Belgium's beloved chip stall fights to survive

The warm smell of fries attracted a steady stream of customers to a box-shaped chip stand on a chilly winter afternoon near the famous Atomium monument in Brussels.

Belgians are willing to wait in long lines at their favourite outdoor chip shacks, but the rickety stall at the foot of the 102-metre-tall (334 feet) steel landmark is an increasingly rare sight in the country famous for its crispy fries.

Fewer than 1,500 are scattered around the country today, after thousands were driven out in the past two decades by stringent European health rules and aesthetics-conscious municipalities which see the greasy stalls as eyesores.

At a time of political uncertainty, with a feud between Flemish and French-speaking parties raising fears of a breakup of Belgium, some Belgians have used online petitions and pressure on town halls to defend this symbol of national identity, what francophones call "Belgitude".

"The chip stall is a mini-Belgium, the mirror image of Belgians," said Bernard Lefevre, president of the National Union of Chip-makers, who has fought to convince town halls about the importance of keeping this institution alive.

They are called "fritkot" in Flanders and "baraque a frite" in Wallonia, but they look the same everywhere: rectangular stalls serving large portions of fries stuffed in a tight paper cone for just 2.20 euros ($3).

Tatiana Henry, a Belgian student who lives with her Peruvian boyfriend in California, brought him to the Atomium chip stand to give him an authentic taste of her home country.

"I love it. It's basically Belgian," Henry said.

"You don't find this in America," said her boyfriend, Neil Vilchez, who followed the local custom by dipping his fries in mayonnaise, the sauce of choice this side of the world.

- "Belgian" fries, not "French fries" -

---------------------

Boasting that they invented chips, Belgians are quick to correct Americans who call them "French fries".

"When American tourists order from us, we tell them, 'they're not French fries! They're Belgian fries," said Josiane Devlaeminck, 60, who works at the Atomium fritkot.

There is an art to making and serving Belgian fries.

An authentic chip stall will cut fresh potatoes by hand into precise slices, fry them once in beef fat at 140 degrees C (284 degrees F), and a second time at 160 degrees, giving them a crunchy outerlayer with a soft and moist burst of flavour inside.

Like an origami expert, the chip-maker then tightly folds several pieces of paper into a cone to serve the goods.

Belgian lore has it that fries were invented in the 18th century by river fishermen who decided to slice potatoes and fry them up when they were unable to fish in the winter.

It was American, Canadian and British soldiers stationed near the Yser river during World War I who began to call them "French fries" because the people in the area spoke French.

The first chip stalls began to appear in the mid-19th century, Lefevre said, noting that this ironically coincided with the birth of Belgium as a nation in 1830.

Fritkots were originally caravans that would move around the country, stopping at fairs. Today the wheels are gone and they are permanently parked in front of churches, on sidewalks or in town squares.

People consider them part of Belgian life and charm, a place to mingle and discuss sports and politics.

"It's a place to meet people. We see Flemings, Walloons, everybody gathers at the chip stand," said Mustapha Lahmidi, a 55-year-old buying chips for his wife at a "baraque a frites" on a sidewalk in the capital's Saint-Gilles neighbourhood.

But many municipalities see them as a blight in historic town squares.

An online petition and Facebook campaign helped Thierry Van Geyt, the owner of a popular "baraque a frite" at Flagey Square, keep his lease but he was forced to build a new stall in order to stay in business.

"It's true that my old fritkot was not very pleasing to the eye," said the 49-year-old former hair dresser and equestrian instructor, who built a slick new stall to replaced his graffiti-strewn shack.

"The health controls are demanding," he said. "It's as if everything must resemble McDonald's."

The Flemish town of Eeklo tried to evict the two fritkots from the central square a few years go as part of an urban renewal plan but ran into fierce opposition from the population.

In the end, the town relented on condition that the fritkots refurbish, but only one was willing to pay the price and the other one closed up shop in 2007.

"We were very surprised that the public reacted so angrily," said Mayor Ken Loete, who received 800 emails from supporters of the fritkots. "This is something sacred. If we do this before elections we don't win."

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