European Times: Similar countries separated by a matter of taste

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The Independent Online
THE HILLS south of Caen, just over 1,000 feet at their misty peak, are the only significant mounds between the South Downs and the Massif Central.

More than 150 miles of water and 933 years of history separate Calvados from the Selsey Bill but, dropped here by parachute, you might think you were in England.

The tree-crowned hills, narrow lanes, hedgerows, dairy cows and apple orchards could be Herefordshire or Somerset. Nine centuries after the Norman Conquest, the faces of the local people might easily be southern English faces.

Elsewhere in Normandy, even the churches and farm-houses have a startlingly English physiognomy (or rather we forget how much of the characteristically "English" rural style is actually Norman).

Up in the Calvados hills the cross-Manche architectural similarities are less pronounced. Most of the large villages and towns were flattened in July and August 1944 as the British and Canadian armies broke out from the D-Day beach-heads.

They have been rebuilt - with Washington cash, to Parisian bureaucratic plans - in a solid Legoland reach-me-down continental style. You could find identical buildings in Belgium or Denmark or Germany.

Two other features distinguish this part of rural Normandy from rural England in the 1990s.

The first is emptiness. Compared with other depopulated parts of central or south- western or north-eastern France, Normandy is a thriving, crowded sort of place.

Compared with any part of rural England - except perhaps the Shropshire- Welsh border - it is empty and quiet. Exquisitely so, if you are a weekend or holiday visitor.

In the lanes around our house we can walk for five or six miles - even at the weekend, even at this time of year - and meet no more than one or two cars and a tractor.

The other distinguishing feature, a feature almost of cliche Frenchness (in the most positive sense), is the attitude of the Normans to food: an attitude of adoration, of painstaking devotion.

This is not true of all local people. Our previously chronicled neighbour, Jean-Michel, the world's most incompetent dairy farmer, looks as if he rarely bothers to eat (even though his cows produce the raw material for the local, and terrific, camembert).

But our neighbours on the other side, Michel and Madeleine, are committed to food in the way that other people are committed to golf or football or soap operas on television. Their life is dominated by a constant quest to find, make or produce - and eat - the best of everything.

Michel, who has the look of an English actor playing secondary roles in war movies in the 1950s, will be 55 this week. He was born, in the next village, a couple of days before D-Day. He spent the first two and a half months of his life hiding in the iron-ore mines (now defunct) in the valley bottom while the allies laid waste to Calvados.

He works in the Citroen factory in Caen. Madeleine, a couple of years younger, who closely resembles Alf Garnett's wife in Till Death Us Do Part, is caretaker for four blocks of flats. Their two grown-up daughters are married.

Every weekend Michel and Madeleine make the short migration from their flat in Caen to their country home, not to relax but to work ceaselessly in the vegetable garden, or in the kitchen, or with their bee hives, or to scour local farms and markets for delicacies.

Mussels, you might think, are mussels. To Michel and Madeleine there is only one kind worth the bother of cooking and eating.

Boulot mussels, small and succulent and bright orange, come from a particular inlet in the bay of the Mont-St Michel, 50 miles away. They can only be bought locally at a particular stall in the market at Vire, 20 miles to the south- west, on Friday mornings. Mushrooms should, ideally, be bought from a mushroom stall at the market in Conde, 10 miles to the south, on Thursday mornings.

A camembert is a camembert? Actually, the differences are vast. I like the local ones but Michel and Madeleine won't have them in the house. They taste fine, they admit, but they have been told too many stomach- churning secrets by relatives who work in the factory. They swear by a camembert from the Cotentin peninsula, called Jort, which to me tastes too chalky to be a real camembert. My wife, Margaret, once found two old ladies fighting over the last Jort in the local supermarket, so doubtless our neighbours are right.

Our eldest child, Charlie, aged 9, was once invited to accompany Michel on an important errand. They drove more than 20 miles, almost to Bayeux, to chase and collect a live duck from a farm that raises ducks the proper way, on home-grown grain.

We were invited recently to eat a chicken at Michel and Madeleine's house. It was billed as young chicken, but looked as big as a juvenile ostrich. It came from a farmer over the hill who raises his young chickens exclusively on milk; he produces them, to order, for regular customers and telephones Michel when his bird is ready.

The piece de resistance is Madeleine's rabbit pate, made with parsley and garlic to a secret recipe handed down through the generations. One weekend Madeleine came, distraught, to our house. House on fire? Distemper in the tomato plants?

No, Michel was away and she had accidentally left her rabbits behind at the flat in Caen. Ah, the poor rabbits would die of hunger or loneliness. No. They were marinading in wine. If not removed soon, they would be ruined.

We were pleased to find some way we could repay Madeleine and Michel for scores of kindnesses since we bought the house next door. Margaret drove Madeleine the 50-mile round trip to Caen to rescue the marinading rabbits.

The next day we found on our doorstep, wrapped in silver foil, a massive slab of grey-pink rabbit pate. Nowhere, not in the finest traiteur or Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, would you find a pate with so many layers of delicate taste.

At Christmas, still about a hundred kindnesses behind, we decided to give Madeleine and Michel a present they would appreciate, an example of British haute cuisine: a Marks & Spencer "gourmet" plum pudding. Our neighbours were very polite but they have not yet asked for the address of Marks & Spencer.