A French Fry Enthusiast Visits the Only French Fries Museum in the World
When in Bruges, there's only one thing for a lover of hot potato sticks to do: Visit the Frietmuseum.
Photo courtesy of the Frietmuseum
I'm in Bruges.
It's a little Belgian city 55 minutes, £36, 101 km, and two packets of shortbread biscuits from Brussels. It has some of the best preserved medieval architecture in Europe, a few exquisite cathedrals, and an economy almost exclusively run on beer, chocolate, lace, and tourism from the 2008 Colin Farrell film In Bruges. Its 14th to 17th century architecture is so historically significant, the entire city is World Heritage listed by UNESCO. Five million people visit each year to climb the 366 stairs to the top of the Belfy Tower and wander through cobbled streets that smell like hops and waffles.
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But my lifelong friend Luke and I aren't there for the history. There are 27 museums in Bruges and there's only one we need to see: The world's first—and only— museum devoted to french fries.
The Frietmuseum ("fries museum" in Dutch) is the world's only establishment dedicated to the history of potato consumption, with particular attention paid to the famous hot potato stick. Its bright mustard-yellow decor is built somewhat incongruously into the shell of a beautiful 14th century building called the Saahiale, located just off the main city square.
Luke and I are dedicated potato enthusiasts. Our mothers were best friends when they were our age, gave birth to us within two months of one another, and then dreamed these past 27 years that one day we would set out to explore the world together.
They both raised us with a profound respect for potatoes, so much so that when we were asked to dress as our favorite foods for a primary school parade, I made an enormous roast potato costume. Luke and I were recently asked to leave a London pub for smuggling in externally made traditional french fries. We're serious about potatoes. It wasn't TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, or even Colin Farrell who truly brought us to the Frietmuseum. It was destiny.
The museum was founded by a dynamic father-son duo called Cédric and Eddy Van Belle. They also run a domestic lamp museum and a chocolate museum, both in Bruges, making them very specific museum moguls—and lords of the fries—in their medieval town.
We progress through a series of small rooms sparsely decorated with potato paraphernalia. Potataphernalia, if you will.
When I write to Cédric Van Belle in search of a little background on his French fries museum, he writes back: "Dear, Yes, it is the only one in the world. But we prefer to say belgian fries :p." That typographical smiley face is loaded with disdain, I just know. Note to anyone who wishes to visit this museum: When in Belgium, french fries are Belgian fries.
Van Belle tells me that 80,000 people visit the Frietmuseum each year. When Luke and I arrive at the entrance, walk past two human-sized sculptures of fries, and pay our seven euro each, it's virtually empty past the yellow turnstile gates. A video plays on loop of a couple who make musical instruments out of root vegetables. We watch it with genuine delight at least three times and vow that if neither of us gets married, we will retire here and start a sweet potato band. In the first room, one child runs past us, clearly on a high-speed journey straight to the shop at the end where you can buy fries at a discount price of 3 euro. Other that that, there's a deeply reverent silence in each room as you walk tentatively through the displays of potato art and trivia.
As we look past the hanging potato mobile (strung together on thick wire and suspended in the middle of the first room to demonstrate the diversity of potato types), we see two mannequins in Peruvian clothes. They're collecting potatoes in their native land some 10,000 years ago—the first time the museum says humans used for potatoes for nourishment. Sure.
Luke and I obviously find the existence of this museum, its delicious smell, and the crude historical reenactment displays inherently hilarious. But 10 minutes into our visit, we realize we've been speaking in stage whispers out of respect for our potato-farming ancestors. We stifle our giggles for the same reason as we progress through a series of small rooms sparsely decorated with potato paraphernalia. Potataphernalia, if you will.
This museum isn't about history, it's about love. The great love between a human and her fried potato snacks.
The ground floor is more or less dedicated to the first few centuries of potato existence, punctuated by bright comic strips aimed at children. When I finally get my hands on a pamphlet at the end of our journey, I notice there are school trips and excursions available. Keeping in mind that fries are apparently an important national symbol, and the smell of deep-fryers preparing an endless supply of fries is a teacher's only real hope of controlling hordes of school kids, this seems like a kind of great idea.
By this stage, Luke and I are hungry. We proceed up some stairs, not any wiser about the history of the potato but too hungry to care. The second floor is fitted out with enormous french fry sculptures, a little green chip hut that houses a few old deep fryers and a possibly-converted toy wagon posing as a traditional portable chip station (several of which are functioning canteens outside on the streets in Bruges; none of which are this small).
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But the french fry experience has made me, a grown-up adult woman playing at a tiny toy wagon with plastic yellow fries, happy. This is when I realize what I should have known all along; this museum isn't about history, it's about love. The great love between a human and her fried potato snacks.
But before you can get in on any delicious action involving actually eating fries, you have to inexplicably make your way through a walkway housing several different artistic interpretations of giant fries but otherwise serving no discernible purpose. After solemnly reading a sign about the National Order of the Gold Cornet, which was established to pay homage to great leaders of Belgian potato culture, we come across a somewhat confrontational placard that throws everything we knew about Belgian fries into staggering doubt.
As Luke and I make our way to collect our cones of piping hot Belgian fries and matching Frietmuseum t-shirts, we ponder this: "There is no scientific or historical proof relating to the origin of fries." We're in fits of laughter but leave respectfully quietly, reflecting on potatoes and life. We walk out of the world's only french fries museum with a single, important lesson:
Never let a lack of scientific or historical proof of something get in the way of a good two-storey, 17th century museum.