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."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
  • Get to the point
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

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing