February 28, 2008

Pommes Frites, commonly called “Frites”:
What a treat, when they are made the right way.

But lots of doubts still exist about the “French” origin of their American cousins, the so-called “French fries”.

Ah Stéphane... your question a few weeks ago about your difficulty to find good ‘’fries’’ in the Bay Area that would be as good as those ‘’ frites’’ that you eat in French restaurants brought back many fond images and memories into my poor half-frozen (from our Chicago very cold winter) brain.
As a matter of fact it is true that nowadays it is not that easy to find very good ‘’frites”, made the traditional way, in American restaurants. Most of them use frozen fries, which does not mean that they cannot generate decent fries. As a matter of fact, it is also the case in most French restaurants.
About 12 years ago, we were visiting a very amusing flea-market in Montpellier, France where we were on vacation. At one point your brother Théo complained that he was hungry and thirsty. So I went to the concession at the end of the market, a simple trailer, and ordered some ‘’frites’’ and a coke. And of course we could not help but stealing a few fries from him. They were so good that I immediately went back to the food concession to buy some more, and both your mother and me agreed that they were the best fries we had since we arrived in France. So I asked the manager of the concession if they were freshly cut fries. He said: "are you kidding... we do not have the time to cut fries ourselves. We buy them frozen". So I asked him who was his supplier. He took me to the garbage container behind the trailer and said ‘’ Here is the empty carton, read by yourself’’. I read and I could not believe what I saw:
"Made by Mc Cain, Illinois, USA..." Coming to France to eat American frozen fries; That was quite a shock. But perhaps those good fries were produced in France where Mc Cain has some of its largest European plants

Speaking of fries sold by street vendors: When I was about 12 year-old, my mother decided that it was time for me to learn how to defend myself since I was the subject of too frequent attacks by bullies at school who enjoyed kicking and punching my, at the time relatively frail, body for various reasons.
So she sent me to take judo lessons 2 times a week after classes from an older man, who had a ‘’black belt’’ ranking in that sport. He lived in an apartment about 20 minutes walking from our house in Reims. I detested those lessons, but... if I had a few coins in my pocket , I bought myself a nice treat on my way back home. After I left the man’s place I had to cross a bridge over some railroad tracks, Le Pont de Laon. I would run on the bridge knowing that at the end of it was TOTO FRITES’place. It was one of these small trailers, much smaller than their pizza counterparts in French southern villages, where a gruff man, Toto, who was always smoking a cigarette and whose nails were as black as a piece of coal, was cutting, washing, drying and frying potatoes that were very greasy, but incredibly tasty. In fact even Today they still rate in my memory among the best I ever ate in my life. This type of mini-trailer which was in fact stuck for good on jacks and no longer had wheels, was called a ‘’baraque à frites’’, and every town in Northern and North-East France had many of them. Toto’s baraque was poorly lit by a kerosene lamp, whose fumes added to the marvelous odor of the bubbling ‘’friture’’ that you could smell 300 yards away.
Toto served his beauties in a paper cone made from pages from the local newspaper, ‘’l’Union’’, and after I added more salt from the big tin shaker available on the counter, I would eat them as fast as I could before the grease would run through the newsprint. Boy, were they good. Sort of thicker-cut that the average ‘’frites’’ that we ate when we went to the carnival on the nearby ‘’Place du Boulingrin’’, but much tastier.
My mother who once discovered my secret when I came to the dinner table with my mouth still shiny from the grease, yelled at me for eating such bad food, and explained to me that they were probably fried in a mixture of cheap animal fats, like ‘’saindoux’’ (lard), beef fat or suet, and perhaps horse fat. In any case it was not good for me, even though in 1952 the word Cholesterol was nowhere to be found in the Larousse dictionary. My father, who was born in Northern France near the Belgian border from a Belgian father, and who lived part of his adolescence in Antwerp, loved ‘’pommes frites’’ like all Belgians do. He would come to my defense and argued with l my mother that if she would prepare ‘’frites’’ more often I would not have to buy cheap and poor quality ones from dirty street vendors. He also told us that whenever he was in that neighborhood near the Pont de Laon he would himself have a ‘’cornet de frites ’’ chez Toto.
Just thinking about it make me drool and I can hear in my head the marvelous song ‘’ Un cornet de frites’’ that Yves Montand sang so nicely in the early fifties.
Anyways. My mother made some beautiful pan-sautéed potatoes, but the rare times when she accepted to make ‘’frites’’, they were of a very different style: light, crunchy, good but not greasy enough for me . My nutrition-conscious mother would fry them in a traditional black metal fryer in either ‘’Vegetaline’’, the equivalent of Crisco, or ‘’huile d’arachide’’ (peanut oil), like they have been done in most French restaurants and families since 1947. Peanut oil in those days was produced in some French African colonies, and was not as expensive as it is now, especially in the U.S.
Nevertheless, after the actual frying was done, she would let the fat cool down and somewhat solidify at the top if it was Vegetaline, which allowed the ‘’graillons’’, these tiny particles of burnt fat and potatoes, to get up to the surface and to be removed easily. Then she would cover the fryer and it would stay that way in the pantry until the next ‘’friture’’.

