Fries aren’t French. This is one of the first things I learned at the Frietmuseum in Bruges. Soulmate to the hamburger and American icon of indulgence, the golden-brown potato fry is in fact Belgian. When American soldiers encountered Belgian troops frying potato fingers in oil, they christened them French fries, because French was the official language of the Belgian army. As I studied the display, I thought about the many cones of fries I had eaten while strolling along the city’s winding canals. In Bruges, the delicious aroma of the salty spud is around every corner. No wonder then that the city has a museum dedicated to the potato.
Established by Eddy Van Belle and his son Cedric—food enthusiasts who have also set up Bruges’s chocolate museum—the Frietmuseum is located in a Gothic building that dates back to the 14th century. It has variously been a merchant’s home, a cinema, and a dance hall. Today, it houses exhibits that trace the 10,000-year-history of the humble tuber that was discovered in ancient Peruvian and Chilean tombs. The Incas worshipped potato deities, believing that they helped cure illnesses. When the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire, they took the potato back home with them—and the world discovered a passion for the starchy root.
I, on the other hand, realised just how little I knew about the potato. A video enlightened me about the root’s journey from soil to frites (as the Belgians and French know their fries). But how did the frite come to be? Another exhibit had the answer. The Belgians, it said, liked to eat fried fish. But during one particularly harsh winter in the 1700s, the rivers froze over and they were unable to fish for their supper. So Belgians in the Meuse Valley decided to give the inexpensive potato the same treatment. They cut the tuber into long strips and fried them until they were golden brown.
The Frietmuseum has two mascots, Fiona the Fry and Peter Potato, that feature in nearly every room. In the section dedicated to the potato’s place in Incan culture, streamers of Peruvian purple and pink potatoes—the country grows over 3,000 varieties—hang from the ceiling. There were Incan models of potatoes shaped like a person’s face, a puma’s paw, and a cluster of grapes. Centuries ago, these potatoes were used to test the dexterity of maidens: If they could peel the strangely shaped tubers, they were considered fit for marriage.
Another room put frituurs (stalls) in the spotlight. As visitors gawked at retro potato peelers, children crawled into lifesize recreations of the snack shops. There was no end to the potato trivia on display. They were once considered an aphrodisiac. The tastiest fries are cooked in goose fat. There was even a video on how to make the perfect chip.
I rounded up my visit at the souvenir shop, which had vintage posters of frite carts and spud-themed paperweights, postcards, and potato scrubbers. Then, I trooped to the basement café for a large order of fries: crisp outside, soft inside, and doused with creamy Belgian mayonnaise.
Frietmuseum is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., except on public holidays and the second and third week of January. Entry €7/₹506; €5/₹362 for children between 6-11 years; €6/₹434 for groups, students, and those over 65 years (+32 5034 0150; www.frietmuseum.be).
First appeared in the June 2014 issue as “Tater Thoughts”.
The Museum of Burnt Food celebrates decades of culinary disaster with a collection of 49,000 charred exhibits, including carbonised steaks, singed gyoza dumplings (including coal-black ebony chopsticks), and a Hall of Burnt Toast. The research institute—they’ve published numerous papers on carbonisation—was set up by onetime science historian and now Grammy-nominated harpist, Deborah Henson-Conant, who ensures that the exhibits are deadpan, hilarious, and fascinating all at once. Popular installations include “Why, Sure You Can Bake Quiche in the Microwave!”, “Thrice Baked Potatoes”, and “Free Standing Apple Cider”, which Henson-Conant made herself (burntfoodmuseum.com. Premises are opened on request; email info@HipHarp.com).
Few culinary flourishes are as mesmerising as watching a ramen chef hand-pull noodles. The deft display is among the top attractions at the Yokohama “food amusement park”, which traces the noodle’s journey from traditional Chinese kitchens to supermarkets, where its instant version grows in popularity every year. Instant ramen was invented in 1958. According to a survey conducted by the Fuji Research Institute in 2000, the Japanese public believes it was the best invention of the 20th century (karaoke comes second). At Shin-Yokohama, visitors can noodle over exhibits on ramen history and stock up on Japanese ingredients. A part of the museum is designed like a street from 1958, with nine stalls that serve bowls of steaming broth. Another section is dedicated to dagashiya, traditional sweet shops that stock local sweets and toys (+81-45-471 0503; raumen.co.jp/english; daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m., except on public holidays; entry 310 yen/₹165, children under 12 and seniors over 60 years 100 yen/₹53).
