"Baraques"

Text from Carole Coen

The French call them les baraques – those vans, shacks and caravans settled by the seaside, behind a car park, in a lay-by. Some of these mobile chippies look positively Christmas tree-like, festooned with lights and elaborate signage. Others are altogether more chi-chi affairs, sporting fetching red trim on their facade. And then there are those whose owners really haven’t given the decor much thought, simply adding a makeshift veranda in front of the counter to shield diners from the cold and rain.

Like a pair of thick mittens that you’d pull on in winter or those paper lanterns that lit up summer evenings, chip stalls are a reminder of childhood, of those easygoing holidays when mum and dad let you eat with your fingers. The baraques are an authentic part of both the gastronomic and social heritage of northern France. Be it in Lille or on the Côte d’Opale, in Loos, Escalles or Calais, everyone – young and old, rich and poor – takes part in the ritual of purchasing a cornet of vinegar-laden chips, which you either devour while stood chatting at the counter or after you’ve rushed your bounty home, neatly parcelled in paper. They’re hot, they’re cheap and they’re made for sharing.
Over the few years, however, the number of these chippies – which are classified as ‘itinerant traders’, even though they rarely move – has dwindled. European legislation’s tendency towards hygiene directives that are difficult to comply with, along with a desire to tidy up the landscape to boost tourism, is forcing a lot of these shacks to close down.
Traditionally these businesses have often been handed down from father or mother to son or daughter. Should the traditional sites become unworkable, thei owners will either change their line of work entirely or open a bricks-and-mortar restaurant among the shops, coffee shops banks and neon-lit fast-food factories that will one day ensure every high street in Europe looks exactly the same.

So if you’re travelling to the north of France this summer, keep a lookout for those vans, shacks and caravans, where men and women are busily slicing up potatoes, dropping them in the fryer and then serving them up in boxes, while outside other men and women are greedily eating them with salty fingers, like kids. By the seaside, behind a car park, in a lay-by, the lights on these little chippies are still blinking – but maybe not for much longer...