Personally I use peanut oil when making ‘’pommes de terre sautées’’ at home. But your mother's delicious "frites" are in fact "fausses frites" since, once she has cut hem with a knife, she put them in a bowl containing and mix them well in a mix of 3 Tb of Greek olive oil and garlic salt. Once they are well impregnated but not soaking wet, she lay them on a baking sheet and bake them in the oven, at 425 degrees , for about 20-25 minutes, turning them over once.

The other great frites of my youth were found at ‘’ Chez Francis’’, a French brasserie that was on the opposite sidewalk of my grand-parents building on the Boulevard James Fazy in Geneva, Switzerland. They were served ‘’à volonté’’ (as much as you could eat), as a vegetable accompaniment to their marvelous ‘’entrecôtes’’ (rib-eye steaks). Between 1950 and 1970, I probably ate thousands of these golden-hued thin ‘’pommes-frites’’ that were never greasy, slightly crispy outside and soft inside as they should be, and always kept hot on their tin plate that was put on a small ‘’meta’’ burning dish-warmer in the middle of the table.

Some years later in Paris, in the mid-sixties, I found the same kind of perfect ‘’frites’’ at L’Entrecôte, Rue de Verneuil in the 7th arrondissement. It was the same formula as Chez Francis in Geneva, with the same ‘’frites à volonté’’ placed on their dish-warmer. I do not think that the original Parisian ‘’Entrecôte’’ still exist in 2007, or it has probably changed ownership many times. But I thought it was reborn in America when some summers ago, your mother and I had a delightful steak with ‘’frites à volonté’’ in San Francisco. The restaurant was called ‘’Café de Paris L’Entrecôte’’, on Union St., and the fries were almost as good as at the original "Entrecote" restaurant in Paris. But I learned that in fact their model was in Geneva, Switzerland, and that they had an exclusive right to use the original recipe for the famous butter sauce of the entrecôte that was created in 1941 at the Cafe de Paris... in Geneva precisely.

During my last year of college, in Paris, the famished and poor student that I was at the time in 1963 used to go to '' Les Palmiers", Rue des Halles at the heart of what was then ‘’Les Halles’’, the huge and lively vegetable, fruit, and meat central market of Paris, just north of la Place du Chatelet. There I would eat enormous "saucisse de Toulouse" (pork sausage) sandwiches with ‘’pommes-frites’’. The frites would be placed above the sausage inside the open piece of fresh baguette. It was greasy but delicious and comforting after an evening spent working on a philosophy essay due the next morning at La Sorbonne. In Northern France, this very popular type of sandwich is called "Un Américain Saucisse''.

In recent years, when I was craving for traditional “pommes frites” I would go to La Biche Au Bois, Avenue Ledru-Rollin, near the Gare de Lyon in the 12th arrondissement. And if I did not have the time to go that far from my regular Paris home-base in the 15th arrondissement, I would be happy with a side order of frites with my ‘’Salade Auvergnate ‘’ (that includes country ham, and Cantal cheese) at my local regular neighborhood café-restaurant ‘’ A la Tour Eiffel’’, Rue du Commerce in the 15th. (see ‘’My French Gourmet Vacation’’ on this blog for details). And I have a pleasant memory of the frites at ‘’ Le Chien qui fume’’ in the old Les Halles district.
I haven't gone there in years , but I understand that the ‘’pommes frites’’ at the good old Bouillon Chartier, an old- style restaurant for employees of the nearby businesses Rue du Faubourg Montmartre in the 9th are still good.
Most old-fashioned "brasseries" and large " traditional bistrots" like Chez Georges and Gallopin in the 2nd arrondissement, Terminus Nord and Brasserie Flo, in the 10th , La Coupole in the 14th, Thoumieux in the 7th, Balzar and La Closerie des Lilas in the 5th, La Rotisserie d'en Face in the 6th, Le Ballon des Ternes and another Chez Georges in the 17th, Le Boeuf Couronné in the 19th, used to have very decent fries. But I cannot garantee that it is still the case in 2008.

