In 2013 I had a short holiday in Northern France. On the way back home to the UK we stopped at the town of Wissant for lunch at a friterie.
Friteries are a feature of Northern 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.
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 in the Winter 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.
Seems unlikely to me. 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.
France actually took some time to accept the potato, I expect they thought that it was a bit common and it wasn’t until a famine of 1795 that they began to eat them with any sort of enthusiasm.
They proved so popular that after that potatoes were being grown on a very large scale in France, including at the royal gardens at the Tuileries Palace and within that short time, the French either came up with the concept or alternatively simply learned to make fries. Once discovered they became extremely popular in revolutionary France, particularly in Paris, where they were sold by push-cart vendors on the streets and called ‘frites’.
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 simple linguistic misunderstanding. In old English ‘to French’ meant ‘cut into sticks’ and 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. As it turns out the Germans make no such claim but there is a story that potatoes were first introduced to Germany by Frederick the Great. King of Prussia from 1740 to 1772, he is still referred to as “Alte Fritz” (Old Fritz) to this day.
Maybe however as we line up to claim the chip we are missing something here. The potato was first cultivated by the Incas in Peru so maybe they have a claim and there is in fact a restaurant in Lima called “The Original Fries“.
I am not sure about that sickly looking accompaniment however…
Of course we don’t care what the Belgians, the French or the Spanish think because we are completely certain that they are an English invention and that we make a better job of cooking them than anyone else 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.