BRUSSELS — Belgian fries — one of this country’s most iconic foods, nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status — are being downsized after an unusually dry and hot European summer stunted potato crops.
Crop yields this year are down by 25 percent from normal and the tubers are smaller, Pierre Lebrun, of the Walloon Potato Growers’ Association, told the Sudepresse tabloid. Since drought has affected countries across Western Europe, importing bigger potatoes isn’t an easily available option. Therefore, “we will all eat smaller fries,” Lebrun said.
Normally, fries in Belgium are about three inches long. In the coming months, they’ll stand to lose an inch on average. Chips served in Britain and frites in France will suffer the same fate.
Employees were resigned to the news Tuesday at Frit Flagey, a popular fries shack near city center that caters to a mix of Belgians, expats and tourists. “Depending the harvest, we will see soon about the quality of the fries,” said waiter Youcef Haddag, adding “prices could go up next year if the harvest is bad.”
An order of fries, twice cooked in beef fat and served crispy and hot in a paper cone, tends to cost about $3 when purchased from the small shacks that dot Belgium’s streets and city squares. Mayonnaise is the standard topping, but many shacks — known as “fritkot” in Flemish and “friteries” in French — offer choices such as “curry ketchup” or “Andalouse,” a spicy mayonnaise with tomatoes, peppers and shallots.
To get a sense of how integral fries are to cultural life in Belgium, consider that there are almost 5,000 fry kiosks in this country of 11 million people. That doesn’t include establishments that serve fries with mussels or pubs that offer fries alongside their beers. More than 60 percent of Belgians eat fries at least once a week, according to the nonprofit Flanders' Agricultural Marketing Board.
Every once in a while, France and Belgium exchange harsh words about the origin of the fried potato sticks you eat with your hands. “No, french fries are not Belgian,” the French newspaper Le Figaro printed in August. Bernard Lefèvre, president of Belgium’s national association for frietkoten, countered: “If frites would have been French, which they are not, there would be an international museum of frites in Paris, which there is not.”
Belgians maintain that “french fries” is a misnomer bestowed by U.S. soldiers serving in World War I. The real story, they say, is that when the river froze in the town of Namur in 1680, the townspeople substituted potatoes for fried fish and invented a new dish. French culinary historian Pierre Leclercq, by contrast, suggests that the introduction of fries happened much later, toward the end of the 18th century, in Paris.
Either way, both countries will be consuming stubbier fries this year — and potentially in future years as well, since climate change is expected to lead to more frequent droughts and heat waves in Europe.