In Chicago, when I arrived in January of 1970, my favorite fries were served with a very good hamburger at the long defunct Brief Encounter, a small but very clean and pleasant store-front diner in the 360 North Michigan building. They were thin-cut but always well fried and not soggy. But the best ‘’pommes frites’’ I ever tasted were at Le Bastille restaurant that unfortunately closed its doors forever in the mid-eighties.
You will find here below a list of some restaurants that still offer good ‘’pommes frites’’, made the right way that I will explain later.






Grandson Sebastien enjoying his fries at the brasserie "A la Tour Eiffel" in Paris during our summer vacation last July

So, what exactly are real ‘’ Pommes de Terre Frites’’ and where do they come from?

Real ‘’pommes frites’’ should be called "pommes de terre frites" (fried potatoes)
are pieces of potatoes cut in elongated sticks about 1 cm thick from a relatively large tuber with a high level of solid dry matter like a Bintje in Europe, or a Russet from Idaho or Wisconsin in the U.S. Once they are cut, with a butcher knife or a special fries cutter, in a very consistent length and thickness, the fries are washed in cold water for a few minutes to remove as much starch as possible from their surface. Then they are dried thoroughly in a cloth or paper towels. They are pre-cooked (a little more than blanched) in a bath of frying oil, like peanut oil, at a temperature of around 328 degrees F or 165 degrees C for 6 or 7 minutes. Then they are removed to a strainer. The final frying is done for about 5 minutes once the oil temperature reaches 356 degrees F or 180 degrees C. When they are nicely colored, they should be removed from the fryer and immediately drained and blotted on several layers of paper towels. Then they are salted and served very hot. If they are eaten while they are still hot, they will remain crusty outside and soft inside and will be light, not greasy, and easier to digest, since the moisture will not have the time to come out from inside the potatoes through steam and make them slightly soggy and greasier.
Most food historians agree on the fact that the idea of frying the potatoes in two successive baths of fat, comes originally from Belgium. And most connoisseurs still think that the best Belgian fries are fried in animal fat.

But there is still a big controversy between the French and the Belgians about the real origin of the ‘’pommes frites’’
.

According to the ‘’Belges’’, in the early part of the 18th century relatively poor people living on the banks of the Meuse River, in cities like Namur, Huy or Dinant, used to fish small fishes in the Meuse River and deep-fry them to complement their meager food supplies. But when the river got frozen, they had the idea of cutting pieces of potatoes imitating the shape of fishes and to fry them. So were born the first pommes frites. And since small fishes were called ‘’fretin’’ in this French speaking part of the Belgian Netherlands, some people even think that the word ‘’frites’’ may in fact be an adulterated version of ‘’fretin’’. It seems a little far-fetched to me.
What we know for a fact is that many French ‘’proscrits’’, citizens who had been banned in France after 1850 and the political coup d’état by Louis Napoleon, who had fled and started a new life in Brussels, as well as political refugees, including several chefs, in 1870, popularized the fries in Belgium. The many ‘’friteries’’, eateries devoted to fried potatoes, that you find in Belgium would be in fact a French import.

The French date the origin of the pommes-frites back to the time of the French Revolution of 1789, just 3 years after Parmentier started to promote the virtues of the potato that most French people were not really interested in eating at that time, when their Spanish neighbors had been consuming them since the end of the 16th Century, and the Belgians since the end of the 17th century. But several years of bad wheat harvests, and periods of real famine, between 1785 and 1788, contributed to put the ‘’pomme de terre’’ on most French dinner tables. In fact the largest part of the potatoes grown in Europe until the 18th century were given as food to farm animals.
In 1789, a man whose name I could not find started to sell fried potatoes under the famous Pont Neuf over the Seine river, located at the west-end of the Ile de la Cité. It became an instant success and those fries became known as ‘’Pommes Pont-Neuf’’. Nowadays, many traditional French restaurants and brasseries still call their ‘’pommes frites’’ ‘‘pommes Pont-Neuf’’.

