Rumours of the British overtaking the French in culinary finesse are greatly exaggerated. Simon Hopkinson takes a trip to le marche
I have just returned home from the Bassin d'Arcachon in south- west France, where I stayed for a few days with friends in a wonderful house directly abutting the water's edge and a crab's scamper from the famous Arcachon oyster beds. It is fiercely tidal, this peculiar bassin, or estuary, with two highs and two lows daily. It seems that the water is literally sucked out, as if someone has pulled a plug from a hole in the sand. The under-current rip is so strong, if one were to fall asleep upon a Lilo in the late-afternoon sunshine, one might well find oneself floating out into the angry Atlantic instead of sipping a Martini while sitting on the garden's sea wall.

There is no question about it, France remains my most favourite place to be, apart from home here in west London - although I admit to an increasing feeling that it is the former which beckons more and more, as recent years have gone by.

Of course, not surprisingly, it is principally the food that matters to me, but it is also the way in which it is respected, prepared, eaten and enjoyed, for heaven's sake. Literally across the road, out from the garden gate of that French house, was a small grocer's shop, a small "mini-market" I guess you could say, although to compare it with something similarly named in this country would be quite absurd.

The town itself is called Cap Ferret, very attractive in its own right and not simply a seaside place full of tourists from far and wide. (I did not hear another English voice the whole time I was there.) I mean, how many British seaside towns sport a regular market and a fishmongers to rival any - and I mean any - in the UK? But then, a good fishmonger, laughably, is possibly the most difficult thing to find these days in a British fishing port. All the good stuff has been sold overseas or transported to London. It's a joke, really it is.

And then there are the people who serve all this. They simply know what they are doing. Only just this morning I was in my local Tesco where, unusually, there were some quite nice-looking fresh herrings (nobody was buying them, naturally, as they were far too cheap and have things called bones; filleted farmed salmon was twice the price and was walking out of the door). The counter girl didn't even know what a herring was, but she had been taught how to key the price code into the till, so that's all right then.

I do really find it somewhat depressing that, with all the froth of this fanatical new interest we are supposedly enjoying in this land just now with regard to food, cookery and restaurants - which seem to open at a daily rate, up and down the country - the press and (supposed) catering powers-that-be seem to have this strange notion that we are overtaking the culinary prowess which "France once enjoyed". Just spending those few days in Cap Ferret caused me to think how typically ignorant it is of a certain type of Brit to suggest such nonsense. What possible evidence has been collected to cause such rude claims to be voiced? I find all this deeply lowering and hugely embarrassing. It's enough to put me off my herrings.

Captions: Legumes

Privately owned (naturally), spotless and open from the early hours until 8pm, French food store owners see nothing unusual about displaying a cornucopia of the freshest vegetables and a myriad collection of charcuterie and salads.


Even the smallest supermarkets and street markets offer the most bewildering array of fine cheeses. In the case of Cap Ferret's Casino, this includes at least three - yes, three - dozen soft sheep's milk cheeses, all, needless to say, in absolutely peak condition.


The display of meats would rival the most traditional, family- run butchers in the UK. But the French could also teach us a thing or two about presentation, pride and how nice it is to have one's purchases neatly wrapped up in waxed paper, instead of being suffocated by yards of clingfilm with a polystyrene container.