Feature: Belgium's family potato business vital force in land of fries

by Diao Ze

BRUSSELS, Aug. 11 (Xinhua) — Potatoes are the second largest cultivated crop in Belgium and a key ingredient in Belgian cuisine. It’s the base of the world-famous French fries, and is considered by Belgians as part of their national pride.

From family lunchtime to potato-menu-only restaurants, what makes Belgian chips so special?

“First of all, you must understand that Belgian chips represent culture,” said Romain Cools, secretary general of Belgapom, the Belgian potato trade association, in a recent visit to a farmland in West Flanders with Xinhua.

“It’s not only about the quality of the crops, which is the gift from mother nature, but also the whole industry we built over generations that fascinates the world,” he said.

According to a study published by Belgapom, in recent years, the Belgian potato sector has developed considerably and Belgium is now one of its main producers in western Europe. Companies specializing in potato cultivation, supply and processing are jointly important players on the market. Together, they annually contribute to the world 2.75 billion kg of chips, croquettes, potato flakes and crisps.

Speaking about the unique traits of Belgian potato planting, Cools said the secret lay in highly suitable soil and just the right climate. “The temperate maritime climate in Belgium protects the plant from extreme temperatures and provides sufficient rainfall, while the loamy [rich] soil with sufficient nutrients ensures the potato plants survive despite their delicate roots,” he explained.

“Most importantly, we have people who devote their life to the land — the Belgian potato farmers with their expert knowledge and passion passing down generations,” he stressed.

Bruno Mylle and his brother Carlo are both directors of Mydibel, a Belgian family business specialized in potato production. The company was founded in 1988 by their father Roger in Mouscron, a region known for its fertile clay soil.

“My father’s background is immersed in farming,” said Bruno. “His parents are farmers and he enjoyed nothing more than watching hard tractor work on the land. My father always told my brother and me that we should be able to do everything start to finish: planting, spraying, harvesting, processing, and delivering… the lot.”

Now at the age of 74, Roger still likes to come to the Mydibel factory and spend hours with his companions, some of whom he has worked with for many years. This solid grower-processor relationship over the decades becomes a guarantee of quality, Bruno feels.

Mydibel is surrounded by a network of potato growers, who supply the factory with about 400,000 tonnes of potatoes per year. To achieve that, 9,000 hectares of potato fields are harvested, equivalent to 15,000 football pitches.

Dozens of trucks carrying fresh potatoes are delivered to the factory every day, either directly from the field or from the warehouse. The potatoes are sorted and processed in less than 24 hours into fries and other potato specialty products.

“All of the potatoes are inspected visually so that only the best are used for production of fries,” said a staff member working in the factory.

He told Xinhua that at every step of production, the product is tested for dry material, health, morphology [form] and fry-color index by quality controllers in order to safeguard safety and quality.

The production units jointly process them into 225,000 tonnes of finished products per year, and the output is distributed in over 100 countries around the world.

Meanwhile, the family business attaches great importance to being green by constructing its own power plant, fueled by a digester which produces biogas from starchy wastewater. This completes a green energy circle in-house that contributes significantly to the fight against global warming.

“The sludge digestate [remains] that comes from energy production can be dried to become fertilizer for potato fields. In this way, we succeeded in giving something back to our land,” said Cools.

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