With the morning in Blankenberge, we spent the evening in Brugge, a gorgeous city in western Flanders. The entire city centre is World Heritage listed, and the market square and medieval bell tower certainly deserves it. We walked around the city and also saw the 15th century Burgher's Lodge and St Jacob's church (built around 1240), but the highlight of Brugge was in the museums.
The most disappointing of the three museums we visited was Choco-Story, the story of chocolate in Belgium. Fairly standard stuff about the history and production of cocoa. We learnt that the largest cocoa producers are the Ivory coast (35%), Ghana (20%), Indonesia (15%), Nigeria (5%), Cameroon (5%), Brazil (4%) and Ecuador (4%).
After the Spanish colonisers of Mexico found out about cocoa, they took to it with such relish that they had their servants pour them cocoa even during religious services.
The Bishop of Chiapas, Don Bernard de Salazar, prohibited it during mass. Most people responded quite reasonably by just stopping going to Church, except one cocoa fanatic, who murdered the Bishop, ironically by putting poison in his own cocoa. It was only in 1528 that Cortez, the famous leader of South American genocide, brought back the secret recipe of cocoa to Spain (700g ground cocoa, 750g white sugar, 56g cinnamon, 14g cloves, 1 pinch aniseed, musk, amber, 14 pepper grains, 3 vanilla sticks, 1 hazelnut, orange flower) and in 1580 the first chocolate shop opened in Spain. The true highlight of the museum, though, was when Lydia inadvertently stole chocolate.
More interesting was Lumina Domestica, with the world's largest collection of lamps.
The lamps stretched back into our earliest history and into modern lighting, and the collection surprisingly interesting. For example they raised the question of lighting in ancient Egypt. I remember seeing the ancient Egyptian temples that had been occupied by Christian monks while in Egypt. Compared to the tombs the Christians didn’t find, these temples had two obvious characteristics -firstly the sculptures within reach had been destroyed, as they tried to scrub rival gods from the walls, and secondly a thick layer of black grease covered the walls and roof, unlike the perfectly clean stone on undiscovered temples.
The mystery is that while lamps and torches were used in every day life, leaving greasy black traces on the walls and roof of common Egyptian dwellings, no traces were left on painted and engraves rock of tombs - so what did the artists use as light when working in the tombs? It has been postulated that it could have been mirrors, but the best Egyptian silver mirror only reflects 40% of light, so after only a few turns nearly all the light would be gone.
Tantalisingly, in the interior chamber of Hathor in Denderah, bas-reliefs 4,200 years old strongly resemble electric light bulbs. This might not be as outrageous as it sounds, as prototypic electric batteries were discovered from ancient Baghdad, 15cm high and 7.5cm in diameter, capped with a bitumen stopper with an iron rod emerging and inserted into a silver-plated copper cylinder.
Testing shows that addition of grape juice to the battery generates an electric current of 0.5-1.5 V. So could the Egyptians have developed a clean burning light source?
By far the highlight of the three, indeed the highlight of Brugge and possibly all of Belgium, was the Friet Museum, dedicated to both potatoes and fries. The humble potato was first mentioned by the Spanish in 1537 in Colombia, but thousands of varieties were grown for thousands of years before then.
When it was brought to Europe it became the new stable of the poor, giving a high yield per hectare (now on average it gives 16 tonnes per hectare, compared to 3.
8 tonnes per hectare for rice, with Australia being the most efficient grower producing 100 tonnes/hectare compared to 40 tonnes/hectare in Europe/USA and 5 tonnes/hectare in Central Asia) and with the added advantage that an underground crop could not be easily pillaged by feudal lords and armies. Potatoes were also excellent for nutrition, being one of the rare few vegetables which contain all the essential amino acids. Likewise, they eradicated one of the three most feared diseases of the Middle Ages - ergotism (along with leprosy and the plague). Ergotism was caused by fungus on rye, poisoning it, and causing problems for the very poor (rye bread was the stable food of the poorest people of Europe).
The condition caused gangrene, vasoconstriction, loss of feeling in the extremities and hallucination. It was called "St Anthony's Fire" because as a cure people went on a pilgrimage to Saint Antoine-l'Abbaye (which often worked because it removed the eater from the local crop of contaminated rye).
Once the potato replaced rye as the food of the poor, the disease dramatically reduced in incidence. Although to be fair, reliance on potatoes caused its own problems, as the Irish found out. Despite the enormous advantage of the potato to the poor (or perhaps because of it), the Church looked down on the humble potato, labelling it as the vegetable of debauchery. It was used in witchcraft, and as it grew underground it was associated with the devil and sexual appetite.
The London surgeon John Gerard wrote in 1597 "I planted some in my garden, they are nourishing and fortifying and provoke debauchery". Perhaps related, we saw the "maiden potato", a type of extremely knobbly potato so named as it was very difficult to peel, and only after a girl developed hands skilled enough to part it from its skin was she deemed ready to marry.
Beyond the potato, the museum leapt into the world of the fry. Fries were invented in Belgium, but named "French Fries" by American soldiers as they didn't understand that the French-speaking soldiers from Wallonia who gave them Belgian fries were not actually French. We saw historical frying equipment, including the short-lived fries robot, and early ads for fries. We also found out about a number of world records:
- The largest weight of potatoes peeled by five people with standard potato knives in 45 minutes = 367.8kg.
- The largest potato = 2015g, 25cm long and 70.5cm in diameter, grown in 1992 by one Mr Schotten.
- Endurance frying record (most fries fried in 72 hours) = 15 000 boxes, by one Ludwig Reymen from Kalmthout on the 2nd to the 5th of April, 1987.
- Longest fry (potato puree division) = 9 794 metres (and 2cm by 2cm), by one Stephan Tyvaert.
- Largest potato crisps = 10cm by 17.
5cm, by the US company Charles Chip (using extra large potatoes).