Chips are not down: European Commission protects Belgian frites

Fears Flanders delicacy is under attack are unfounded amid warning on healthy cooking

It has been described as an attack on the heart and soul of Belgium, a threat to the Belgian frite, or frieten as they say in Flanders, the national dish. Although, no doubt, many might be inclined to suggest that it may be the frites, or their excess consumption, lavishly garnished with mayonnaise, that attacks the heart.

But, non, most decidedly non, the European Commission is not going to ban them, its spokesman told journalists on Tuesday in response to criticism of an initiative aimed at regulating the way they are made.

The commission is proposing that the potatoes should be blanched first to prevent the formation of acrylamide, an allegedly carcinogenic compound that can form in the frying process when certain foods are heated to a temperature above 120 degrees. It is consulting producers on a code of practice to reduce acrylamide intake.

A similar risk to that posed by the frite is apparently also found in roast potatoes, biscuits, porridge, coffee and bread. The European Food Safety Authority has said children are most at risk. In an appeal to food commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, Belgian tourism minister Ben Weyts urged a rethink for the sake of his country's cultural integrity.


Gastronomic tradition

"It is important to be mindful not to take measures that have unintended and far-reaching consequences for our rich gastronomic tradition," he wrote. "Our fries owe their flavour to the craftsmanship of our chippies, who fry chips raw and then fry them a second time. I understand that outside our country they have different cultures. But we have our own cultural tradition. It would be a shame if the European Union prohibited it."

To make matters worse, the commission has referred in its paper to these gastronomic delights as French fries, poor later imitations of the genre. The alleged "threat" on Tuesday turned the European Commission's midday press briefing into an episode from Yes Minister.

"The commission has no, repeat no, intention of banning the Belgian frite," its chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas declared . "The president [of the commission, Jean Claude Juncker] is very attached to the culinary heritage of European member states," Schinas added . "Le frite c'est chic."

Cooking methods

A New York Times writer visiting Brussels on a mission to discover the best Belgian frites has described the cooking process thus: "There are many ways to deep-fry a potato, but at the stands I visited, the basics were universal: long strips of Bintje potato, sliced on site to maybe a third-of-an-inch thickness, pre-fried in beef tallow, then fried again to order. Served in overflowing cardboard cones wrapped in paper, eaten with tiny forks and topped with the customer's choice of at least a dozen sauces, most mayonnaise-based."

A Wikipedia "brief history of the Belgian fries" is most prescriptive: "A good frite has to be 1cm square, rectangular, and fried twice. The first frying has to be made at 150C and the second one at 175C. The result is a golden fry that is crispy on the outside and and soft inside. Then you can add on the top some delicious sauces such as the mayonnaise, andalouse, pickels, samurai, cocktail, bolognaise, americaine, sauce riche, sauce chasseur, fromage (cheese) . . ."

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times