Northern France, Wissant and The Disputed Origin of Frites

Pays de Calais Postcard Map

It was the last morning and the final breakfast and I was now fully recovered from the previous night which I still put down to two very stiff gin and tonics prepared by my brother Richard in his quest to finish the whole litre bottle  of ‘mother’s ruin’ before returning home.

There was a mid afternoon channel crossing ahead so we checked out early and made our way along the coast with the intention of stopping somewhere along the way for a last lunch in France before returning to England.

The chosen route took us past Boulogne, Wissant, Wimereux and Ambleteuse, all places that we had already visited and we had a mind to stop in Audreselles which we liked the look of but was busy to busting on the day that we had arrived so we had had to drive straight through. 

Luckily it was nowhere near as hectic today so we could take our pick of the car parking spaces in the market place and then we took a walk along the beach and an adjacent coastal path.  Along the way we stopped to watch the surf and a local man pointed out to us a dolphin that was swimming close to the shoreline and regularly breaking the surface of the water and we were excited about that in the way that humans are always unnaturally thrilled about seeing dolphins.

Apart from temporary dolphin visitors down at the water’s edge there were teeming rock pools, where local children were busy catching small green crabs, and back in the small town, for lovers of fruits de mer, there were  a number of sea food restaurants, but it was too early for any of that by at least an hour or so and the tables were still being prepared so after a beer at a pavement bar we left and moved on to our final stop at Wissant half way between Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez where we had started our journey just a few days before.

Wissant was busy so we parked the car on the edge of the town and walked to the centre looking for somewhere to eat but most of the restaurants only specialised in sea food and three of the four of us were not inclined to eat fish or anything else for that matter that swims, slithers or crawls through the ocean so finding myself outnumbered we had to try and find an alternative and we came across a friterie which the consensus declared to be acceptable and I had to agree that this seemed a very good way to spend our last hour or so in northern France.

Friteries are a feature of this part of France and are a simple place to buy French fries accompanied by a selection of sauces and accompaniments.  The thin strips of potato are fried twice, first to drive out the moisture and second to achieve the essential golden crispness of the French Fry and the friterie we chose was full to overflowing with customers lining up for their favourite combination.

heap of French fries

I was interested to discover that there is controversy about the humble French Fry, frite or chip and there are conflicting claims to how it came to enter the culinary traditions of so many countries.

It is served everywhere in northern France but it is the Belgians who claim that they invented it and there is a rather unlikely tale attached to the claim. The story goes that the local people rather liked eating small deep fried fishes but when the rivers were frozen and fishing became hazardous they cut potatoes in the form of small fish and put them in a fryer instead.  I can’t believe that this was going to fool anyone but then again take a look in a supermarket freezer section today and potatoes are cut into all sorts of different shapes to amuse the kids.

In Spain they say that this is nonsense and the potato wasn’t even grown in (what is now) Belgium at that time  and some claim that dish may have been invented there, which might make sense because this was the first European country in which the potato appeared via the New World colonies.  It goes on to back up this claim with the assertion that ‘patatas fritas’ were an original accompaniment to fish dishes in Galicia from which it spread to the rest of the country and then to the Spanish Netherlands, part of which only became, what we now call, Belgium more than a century later.

Belgium however still stubbornly hangs on to its claim and dismisses the assertion of the French themselves by arguing that the description ‘French Fries’ originated due to a linguistic misunderstanding, because in old English ‘to French’ meant ‘cut into sticks’ and because US soldiers in the Second-World-War called them French Fries on account of the fact that the official language of Belgium at the time was French.

While researching this I half expected to find a German claim with the fried potato strips no doubt invented by someone called Fritz!

Of course we don’t care what the Belgians, the French or the Spanish think because we are convinced that they are an English invention and that we make a better job of cooking them anyway. Traditionally, chips in the United Kingdom are cut much thicker and since the surface-to-volume ratio is lower, they have a lower fat content. According to legend, the first chips fried in the UK were on the site of Oldham’s Tommyfield Market in 1860.

Anyway, we didn’t concern ourselves with the history of the frite today and we each ordered a medium portion served on a French stick – a sort of continental chip butty – and as we cleared the table and left we declared the simple meal a resounding success.

There were only a few moments left in France now so we drove the short distance to the Eurotunnel terminus, waited a few minutes in a line of traffic and then drove onto the train and within half an hour we were back in Kent in the United Kingdom.  It had been a good few days and I hope that we will be able to do it again when my mum celebrates her ninetieth birthday!

Wissant Friterie France


Some more posts about dolphins:

A Boat Ride with Dolphins in Croatia

A Boat ride with Dolphins in Kefalonia

A Boat Ride with Dolphins in Greece



7 responses to “Northern France, Wissant and The Disputed Origin of Frites

  1. I’m off to Bruges soon where there is a Frites Museum, so I’ll let you know what they say (although I doubt they’ll agree to the Spanish claim).


  2. Great post, chock full of culinary history. Thank you from Bliss Travels!!


  3. Pingback: Tour France: The Controversies of the “French Fry” « Bliss Travels News

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.