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The Potato Eaters

The Mannekin Pis may be a cultural symbol of Brussels, but in Amsterdam it is a chip outlet that purports to sell the best frites in Holland. No visitor to Amsterdam can fail to notice the proliferation of chip shops and stalls. Long queues form at all hours in front of the most popular. The choice of small, medium or large is easily made, but the vast array of sauces on offer means that repeat visits are essential. Being a family of chip lovers we were happy to oblige on a recent week-long visit. We narrowed our favourite chip shops down to two and even then the vote was split, which only proves what a matter of personal taste a really excellent chip is.

At first chip making seems to be a rather rudimentary matter of peeling a humble potato, slicing, frying and serving. Yet, this deceptively simple dish arouses strong feelings in even the most dispassionate consumer. How often does one feel let down in a restaurant when the chips are too floury, too soft, too thin, too fat, too greasy?  Even the most sophisticated diner loves a good chip. The health conscious and weight watchers pinch chips off their companions’ plates – ever seen someone pick a lettuce leaf from someone’s dinner?

Chip aficianados insist that chips be made with a particular variety of potato. Then the debate escalates around what sort of oil or dripping they must be fried in. Not fried once, of course, but a double or triple adventure in the hot oil before a chip with any self esteem can consider itself ready to be revealed to its adoring public. In Amsterdam the topping of choice has traditionally been mayonnaise  – don’t even get started on what type – but now everything from curry to green peppercorn sauce is on offer.

For my money the best chips in Amsterdam are to be found at Vleminckx Sausmeesters (Voetboogstraat,31). Close to the shopping mecca of Kalverstraat, it is found down a small street and appears to be not much more than a hole in the wall with a burgundy awning.  It is easily identified by the long line of patient customers and the steady stream of people eating chips  from a paper cone. Personally I find the traditional mayo a bit cloying but perhaps it is an acquired taste. However, the chips themselves were top notch. They had good colour, good crunch and just the right fluffiness inside. This establishment has been going since 1958. They must have sold incalculable volumes of chips since then and are clearly still going very strong.














A few days later we made our way to find Mannekin Pis (Dam,41). Unlike the previous chip shop which was unassuming both in its location and its self promotion, this place was not only unpleasantly situated on a major tourist thoroughfare, but seemed all together too full of itself.

The staff wore uniforms with rosettes proclaiming its number one status in Dutch chip making and it seemed too commercially branded for my liking. The list of available sauces was so long you would need days to make a considered choice. Sometimes too much variety just results in confusion.  Nevertheless if the chips were going to be outstanding I could live with all this. ‘Totally different’ remarked my younger son and indeed they were. Thicker cut, far too salty, a bit floury inside.  We struggled to finish even small cones and by the end were all terribly thirsty. A quick vote revealed that my husband liked these best. See what I mean? The simple chip can divide even the most harmonious couple.

I paused to reflect on the Dutch obsession with the chip when standing in front of The Potato Eaters in the Van Gogh Museum. This well-known work, painted in 1885, depicts 4 peasants eating a simple meal of potatoes that they have dug up with their own hands. While most of us nowadays are far removed from picking our own potatoes, there remains something enduringly compelling and nurturing about being offered a helping of spuds as depicted in this picture. No doubt Van Gogh could not have anticipated the endless helpings of chips being served nowadays in his home country, but he captured and promoted the iconic status of the potato as a source of sustenance. The potato takes us back to basics nutritionally speaking, which is perhaps why our relationship with chips feels emotionally deep-rooted. They have the feel good factor even when your chips are down.

Copyright 2012, Madeleine Morrow

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