Brugge, Belgium: The Friet Museum and Choco-Story

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Apologies for the brief hiatus. As you can see, I was in Belgium for a few days, followed by a few more days without internet access thanks to an “upgrade” by Virgin. Fortunately, Belgium has provided me with a wealth of new places to post about in the coming weeks! Belgium is justifiably famous for many of its foodstuffs, among them frites and chocolate. In fact, Belgians are so keen on the latter two that they’ve devoted entire museums to them. There are quite a few chocolate themed museums in Belgium, but as far as I can tell, only one frites museum, located in lovely, quirky Brugge.

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My visit to the Friet Museum didn’t get off to the best start, as the woman at the admissions desk was at best distracted, or perhaps outright rude. She was jabbering on the phone when we walked in, and carried on talking for a good ten minutes, despite the fact that there was a small queue forming. If I wasn’t so intent on seeing the museum for blogging purposes, I probably would have walked out. When she finally got off the phone, she then began joking around with a coworker in Flemish, rather than helping customers. However, she finally deigned to sell us tickets, which we scanned on the turnstile for admission. I found this odd Tube-like feature at most of the museums in Belgium – I guess they really want to discourage free-loaders!

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The mascots of the Friet Museum, who were featured on colourful cartoons throughout, were a fry named Fiona, and Peter Potato. Signage was in Flemish, French, and English, which was handy, as there was quite a lot of it. Honestly, I think the museum did live up to its promise of teaching us all about the history of the potato, and “potato fries,” as the museum referred to them. Most of the lower floor of the museum was solely posters, filled with potato facts. Did you know that potato juice is meant to be an excellent cure for indigestion? Or that the largest potato ever grown weighed over 2 kilos? Fascinating.

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The upper floor was devoted to the history of frites (I’m referring to them by their French name here, even though Brugge is primarily Flemish-speaking, and the proper plural should thus be fritten, because I think frites is the more common term amongst English speakers), and contained more artefacts than the lower level. I suppose there’s a lot more tat associated with frites than with the humble potato. This included a display of frite slicing and frying equipment, and culminated in a large room with a reconstructed frite stand (frituur), designed to mimic the famous stands in the Market Square of Brugge. This last room had a fabulous collection of frites paraphernalia, from postcards to frite forks, and potato flutes to frite-themed artwork. I already knew that Belgian frites are fried in beef fat (which is probably why they’re so delicious), but I was slightly taken aback to learn that the tallow often has a bit of horse fat thrown in. I can’t say it actually put me off eating the frites though; whatever they’re doing, it works!

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There was a small display of photographs of frituur, and an actual frituur in the basement of the museum, from which an enticing smell drifted up into the museum. As I had just eaten a rather large portion of frites before visiting the museum, I (shockingly) didn’t have any there, so I can’t attest to their quality. The shop was quite good though, offering a charming range of Fiona and Peter printed t-shirts, frites aprons, and special personal frites forks. I only wish they had better postcards, like the ones featured in the actual museum.

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As the frites had taken care of lunch, it was time for a bit of pudding, which necessitated a trip to Choco-Story. The Friet Museum and Choco-Story have the same owners, so it’s cheapest to buy a combined pass if you plan to see them both (which we foolishly didn’t do). There’s also another museum which is part of the Choco-Story complex – Lumina Domestica, which is all about the history of lamps. From what I saw of the outside, it looked neat, so it might not be a bad idea to get a pass to all three at once. Anyway, the staff of Choco-Story were slightly friendlier, and they offered free chocolate buttons at the desk, so I had a better initial impression of them. That said, I do think the history of chocolate is more commonly known than that of frites, so the museum wasn’t quite as interesting.

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Like the Friet Museum, Choco-story has a mascot. He was known as Choclala (I think it was a he), and looked like a combination between a rotten tooth and some poo. I don’t think an amorphous blob ostensibly made of chocolate is ever going to be a good look. At any rate, Choclala (I refer to him in my head as Chocolala, as I think it rolls off the tongue better), escorted us through the history of chocolate, beginning with the Aztecs, which meant that we were treated to a delightful Cortes mannequin. It quickly progressed to hot chocolate drinking in Europe, with an accompanying collection of china and chocolate pots.

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The level above that had a room on the ethics and sustainability of chocolate production, of which the most memorable part was a jarred monkey clutching a cocoa bean. More dainty chocolate accessories followed in the next room (chocolate egg-shaped safe, anyone?) along with some superb chocolate moulds.

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On yet another floor, which seemed to be sponsored by a local chocolate company, we learned about Belgian history, which was essentially just the history of the chocolate industry in Belgium. Chocolate and biscuit tins abounded though, and you know how I love a good biscuit tin! One of the signs included the memorable advice that whilst chocolate doesn’t make you fat, if you are overweight, you should probably lose weight before eating it. Priceless.

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We ended our tour with the ground floor, and the chocolate demonstration. Wandering through a room lined with stoical chocolate cats, and other spectacular cocoa-craft led us to a small kitchen set up in the rear of the museum, where a woman showed us how to mould chocolate pralines. The most impressive part was her commentary, which seamlessly switched between Flemish, French, and English. At the end, we were given a tasty chocolate praline, which really made the trip worthwhile (notwithstanding the fact that the 14 euros we spent on admission for the two of us could have bought quite a large box of chocolates from an actual chocolate shop). Speaking of shops, the gift shop sold, as you might expect, a nice range of chocolates, including chocolate buttons from various regions, with differing cocoa contents. However, once again the postcards were kind of lame, so I think they need to step that aspect up a bit.

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I’d give both the Friet Museum and Choco-story 3/5. They were both larger and more informative than I was anticipating, but they did feel oddly commercial, and I felt like they could have done more to make the museums interactive, especially as they’re both relatively new attractions. However, if you’re just looking for an excuse to have some frites and chocolate (though really, you’re in Belgium, how much an excuse do you need?) these museums are a good way to whet your appetite whilst learning something new.

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