Fries, crunchy, salty, tasty fried sticks of potato are claimed both by Belgium and France as the product of their national gastronomic genius but the true origins are shrouded in popular folklore.
“Fries, they are the orphan of street cooking, of low birth. That is why it’s hard to establish where they really come from,” says French historian Madeleine Ferriere.
The provenance of the humble fried potato, or chip for the English, is a matter of dispute among experts, especially in Belgium where they are the national dish and a symbol of pride for a country sharply divided between a Flemish-speaking north and a French south.
“Belgians love fries but there was no scientific research on the issue until recently,” Pierre Leclerc, professor at the University of Liege, told a recent forum in the capital.
There are many theories and and just as many claims to paternity.
In France, fries supposedly first saw the light of day on ‘Pont Neuf’, the oldest bridge in Paris, where street hawkers began selling them just before the French Revolution in 1789.
“They offered deep-fried food, horse chestnuts and slices of potato rissole,” said Ferriere.
This Paris origin theory has a long history and has been widely accepted and repeated despite Belgian claims that fries were in fact invented in Namur, in the south of their country.
The story goes that people there needing a cheap meal would fish in the River Meuse, frying what they caught.
In bad winters, as was often the case, the river would freeze so they would cut up potatoes into the shape of small fish and fry them instead, Leclerc says, though he concedes that might be a bit fanciful.
“At the end of the day, we do not care where fries came from. What counts, is what has been done with them,” said Roel Jacobs, specialist in the history of Brussels and its culture.
“The French and the Belgians took different tracks. For the French, fries normally go with meat, usually a steak while the Belgians eat them on their own or with a sauce,” Jacobs said.
“We Belgians, we have made fries a noble food, much more than just a vegetable,” proudly claims Albert Verdeyen, chef and co-author of the book “Simply Fries”.
“Above all, we have mastered better than anyone else the art of double-cooking, so that the fries are golden and crusty,” Verdeyen says.
To be worthy of the name, Belgian fries are cooked first in beef fat at 140 degrees C (284 degrees F). Taken out and left to rest, they are cooked a second time at 160 degrees, to make them crunchy on the outside with a soft centre.
If the French eat them with a fork from a plate, at a restaurant or at home, the Belgians prefer to tackle them with their fingers, at any time of the day.
Across the country, there is a close-knit network of ‘Fritkot’, stalls, seen usually on town squares or busy streets, often with long patient queues waiting.
“More than 90 percent of Belgians will stop at a stall at least once a year,” said Bernard Lefevre, head of the national industry association.
“To go to a Fritkot, that is the very essence of being a Belgian,” says Philippe Ratzel who owns the Clementine stall, one of the most popular in Brussels.
“Here, you can meet anyone — the old lady who is taking her dog out for a walk, students or even the government minister who lives nearby,” Ratzel says.