms are numerous exhibits which have a great deal to tell you about potatoes, fries, various accompaniments, and related stuff.
Moreover, the museum is one of the city’s most aesthetically appealing buildings. The Saaihalle is an imposing multi-storied structure which dates from the 14th century and includes some of the original stuff, carefully preserved. Inside the museum are around 400 ancient objects. Inca vases from the pre-Columbian period and the ones representing potato varieties are the oldest items. On the front wall is engraved the oldest date in the city.
To think that the humble potato has a 10,000-year-old history! It is so dated because wild potatoes were found in the ancient tombs of Chile and Peru, strengthening the belief that wild potatoes were being cultivated and consumed in this part of the world ages ago. The museum traces the path of the potato from Peru to Europe including Belgium, the country where the fries were born.
The Peru Room displays Peruvian “huacos” from the 15th and 16th centuries. Another room reveals that there are 4,000 potato varieties found in Peru, and gives details. There is a display that tells you that Belgian fries were born when inhabitants of a certain region in the country who depended on small fish for food, found the river had frozen and hence fishing had become dangerous. So they cut potatoes in the shape of small fish, fried them and made do with these instead.
We saw a collection of potato cutters, and then the Gothic Room which displays various kinds of old machines and equipment used to peel, cut/slice and fry potatoes.
There is also a representation of the potato fry as depicted through the ages in art, in comics, and in Bruges. Elsewhere you are told about the origin of several sauces. A large display describes the composition and growth of the potato, its production around the world, the diseases it is prone to, etc. Celebrities who contributed to the evolution/promotion of potato fries like Antoine Parmentier receive space in Frietmuseum.
If you like it movie-style, there is a room where you can sit down and see a film on how potatoes are grown, harvested and then turned into fries.
The museum is a creation of the families Cedric and Eddy Van Belle who are also credited with other interesting museums in Bruges — the domestic lighting museum called Lumina Domestica and the popular Belgian chocolate museum, Choco Story.
The basement area — a medieval cellar — houses a cafeteria where you can sit down and eat golden, crisp potato fries with complementary sauces and along with a few typical Belgian dishes like meat balls and beef stew. Not much for vegetarians here. Even the fries that were offered were declined by us as they had been made in oil containing beef fat.
However, the managers assured us that, very soon, an oil with vegetarian fats would be introduced. After all, vegetarianism is very slowly, but very surely catching on in Belgium with neighbouring Ghent city now being touted as the vegetarian capital of Europe, and where “Veggie Thursdays” are celebrated with official sanction and participation. But that is another story.