Several variations of ‘’pommes frites” are found in restaurants, both in France and in the U.S.:

’Pommes pailles” are “shoestring potatoes”. They are cut with a mandoline and fried in a single bath.
Pommes allumettes” are thin-cut fries known as “Matchstick potatoes”. They are cut with a knife and fried in two baths.
Pommes gaufrettes” are shaped like thin, round, mini waffles.. They are cut with a mandoline and fried in one single bath

  • Most French people, especially from the older generations, and that includes me, like to eat their ''frites'' au naturel, meaning as is. Some younger French people love to use ketchup or even mayonaise, like they do in Belgium. In Northern France, and even in some small ''friteries'' in Paris, lots of fries lovers enjoy a splash of vinegar on them.

Now, let's clarify a few points about the origins of the so-called French Fries in the U.S.

When some American political opinion-makers decided to punish the French for condemning the U.S intervention in Iraq in 2003 by renaming French Fries Freedom Fries, I had a good laugh.
Obviously, most of these pundits ignored the fact that the term French does not refer to our country, but to a special way to cut vegetables in sticks, or in a julienne fashion, called ‘’frenching’’. This same culinary term is also used in the U.K to define the trimming the fat from lamb chops when used to form a rack of lamb.
But this origin is disputed by some food historians who claim that in fact the use of ‘’French’’ actually relates to the French origin of these fries.
Some note that Thomas Jefferson discovered them when he was the U.S ambassador in Paris, and that he loved so much these ‘’ Pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches’’ , according to his own manuscripts, that he brought the recipe back to Washington.
My favorite explanation is that during World War One, several battalions of American, British, and Canadian soldiers fought in the Belgian region of Yser, in French-speaking western Flanders. This is where they discovered fried potatoes. And since the locals spoke French in that specific area, when the soldiers brought the recipe back home they naturally called them French Fries because they were told in French how to prepare them.


A few restaurants in Chicago where you can eat good “pommes frites” cut by hand and fried in two baths:

Chez Joel: 1119 W. Taylor St. Chicago, IL Tel: 312-226-6479

La Sardine: 111 N. Carpenter St. Chicago, IL Tel : 312-421-2800

Le Petit Paris : 260 E. Chestnut St. Chicago, IL Tel : 312-787-8260

Marché : 833 W. Randolph St. Chicago, IL Tel : 312-226-8399 ( now closed}

D& J Bistro: 466 S. Rand Rd. Lake Zurich, IL Tel: 847-438-8001

Hot Doug’s: 3324 N. California, Chicago, IL Tel: 773-279-9550
I was told that ''Hopleaf'', a Belgian gastropub at 5140 N. Clark Street, Tel: 773-334-9851, that sells more than 100 different Belgian beers, makes very good traditional frites in the "Belgian style". But I have never been there myself.

Other interesting ‘’frites”

At the 4 star EVEREST, one Financial Place Chicago, Tel: 312-663-8920, famous Alsatian-born chef Jean Joho told me that when from time to time he has a "côte de boeuf'' on the menu he serves it with pommes-frites fried in clarified butter ... Must be something extra special.

The new Old Town Brasserie 1209 N. Wells St. Chicago Tel: 312-943-3000 is the only one that lists “ Pommes Pont Neuf” on its menu. Knowing the talent of his chef, Roland Liccioni, I am pretty sure that they are made the traditional way. ( Now Closed)
Kiki’s Bistro, 900 N Franklin St. Chicago, IL Tel: 312-335-5454 serves deliciously crunchy “pommes pailles” with its steak. They are very tiny but fresh cut and fried in two baths.

Le Café des Architectes, in the Sofitel Hotel, 20 E. Chestnut St Chicago, IL , Tel: 312-324-4000 makes good hand-cut “matchsticks” fried in one bath.

2 comments:

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  2. So it's my Belgian strain that makes me crave "French fries."

    La Biche Au Bois has always intrigued me and I hope to eat there next fall, as we will be in the area for a day or two. I will try the pommes frites!

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