French battle Belgians over invention of ‘les frites’

Neighbours fight for right to be named 'home of the chip'

John Lichfield
Thursday 03 January 2013 17:54
Did the French invent chips? Or was it the Belgians?
Did the French invent chips? Or was it the Belgians?

One of the greatest, unsolved mysteries of European culture has been tackled in a public debate in Brussels. And left unsolved… Did the French invent chips? Or was it the Belgians?

According to French legend, the “frite” was invented by street merchants on the Pont Neuf in Paris just after the French revolution in the late 18th century.

Belgian folklore, meanwhile, has the chip invented by accident in the 17th century by the people of Namur, in what later became southern Belgium. One day when the river Meuse was frozen, local fishermen chopped potatoes up into slices resembling small fish and fried those instead.

As part of a festival of food in the Belgian capital called Brusselicious, culinary experts and historians from both countries have examined the competing claims. Pierre Leclerc, a professor at the university of Liège, admitted that there was little proof of Belgium’s paternity.

“Belgians adore chips but serious scientific research on the subject has only just begun,” he said.

A French food historian, Madeleine Ferrière, said that there were contemporary accounts of chips being sold by street food vendors – as well as chestnut and potato rissoles – on the Pont Neuf in Paris soon after 1789.

And what of Britain’s claim to the invention of the “bâtonnet de pomme de terre trempé dans l’huile bouillante” better known as the chip, frite or French fry? There are references to potato “chips” being sold in Britain in the early 19th century but these may have been chunkier than the chips of today. All the same, fish and chip shops were well established across Britain by the late 1800s.

Whatever their origins, Belgian culinary experts insist that chips have achieved their pinnacle, in quality and cultural importance, in Belgium. The French use them as something to eat with meat. The British insist on fish.

“We, the Belgians, have made the chip something noble in itself,” said Albert Verdeyen, co-author of a book on chips. “Above all, we have mastered better than anyone else the art of double-cooking them until they are golden and crunchy.”

Love of chips is one of the few things that unites the linguistic halves of Belgium. In both the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south, the “Fritkot” or mobile chip stall is a national institution

“To go to a Fritkot is the height of Belgitude,” said Philippe Ratzel who owns the celebrated Clementine stall in Brussels.

“At my place, you can bump unto a little old lady walking her dog, a student, or the minister who lives around the corner.”

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