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My secret life: slow fast food
I must have walked past Frit Flagey thousands of times without ever dreaming it was part of the heritage of mankind. It just looked to me like an aluminium shack where students waited patiently in line on cold November nights to fill up with twice-fried chipped potatoes topped with a dollop of something chemical.
But then I read in a local newspaper that Bernard Lefèvre, president of the Belgian union of frites makers, had launched a campaign to persuade UNESCO to add Belgian frites to its list of world heritage.
Blimey, I thought. This would put Frit Flagey on the same level as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. But I had made a fundamental mistake, almost as foolish as ordering a helping of pili pili sauce.
The proposed plan was to add frites to the list of immaterial world heritage. That would mean ranking Belgian fried potatoes alongside such venerable traditions as “the music of the Bakhshis of Khorasan” or “the gastronomic meal of the French”.
The owner of Friterie Max in Antwerp, who maintains a small frites museum above his shop, was invited to give his opinion. “It goes without saying that our frites deserve to be included on that prestigious list,” he ruminated. “But be careful,” he added, “We are not speaking here only of the frite and friteries. No, we are talking about our culture of fritology.”
Well, that sounded serious. So I decided to take a closer look at my local fritologist down on Place Flagey. This involved putting on my oldest pair of trousers and a jacket that had seen better days. Otherwise, from past experience, I’d have to factor in a trip to the dry cleaners to remove the mayonnaise stain from my best suit.
It was lunchtime when I arrived at Frit Flagey. I waited in line. There were eight people in front of me, including two cool young students who looked as if they must have come from La Cambre fashion school.
The queue moved slowly. This is the slowest fast food in the world, I mused. Finally, my turn came. I asked Thierry, the owner, for a portion of frites, small, and a topping of mayonnaise. He lifted out a wire mesh basket filled with freshly-fried frites, banged it several times to shake off the excess fat and dropped the golden frites into a metal pot.
Then he unfolded a cardboard cone. It looked small to me. I was wondering if I should have ordered a large portion. But then he picked up a sheet of greaseproof paper, wrapped the paper around the cone to make a larger cone and scooped frites into the cone until it was about half full.
He then added salt. Followed by frites. Followed by more salt. The he picked out a substandard frite and tossed it in the bin. Next, he added a generous squirt of mayonnaise and placed the cone in a round hole on a wooden stand. And then, in a final beautiful flourish, he stabbed a blue plastic spoon into the mayonnaise.
And that, I think, demonstrates why the Belgian frite deserves to take its place on the list of world heritage, alongside long French lunches and the lost music of Iran.
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