Quality as standard

Food really does taste better on the other side of the Channel

Food in France triggers stock remarks. French food is so much better than ours, people say, because the French demand that it be so. Stop at any humble roadside restaurant, and you will be served dishes that put to shame most British establishments.

We are in the south of Normandy, on the edge of the Perche, an unglamorous but beautiful region of forests and rolling fields. Mortagne-au-Perche is the home of boudin noir. Nearby Moulins-la-Marche claims to be the home of the brioche, and stages a brioche-eating contest - in ironic tribute to Marie Antoinette, no doubt - each 14 July. One year, as we watched contestants cramming the cake into their parched mouths, a neighbour told us that the eating competition in Mortagne was "encore plus affreux".

British restaurateurs need not fear comparison with their counterparts around here. In my experience, it is just as easy to eat badly in lower Normandy and, indeed, in many other parts of France as it is at home. What is different, though, is that even the most downmarket French restaurant pays some homage to classical cuisine. No chicken nuggets here! The café at the swimming pool and bowling alley in 'Aigle offers a fixed menu including a plat du jour (today steak frites), salad and dessert. Its wine list includes bottles from the Loire, Bordeaux and the Rhône.

Other comparisons are more tricky. We are not badly off in Britain nowadays, and good food always tastes just a bit more special when you are on holiday. Nevertheless, the fruit and vegetables on sale at our modest local market - and even in our 8 à Huit supermarket - are more flavoursome than any I can buy locally at home.

Yesterday, I cooked a cheat's ratatouille. I tossed fork-sized chunks of aubergine, courgette and onion with chopped garlic, olive oil and seasoning, and baked them in an uncovered casserole for an hour (you are supposed to cook them separately); ten minutes before the end, I stirred in pieces of separately baked red pepper. The vegetables, which we ate warm, were richly, meltingly delicious. In Britain, the Dutch or Spanish ingredients that would most likely have contributed to this stew would have yielded far thinner flavours.

The 8 à Huit, which is smaller than a Tesco Metro, does not have the international range of produce that English shops provide. But it has farmers' cheeses and creams; a butcher's, from which I bought the best chicken I have tasted for a long time; and a chill cabinet in which you can find kippers and saucissons. In Britain, such produce comes under ranges such as "Taste the Difference", or it has a separate "speciality" bay to itself. Here, it is part of the standard range. I like it here.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com