Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Frites Framework

I haven't written much about Frites recently, which may give the impression that I've been neglecting my research.

That is not the case. I've been quietly building a base of information, positioning myself to fully appreciate the complexities of the Frites situation and developing a framework of knowledge to position any particular Frites experience within the larger gusto-cultural context.

That sounds very high-flown, but the reality is simple. I discovered that Frites -- and Frituurs -- are a real cultural institution in the low countries. And I realised that, absent more experience, my critique of any specific Frites experience must be shallow at best. So I shut up, and did some basic field research.

One of my goals on this trip was to cycle to Lucienne en Eric, a highly-recommended Frituur in Belgium near Maastricht. I decided that I wanted to be more conversant with the cultural context of Frituurs before I visited L&E's. (See the post below, for details of my Lucienne en Erik visit.)

Friends, there is more to the Frites culture than just "gimme some fries". I'll give a brief description of my framework findings here.

First, naturally, the quality of the Frites themselves is paramount -- but good Frites are almost a given in this region. Look for texture, color, evidence of skins, served piping hot, with some 'crispys'. Sadly, not every Frituur hits the mark on all of these. You sometimes find Frites that fail on one or more points and are a bit of a disappointment. Most common problem is in the texture area, particularly with the fries near the bottom of the portion. In general though, you can divide Netherlands' Frites into "Wow, these are good!" and "Hey, not bad at all."

Second is the establishment itself. Frituurs (roughly, "Fry Houses") are divided into two main familes. I'll call them "Let's Eat! Frituurs" and "Neighborhood Institution Frituurs". The first has primarily a one-time, impulse-based clientele (people who are in the city for the day, citizens out for a day's shopping, or tourists visiting the local attractions). The second has primarily a repeat clientele (regulars who stop in frequently, primarily to get take-away Frites as a component of a family or workplace meal). Naturally, the expectations are different for each. For "Let's eat! Frituurs", the key is timeliness: does the Frituur appear at the perfect time, at almost at the exact moment you realize you are getting hungry? Too soon, and you pass it by. Too late, and you've already eaten. If perfectly timed, much can be forgiven on the quality front -- hunger truly is the best sauce. (Though Mayo, Sambal and Satay sauces are also excellent.) For "Neighborhood Institution Frituurs", the key is something else. I'm not certain precisely what, though I feel I'm close to the answer. (More research is required...)

Finally, there is an intangible component, that entails both professionalism and theatre. (I know this is a stretch, but trust me here!)

At this point, and based on my limited sample, I can nominate several Frituurs as truly exceptional:

First place in the "Let's eat!" category: for timeliness, consistent quality (sampled 3 times), and excellent sauces you cannot beat the little Frituur near the church in Haarlem (on Speckstraat?). Plus, they use paper cones rather than plastic trays... a small but telling point in the Frites experience.

First place in the "Neighborhood Institution" category: Martha's Frituur Cafeteria in Maastricht. Frites were excellent, but there are two things in particular that stood out here. First: while restaurants and take-outs on both sides stood empty, Martha's did a steady business (the neighborhood vote was clear). Second: pure genius in presentation. Picture this: Take a regular, medium-size frites container. Fill it up to the max, until Frites slide down and off. Then continue to ladle scoop after scoop of Frites on top, creating a virtual Niagra of Frites cascading over the sides of the tray. Pure genius! Friends, I can tell you, I felt well-fed before I ever got my hands on my Frites! And the server did this with a supremely casual straight face, although it was obvious they knew it was a 'theatre of the absurd' moment.

Finally, I offer the experience below. I won't presume to "grade" this, as the experience itself was part of my loosely-structured goals... but here it is.


  1. You have made a very good observation.
    BTW if one has a good “Fry Shop” and works hard for 15 years. Once can retire very early...

  2. Steve, I haven't read all of your posts yet (not even most of them), but the ones I have read I have very much enjoyed. You're a great "blogger" and it sounds like you had an amazing trip!!