French fries or Belgian fries?
Everybody today eats French Fries.
French fries (frites in French) initially come from Northern France, a region that produces one-third of the country’s potato production.
However, France and its neighbour, Belgium, both believe that they ‘invented ‘French fries’.
So where do the fries come from ?
There are no fries without potatoes.
The Spanish Conquistadors brought back this ‘strange’ tuber from Latin America in the 16th century.
Patata, as native South Americans called it, didn’t become an instant hit in Western Europe though.
Indeed, like any underground tuber, it was considered impure and therefore unfit for human consumption.
It only aroused the interest of botanists, monks who exploited some of its medicinal properties and royal courts that paraded this ‘new plant’.
Patatas (potatoes) only found their way on our table in the late 18th century, when they became a substitute for wheat after the recurring disastrous crops that caused famine after famine.
Parmentier introduces the potato in France
But that didn’t happen so easily!
Antoine de Parmentier discovered the nutritive values of the potato in 1766, when he was a prisoner in Westphalia during the Seven Years’ War.
He also found that this prolific easy-to-grow tuber was a perfect substitute to wheat, a cereal subject to climatic conditions.
This meant the end of recurrent famines that regularly disseminated the population.
Potatoes, which until 1775 were considered unfit for human consumption, were recognised as ‘proper’ food.
However, people were still wary, so Parmentier had a genius idea to play the popular mistrust!
In 1785, he planted a whole field with potatoes in the Plaine des Sablons (Neuilly).
He had the field guarded during the day to make people believe that the potato was a rare and expensive commodity.
However, he lifted the guard during the night, so that people could sneak in to steal these ‘precious’ potatoes!
The subterfuge worked perfectly, as potatoes were soon cultivated in all the peripheral villages of Paris.
Potatoes produced flour to replace wheat and became known as ‘bread of the poor’.
Resistant to the cold and easy to cultivate and keep, they fed royal armies, peasants and the poor.
The potato, food of the Revolution
The revolutionaries went further.
In 1793, they planted the gardens of the Palais des Tuileries with potatoes to feed the Parisians.
The shortage of wheat that resulted from disastrous crops even prompted the government to extend the cultivation of potatoes to the whole country.
Paris street vendors sell potato chips fries
Northern France, a region with a temperate climate and rich soils, embarked in the extensive culture of potatoes.
The Nord-Pas de Calais region still produces one-third of the national potato production and its inhabitants claim that their ancestors invented the french fries.
But Parisians think otherwise!
They agree that potatoes became the bread of the poor, but they also argue that paupers and peasants couldn’t afford to deep-fried their food, as fat was then very expensive!
Most city dwellers didn’t have a kitchen and bought their meager meal from street vendors, who as early as 1789 started to cut potato rings and plunge them into basins of boiling oil.
These street vendors set up their stalls on the Pont-Neuf, where they sold their fried potato rings under the name ‘pommes Pont-Neuf’.
A recipe from 1794 even explains how to slice potatoes and cook them in lard or butter!
Mr. Fritz sold the first fries in Belgium
In the early the 19th century, a Montmartre restaurant started to sell fries.
One of the employees, the Bavarian Frederic Krieger, quickly worked out that he could make fortune selling fries.
He left for Belgium in 1838 where he became a fairground merchant.
Mr. Fritz, as he became known, opened the first chip van to sell potato rings fried in clarified boiling butter.
However, potatoes sticks, as we know them today, only appeared in 1850.
So we can easily say that French fries were invented in France and developed in Belgium!
So, where does the name French fries come from?
It’s quite recent, as it dates from WWII.
When the Americans landed in Northern France and Western Flanders, they were served fried potato sticks.
As French is Western Flanders’ common language, they translated frites as fries.
They also added the verb to French, which means cut in sticks; Fried potatoes sticks became French fries!