In Belgium, frites aren't small potatoes
BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - Paul Ilegems, a retired professor of art history, has a vision of heaven. It involves a simple Belgian pommes frites stand where "human souls ascended eat their fries undisturbed."
It may be odd for a man accustomed to appreciating the beauty of art to wax poetic about something as mundane as frites, but to Ilegems, who has written four books about fries, including a volume of poetry, it is essential.
Fortunately the professor is in good company in Belgium, where fried potatoes -- how they are cut, twice fried, salted and served -- is a serious, some would say fanatical, business.
"Frites are something omnipresent in Belgian culture," says a rapt Ilegems, less beat poet than frites poet, when asked to put his finger on how important chips are to the nation.
There are many ways to measure Belgians' passion for fries, but here's one: there are more than 5,000 frites vendors in the country of 10 million people, which means there are 11 times as many stands per capita as there McDonald's per American.
Drive past an open Belgian frites stand at any time of the day or night, rain or shine, and there's a good chance a queue of people will be waiting patiently for their fix.
Belgians consume on average 75 kg (165 lbs) of fried potatoes per person each year, a third more than Americans, and the potato love doesn't stop there -- pommes frites are as fundamental to Belgium's cultural heritage as comic book hero Tintin and the country's famously strong monk-brewed beer.
"Frites are part of the folklore of Belgium," declares Peter Matagne, a doctor and regular patron of Frit-Flagey, a popular frites stand in Brussels that draws a determined crowd despite the owners' reputations for being brusque.
There are several accounts of how slices of potato first came to be fried and eaten, but Ilegems believes they were first munched by St. Teresa of Avila in 16th century Spain.
Later, in the 1680s, members of the Spanish Netherlands community who lived near modern-day Liege in Belgium were known to fry strips of potato when they couldn't find fish to fry, according to Belgian journalist Jo Gerard.
Belgium's first frites stand can be traced to Liege in 1838, says Ilegems, who adds that the misnomer "French fries" originated in the United States in the 1880s.
Others relate how in World War One, British and American troops based in Belgium spoke of eating French fries because French was the language of the Belgian army at the time.
Whatever the truth, Belgians remain sensitive about their fries being referred to as French.
"There's no such thing as French fries. It's 'Belgian fries' or 'fries,' but never 'French fries,'" says Brussels resident Bastien Ruytinx, another fan of Frit-Flagey, an aluminum-sided shack no bigger than a single-car garage.
So seriously do Belgians take their fried potatoes that four years ago a vocational center started to train would-be frites sellers. Classes are always oversubscribed.
The school, in Leuven about 30 km (20 miles) from Brussels, spends a year teaching aspiring vendors the tricks of the trade, from the sugar content of various potatoes to techniques of double-frying. They have to write a thesis to graduate, says the school's communications chief, Lieze Struyf.
"We Belgians are known for our fries, which is why we wanted a course to help shop owners be competitive with McDonald's and Quick," says Struyf, who believes the academy is helping keep Belgium at the top of the global frites stakes.
Many elements make up the perfect Belgian fries, but two are critical, according to Michel Mes, a blogger and frites consultant whose business cards read "Missionary of the Belgian Fries": The use of fresh Bintje potatoes and a double cooking process in vegetable oil, sometimes with beef or duck fat added.
Before they cross the counter, Belgian fries are carefully wrapped in a paper cone, salted and topped with one of at least a dozen mayonnaise-based sauces, before being stabbed with a small plastic cocktail fork.
The snack is catching on globally, says Mes, who since 1995 has catalogued Belgian fry stands from Salt Lake City to Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi on his website, Belgianfries.com. When it comes to fries, the world is learning the Belgian way, he says.
"Everyone worldwide knows that when you talk about a Belgian product, that means quality," says Mes, a Dutch transplant to Leuven and a passionate frites advocate.
New York City native Suzanne Levinson opened Pommes Frites, a tiny spud shop in the city's East Village, in 1997, after "being bitten by the Belgian frites bug."
Levinson can't get Bintje potatoes, and New Yorkers aren't crazy about beef fat, so she serves up Idaho Russet Burbanks cooked in vegetable oil, going through up to four tons of fresh potatoes a week and offering two dozen special sauces.
North American interest in Belgian fries has taken off in the past few years, says Levinson, who in 2008 started reselling the frites cones she imports and now ships thousands a month all over the United States and Canada.
In Brussels, Raquel Lafuente, 32, has visited Frit-Flagey a few times a month since she moved to the city from Madrid a year and a half ago. She said she will miss the stand's fries when she leaves. "Spain has fries too, but they won't be the same."
(Editing by Luke Baker and Steve Addison)