Wednesday, April 3, 2013

All About the Fries

Here's a tip - don't go to Belgium and ask for French fries.  Definitely go to Belgium, however, and eat a lot of fries.  And chocolate.  And waffles, unless you are traveling during Passover.

We spent two days in Belgium last week - one day in Gent and one in Bruges.  Both are small to medium-sized towns about a 3 hour drive from Paris, and 30 minutes from one another.  Both boast beautiful Flemish architecture and winding canals.
Gent, Belgium
Bruges, Belgium

Our first activity upon arriving to Gent was lunch. We picked the first place we came across, with a full menu of salads, omelettes, toasts, pastas, etc.  What most of our crew really wanted was fries, but when we asked if they had any fries, the woman said no.

"No?" we asked incredulously.

The woman explained that they were not licensed to serve fries because in order to do so, they would be required to have a specific fry chef and be a "real" restaurant.  We looked around and saw tables, chairs, tablecloths, and the full menu.  This is not a restaurant in Belgium?  And what on earth is a fry chef?

The mystery was only furthered when we stopped at a fry shop and were duly served by a sullen 20-something girl who most certainly did not appear to have any kind of chef credentials.  She was the only person working in the shop.   Outside there was a sign indicating that this shop has a "master fryer" but apparently he (or she) was not in the greasy shop populated by teenagers.
What's more delicious - Belgian fries, or Mademoiselle?

Even the Friet Museum (yes, a museum entirely dedicated to fries) in Bruges did not answer this question, though it did offer more information about the potato than you could possibly imagine.  For instance, you can massage potato slices on your nose every night to help get rid of shiny skin.  Also, potatoes were once considered a food of the devil because they came from the ground.  Belgian fries are, according to the Friet Museum, the best fries in the world.  That is possible, and equally possible is that the Friet Museum is the only museum in the world where in addition to a gift shop there is a fry shop.  And your entrance ticket gives you a discount on fries!

One important lesson we learned during this family vacation is that we are actually terrible at caravaning.  We had two cars, and theoretically one car would follow the other.   On the first day in Gent, we lost each other before we exited the hotel parking lot.  And my visiting family did not have a working cell phone.  The hotel clerk had told us generally where to park in the city and although that parking lot was full, we managed to somehow find each other anyway.   That was lucky, and we resolved to do much better the next day.
Baby Oil and his uncles explore the Castle of the Counts in Gent

So when we left for Bruges the next morning, we naturally lost each other before we left the parking lot.  Again.  This time the meet-up did not go as smoothly, in large part because the other car did not actually have a map.  We were supposed to meet a tour guide in the market square at 10:00am.  But my family never showed, and at almost 11 we decided we would start the tour without them.

Through some remarkable coincidence, we happened to walk over a bridge next to Bruges' famous "Lake of Love" when a boat tour cruised by on the canal.  We looked at the boat, and there was my family!  Our afternoon was thus spent all together as any afternoon in Belgium should be - touring the Chocolate Museum and the Fry Museum, and eating copious amounts of Belgian chocolate and Belgian fries.  It's not like French chocolate is anything to sneeze at - it's amazing.  But simply crossing that border gave us free rein to indulge in the not-exactly-exotic world of Belgian chocolate (which according to the Belgians, naturally, is the best chocolate in the world).

Our hotel was in a glamorous spot just off the main highway into Gent, and across the street from some sort of industrial factory.  It probably produces chemicals or detergent or something really boring, but Baby Oil pronounced after examining the factory out the window of our hotel room that "it is a factory making chocolate for [Baby Oil]!"  Ah, the optimism of youth.

On the third day, my family went on to Luxembourg and we headed back to Paris via Fresnoy-le-Grand.  If you've never heard of this town, you are in good company as it is squarely in the middle of nowhere.  But it is home to the Le Creuset factory and the Le Creuset factory store.  After driving for a good 30 minutes on country roads surrounded by quiet, lush fields, a number of World War I cemeteries, and remarkably little civilization, we found Fresnoy-le-Grand.  Turning onto the Rue Olivier De Guise, I was not at all convinced we were in the right place.  But then we saw a really big building that could pass as a factory, and at the end of the street was a small white house. 

From the parking lot, this is what you see:

And this is the store:

But then you walk in the incredibly inauspicious doors:

to this:

Hello Le Creuset!  Everything in the store is 30%-50% off.  And if you even try to suggest that these are the same deals that can be found at other Le Creuset outlets (I have no idea if this is true or not, but Mr. Oil foolishly brought it up), I will strongly argue that you are wrong. Regardless of facts.  And now I have a beautiful Le Creuset pot bought just feet from the factory in scenic Fresnoy-le-Grand, France.  Well, it's possible I have a beautiful large pot, 4 beautiful smaller pots, 4 beautiful mini pots, 1 beautiful serving dish, and some really nice spatulas.  I may have gone a tad overboard (no comment, Mr. Oil, if you please). 

Fries, chocolate, and Le Creuset.  That is my kind of trip!