Wonder what 250-million-year-old salt tastes like? Have a lick at the Mariager Saltcenter in the picturesque Danish town of Mariager. The museum explores civilisation’s relationship with white gold, perhaps the only ingredient that is ubiquitous in kitchens across the world, from frosty Alaska to sultry Barbados. A tour of the Saltcenter begins with an elevator ride that takes visitors to an underground mine where they are shown how salt is collected. The mine also doubles up as a cinema. Learn about the history of salt (evidence of processing dates back 6,000 years), load up on interesting facts (there are 35 grams of salt per litre of seawater), and learn about its ritualistic significance (salt features in Jewish and Islamic ceremonies). Round off the trip with a soak in Mariager’s “Dead Sea”, a pool that rivals the buoyancy of its namesake in Western Asia (045-9854 1816; saltcenter.com/english; Mon noon to 8 p.m., Tue-Fre 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed between 17 Dec and 2 Jan; entry Danish Kroner 98/₹948, children Danish Kroner 70/₹677).
The Italians love their dolci (desserts) and gelato is everyone’s favourite. So it’s no surprise that they have now enshrined the cold treat in a museum of its own. At the Carpigiani Gelato Museum, just outside Bologna, Italy, you can learn about the history of gelato. It starts in Mesopotamia in ancient times, when snow and ice were used to make a sorbet-like concoction. There’s a flashback to the egg-and-cream recipe brought to Paris by the Florentines during the Renaissance, when gelato was considered a symbol of power since it was available only to the aristocrats and nobles. Finally, the exhibits bring us to the gelato that we know today. Carpigiani is one of the largest manufacturers of gelato-making machines and the museum houses various machines used to make gelato through the centuries—from hand-cranked contraptions to the completely automated, modern machines. It is also possible to opt for a tour (₹360 per person) that includes a tasting of sorbets, artisanal gelatos, and traditional creams.
You can learn the art of making a good gelato at the Carpigiani Gelato Lab (₹3,248). First, instructors take you through a theory lesson, at which you learn how gelato is different from traditional ice cream and that great gelato is made in small batches using only the freshest ingredients. This is followed by a hands-on lesson on the art of gelato-making—mixing milk, eggs, and sugar in correct proportions along with fresh fruit, chocolate, or nuts. And if you haven’t had your fill of gelato, hop across to the Carpigiani gelateria within the premises and choose from their range of freshly-prepared artisanal gelatos. I’d recommend the strawberry flavour—it was the best gelato I had in Italy!
(Bus no. 87 from Bologna station drops you right outside the museum in Anzola dell’Emilia. The museum is open from Tue to Sat between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Reservations are required for all tours and they can be booked through gelatomuseum.com/en.)
First appeared in the September 2013 issue as “La Dolce Vita”.
A half-hour train ride from the haze of Amsterdam is Alkmaar, a town with a seriously cheesy history. Its 14th-century dairy market is still popular, as is the town’s Dutch Cheese Museum, which enlightens tourists on Gouda, Edam, and other dairy icons of Dutch origin. Audio-visual exhibits show visitors the journey from cow to cheese, displaying how milk is curdled and why cheese is shaped into circular wheels. It is the delight of geeky gourmets and hungry travellers. On Fridays from April to September, porters with straw hats ferry cheese on wooden barrows from the 14th-century weigh house, where the museum is located, to the market outside (+31072-515 5516; kaasmuseum.nl; open Apr-Oct, Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Nov-Mar Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; €4/₹289).
The perks are many at Colombia’s Parque Nacional del Café. Visitors can ride cable cars over emerald Arabica plantations, hike through a reserve for the protection of endemic bean varieties, even ride a roller coaster (hold off on the coffee until later). The 30-acre coffee-themed amusement park has a museum of exhibits on the world’s most famous bean, but also offers other pick-me-ups like bumper cars and horseback rides. Visitors can learn about Colombia’s indigenous people, buy handcrafted souvenirs, and taste brews from around the world as they watch a choreographed dance depicting the history of coffee, a story as rich as a steaming Colombian cuppa (+38257-6744 9955; parquenacionaldelcafe.com; open 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; entry $24/₹1,525).
First appeared in the July 2014 issue as “Food For Thought”.