In the first instance, in a petrol-head-turns-potato-head story entitled “Behold the car that smells like French fries, saves money and pollutes less”, the writer described how Canadian Dylan Perceval-Maxwell had successfully weaned his Volkswagen camper van off diesel to run on recycled cooking oil instead.
Indeed, rather than pulling into a forecourt to fill up like the rest of us, Dylan apparently now cruises his local fast food joints for fuel. And, because they are grateful for the opportunity to get rid of the old stuff at no cost to them, the restaurateurs hand over the used oil for free.
Moreover, in Canada, the practice is not taxed because it is not covered under the federal excise tax.
But even more pleasing, says Dylan, is that the car “smells like French fries, which is lot better than the smell of diesel fuel.”
In the second headline-grabbing pommes frites piece, US first lady, Michelle Obama, declared to the world, at a Healthy Kids Fair held on the lawns of the White House, “I have a good relationship with French fries and I would eat them every single day if I could.”
However, as pleased as I was by this positive potato press, it occurred to me that good old potato chips have all but been hijacked by North America. This is not a good thing given the empty, plastic nature of the average potato chip churned out by fast food factories originating in that part of the world.
But, if you think that I am about to defend the French flair of the fry, mais non, you are mistaken. In fact, I am about to offend my Dutch husband by declaring the Belgians the “patat masters” of the world.
On a visit to the gorgeous city of Bruges (or Brugge, as it is known by those with Dutch connections) in the northwest of Belgium some years ago, I was put right by an emphatic – and absolutely persuasive – “fritureur”. (A “friture” or “frietkot” is a stall that sells “patat”, “frites” or “frieten” in paper cones with a selection of toppings. So I infer that a “fritureur” is the operator of a “friture”.)
“Belgium was the first country in the world to fry potatoes,” he stated, handing me a steaming hot funnel filled with thick slabs of potatoes smothered in creamy white mayonnaise. “It happened in about 1680 in the Meuse valley. The poor people there used to accompany most meals with fried fish. But, when the river froze over in winter, they could not fish so they cut potatoes into strips and fried those instead. But then, when those silly British and American soldiers tasted these wonderful frites during World War 1, they called them French just because that was the official language of our army at the time.”
Patat are everywhere in Belgium, which helps make the country the largest per capita consumer of the snack in Europe.
But, in defence of French-style pommes de terres frites, the chip commonly fried by fritures in Belgium and the Netherlands (whose patat culture is similar to that of its neighbour) is very different from the smaller, crisper and lighter versions created in France, which are regularly served as a side dish to many meals.
And the French are serious about the quality of their frites. Chef Alain Passard of Paris’s Michelin-rated L’Arpèg restaurant created more than an unhappy snort when, in 1996, he revealed that he only cooked his pommes frites in horse fat. This, he said, was how he achieved the crispness, golden brown colour, fine fried flavour and lightness required of the real thing.
By contrast, patat are thick, juicy portions of potato, freshly fried, crisp outside, soft inside and generously served with lashings of mayonnaise. (Ask for “patat met” when you want mayonnaise with your portion.) Some fritures offer other toppings including sate, which is the peanut sauce the Dutch adapted during their foray into Indonesia. “Patat met” is a meal on its own.
In South Africa, we adopted patat, called them slap chips and exchanged the mayonnaise for tomato sauce. Some of the real sophisticates among us – indeed, a classy bunch of young KwaZulu-Natalians prevailed during the 1970s – tore a fresh loaf of white bread in half, gutted it, crammed the hollow full of slap chips and called the meal “bunny chow”.
Or perhaps, given SA’s fondness for dousing chips with salt and vinegar, the tradition arrived here from Britain, where the first chip was apparently fried on the site of Oldham’s Tommyfield Market in Greater Manchester in 1860. This was the beginning of that country’s burgeoning fish and chip culture; these days there are more than 11 000 fish and chip shops across Britain.
The history of the chip is not complete without mentioning the introduction, in the 1970s, of pre-made, frozen chips. And, let’s face it; the product saves a great deal of time and effort. Moreover, in recent years, the variety of cuts has increased drastically, as has the quality. These days you can choose chunky fries, steak fries, shoestring fries, thick-cut fries, crinkle fries, wedges, straight fries, waffle fries, steak fries and a number of other variations I may have missed. You can even buy microwaveable frozen chips, which I have found to be barely palatable.
The tastiest chips however, if you are not in Belgium, are those that you make yourself from fresh potatoes such as Calibra, Caren, Charlie, Dawn, Devlin, Eryn, Ropedi, Up-to-date and Vanderplank. Prepare them as follows:
Peel and chip the potatoes to the thickness you prefer. For even frying, make sure that all chips are a standard size and thickness. As you cut them, put the potatoes in water to prevent discolouration and to soak out some of the starch. Drain and dry them well before frying. This is essential to ensure a crisp finish, as the potato strips will absorb more fat if their surfaces are moist.
For best results, chips should be fried in two stages. Pre-fry them in oil preheated to 170ºC for about six minutes. This draws the starch to the outside of the potato and seals in the moisture, which is crucial to create a soft, moist centre. Then take the chips out of the oil and toss them to avoid clumping. Drain them on paper towels and allow them to cool.
Turn the oil up to 190ºC and, just before serving, fry the cool chips for about two minutes until they are crisp and golden brown. Do not add too many potatoes to the fryer at once. This lowers the temperature, which causes the potatoes to absorb too much oil and prevents crisping. Shake the frying chips a couple of times to separate them. Remember, chips get soggier faster once you have sprinkled salt on them. Salt them only when they are about to be eaten.
Do not re-use oil to fry chips too frequently. Aside from negatively affecting the flavour of the chips, it is not considered healthy. And why risk the quality of your chips and your health, when you could – with a bit of inventiveness – use the old oil to run your car?
(First published in The Weekender.)