In most of the blogs I’ve already posted about Belgium, I have waxed poetic about the food. As I recounted the food tour we went on, I referenced both the fry museum and the chocolate museum, two places that we circled back to later to get a better look at.
The fry museum is particularly notable, as it’s the only place in the world that has dedicated itself to the humble chip. There are quite a few chocolate museums on the planet – one of the few times humanity has gotten something right – but Belgian chocolate is especially famous and this one has unlimited chocolate button dispensers, which puts it straight to the top of the list.
Belgian legend has it that chips were invented during a cold European winter, when the rivers had frozen over, preventing fishing. At this time, deep-fried fish were a common and well loved bar snack. To try to replace the fried fish on the menu for the winter, someone started frying up strips of potato instead, and the fry was born. The Belgians have a special method for making fries, which involves two different periods of frying with a rest in the middle.
Chocolate was originally brought to Europe as bitter cacao, which was then made up into a drink with herbs, sugar and honey to make it palatable. It started off being drunk by the wealthy and eventually made its way to the masses. As with everything, people started experimenting, and suddenly chocolate began appearing in different, more solid forms than just the famous cacao drink.
Eventually, a Belgian man called John Neuhaus decided to try to make a new kind of chocolate, modeled on the chocolate-covered pills his pharmacist grandfather sold at his shop. He covered a hazelnut with chocolate and put it in a little chocolate cup, inventing the praline. Not long after, another confectioner invented the Manon, a famous Belgian chocolate comprising a hazelnut in a smooth chocolate filling, covered in white chocolate. Belgian chocolate is now regulated by law, ensuring that all dark, milk and white chocolate produced in Belgium has an acceptably high amount of original materials (cacao and cocoa butter) rather than just being shoved full of plain sugar to drive down production costs. Also, chocolate in Belgium is ground down extremely finely, to only 15-18 microns, which is too small to be detected by your taste buds and results in the chocolate feeling silky smooth. Belgian chocolate really is better.
Both museums expand on both the production and commercial side of chocolate and fry production, respectively. They show-off moulds, packaging, potato slicers and molinillos, showing you exactly how these delicious foods go from potato to chip and cacao bean to praline.
This, of course, is the modern history of fries and chocolate.
To be fair to both museums, they do delve into the pre-European history of both of these foodstuffs. Large swathes of the museums are devoted to discussing how the potato and the cocoa bean came to Europe in the first place. These foods didn’t originate in Europe; both the potato and the cocoa bean originated in South America.
There is evidence showing that the Ecuadorian Shaur had invented a cocoa drink 5500 years ago. After them, the Mayans continued this tradition and the Aztecs followed, using cocoa beans not only for celebrations and medicine but also as currency, such was their value. The standard measure was a ‘carga,’ which represented the amount that one man could carry and was defined as 24,000 cocoa beans.
Of course, chocolate made its way to Europe the same way lots of things made their way to Europe around the seventeenth century – via brutal colonisation. The potato museum addressed this best, telling more of the story of exactly how the potato made its way from South America to Spain, France and England. The potato then came to Belgium as Belgium was ruled by the Spanish when Drake brought potatoes back to Europe. Potatoes were originally small and bitter and were bred to be more palatable over the years.
While both museums had dedicated numerous rooms to the South American history of these foods, there was little to no attempt to delve into the sociocultural implications of the massive popularity of these foods. At one point, they mention how Hernán Cortés was introduced to cacao by Aztec king Montezuma II, without then going on mention that after this Cortés murdered Montezuma and started the downfall of Aztec civilisation. If you didn’t know a little more about the history of European colonisation, you’d probably walk away from that billboard thinking that chocolate came to Europe from the spirit of trade rather than brutal imperialism. In the UK, we are taught shockingly little about the British Empire, and end up with a woefully incomplete knowledge of how so many people came to speak English and how we came to have most of the influence we do now. This part of our past is not well covered.
Indeed, there’s a lot more space in these museums – and in Western culture generally – dedicated to the advancements we’ve made in these areas without ever referencing the other feats of agriculture and invention applied to cacao in South America before the Europeans ever got involved. Yes, we sweetened up chocolate and made it into solid, sugary pralines, but ancient civilisations managed to farm the cacoa bean, turn it into the drink that took Europe by storm, use it medicinally and create a whole currency system based off these beans. The history of chocolate is so much more than “we brought the beans back from Peru, and then got to work.”
Similarly, much is made of the medicinal properties of raw potatoes (which can apparently help with arthritis, diabetes and heartburn, among other issues) without exploring whether earlier groups had also used the potato to cure various ailments, which they almost certainly did. It’s not that the information in these museums is bad – it’s just incomplete. There’s a whole, rich, cultural history to these foods that didn’t start with the Spanish brutalising South American populations.
This isn’t really about the museums. They have whole rooms dedicated to how cacao and potatoes came to Europe, even if they’re a little (or, really, a lot) light on the mass murder. I like niche museums and I especially liked visiting the only fry museum in the world. But it did make me think hard about how easy it is to craft a flattering narrative, one that emphasises your own ingenuity and minimises your failures or crimes. History is written by the victors. I wonder what the original cacao and potato farmers would say, if we ever had a chance to hear their voices.