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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
Voices
voicesBy the man who has
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Sport
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
News
Floyd
newsFloyd 'Creeky' Creekmore still performed regularly to raise money for local hospitals
Extras
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Service Charge Accountant

    30,000 to 35,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: We are currently recruiting on...

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?