Pommes de terre frites
Let’s talk about the shape and cooking of French fries
More important than the question what to call them (French fries, pommes, frites, patat) seems to me the question why we have named batons of potato fried in oil or blanc de boeuf. ‘Fries’ or ‘Frieten’ or ‘Frites’ Rounds, slices, squares are not named ‘French Fries, or patates frites. Batons (bâtons or bâtonettes in French) are the one and only. Too thin and they’re called alumettes or pailles (matches or straws). Pommes, pommes frites, pommes alumettes, pommes pailles. This blog is about the birth of the shape of the fries. Who was first to ‘invent’ the fries? Belgians and French each have their opinion. Let’s see if we can shed some light.
Back to basics. What does one need to prepare fries? Cows for the blanc de boeuf and potatoes. Where do you find these juxta positioned? In the northern part of France, grosso modo Arras and wide environs. That’s France, and maybe a bit of Belgium.
How about the shape and cooking? Streetfood fried in oil is a long time (do we go back to Roman times, or shall we say Medieval?) favorite. Before the potato was introduced in Europe, the beignet is the most popular fried, piping hot streetfood. According to Pierre Leclercq, scientific researcher at the university of Liège (Luik, Lüttich), one could buy fries at a stall on the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1815. Before pommes de terre frites they sold – in the 18th century – beignets. In the 30s of the 19th century the lady preparing and selling the fries is described as marchande de pommes de terre frites. On April 28th 1831 one could read in the Gastronome. Journal universel du gout that ‘old ladies don’t want to cook beignets any more, but rather thin slices of potato fried in oil. Link: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5503785n/f3.item.zoom Another source is L. Curmer, “La marchande de friture“, Les français peints par eux-mêmes, Encyclopédie morale du dix-neuvième siècle, t. 5, Paris, 1840.
It seems that the oldest picture of eating fries was made by Honoré Daumier in 1842. Real batons, fried and all. Paris seems really to be at the roots of the French fries, more specific, the Pont Neuf.
Leclerq provides more sources. About 1842 a Bavarian émigré Frédéric (Friedrich?) Krieger worked in a rôtisserie in Montmartre, Paris. Where he learned to make pommes de terre frites. A couple of years later he moved to Belgium and started a mobile frying stall.
Approx the same time, the 1840s the fries were shaped as we know them now, as batons. The recipe is to be found in Borel, Chef de Cuisine, Nouveau dictionnaire de cuisine, d’office et de pâtisserie, Paris, 1825, p. 482, 483. Only difference is the batter, but it may be a restaurant thing, hardly something for street food.
“Pommes de terre frites. Pelez des pommes de terre crues ; coupez-les par tranches minces ou par quartiers longs, trempez-les dans une pâte et faites-les frire de belle couleur.”
Link: BnF Gallica: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5600235b.texteImage
The slice stayed popular, mostly in restaurants, served with a steak, tournedos or leg of chicken. Slices have the tendency to stick together while being fried, and so need more attention. Easily done in a restaurant, not so on the Pont Neuf. Curmer: ‘The frying lady takes the potatoes, one after the other from her daily batch, peels them as thin as possible, cuts them in diamond shapes and fries them in the boiling fat, turning them with a large skimmer and finally, when the get a golden brown colour – which makes them so attractive – she takes the skimmer and gets the fries out.’
The latest instructions for shaping the French fries will appear in the up-to-date cookery books. And so the Belgian cuisinier Cauderlier writes in 1861 about batons of potato to fry, both in Dutch as in French, as one can read in “Cauderlier, kok voor burger en koning” (Danny Crauwels, Ghislaine Steps, Jo van Caenegem, p 133, 2005), a book about Cauderliers life, books and recipes.
The Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique etc. by Joseph Favre, posthumously published in 1902, gives several recipes for frying potatoes. The most remarkable is the recipe on page 102 for Pomme de terre frites Pont-Neuf, with the subtitle: there the fries made their debut!
Let’s stick with that for now!