Flemish businesses are currently taking part in a trade mission to South-East Asia, led by the region’s minister-president Geert Bourgeois.
Among their aims – to present the case for Belgium’s claim to be not only the inventor of the potato dish known worldwide as French fries, but also the country’s premier position as a provider of the product.
Potato products, including what we must think of as simply fries, account for €1.2 billion a year to Belgian exporters, but for some reason the credit on menus is generally given to the French – even in the UK, where they are commonly known as “chips” in opposition to the rest of the world, who use that term to refer to potato chips or what the British more accurately call “crisps”.
Taking part in the trade mission, which will take in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, the Flemish bureau for agricultural marketing VLAM will be attempting to establish Belgium’s position as a major potato exporter – most of the country’s big producers are from West Flanders – on South-East Asian markets, where at present the American model – long, thin McDonald’s-style fries referred to by local producers as “shoe-laces” – tends to dominate.
VLAM has a budget of €3 million spread over three years to finance its marketing campaign. One of the plus-points the campaign aims to stress is the variety in Belgian styles, as opposed to the uniform, mass-produced industrial style of the dominant product.
“Diversity if our strength: one Belgian cooks his fries in coconut oil, and the other in beef fat,” commented Jon Heylen of Agristo, one of the five sector companies taking part in the mission, to De Morgen. “We want to communicate that experience to the market.”
Belgian marketers, however, recognise that they face an uphill struggle in trying to pry the credit for genuine fries away from the French. The legend goes that American soldiers in the First World War became attached to frites/frieten, and assumed they were in France and the product was French – in the early 20th century, the part of West Flanders where the front was situated was far more French-speaking than it is today. The label “French fries” has stuck ever since.
“It will be difficult to fight against the generic term French fries,” admitted Geert Van Causenbroek of VLAM. “It’s employed all over the world. There are even Belgian restaurants that put ‘French fries’ on their English-language menu. South-East Asia is the perfect place to begin to effect change. The tradition is not so embedded here; here we can begin with a clean slate”.