PARIS DAYS : No cheap thrills in a gastronomic nirvana

Within two minutes' walk of our front door, there are five bakeries, three butchers, three specialist cheese shops, one fish- monger, two greengrocers, three general stores and one small supermarket. A little further away is the Poncelet-Bayen food market, reputed to be one of the best in Paris.

There is nothing exceptionally wealthy, or greedy, about our quartier. A similar constellation of specialist, family-run shops exists within strolling distance of most places in Paris.

All of these shops (save the scruffy little supermarket) have beautiful displays of the highest quality food. The daily kaleidoscope of plump fruit and vegetables at the greengrocers on the corner resembles the competition stand at a country fair. The butcher in the next street, who makes his own pates and terrines, will lovingly explain the difference between a saucisson (moist) and a saucisse (dry). There is no finer aesthetic experience in Paris - forget the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay - than to walk into a fromagerie and savour the conflicting aromas of a few of the 400-odd types of French cheese.

But these are not cheap thrills. On arrival in France, like most British people we were paralysed by food price-sticker shock. The disparities are narrowing with the rise in sterling, but shopping for food in France remains cripplingly expensive compared with Britain.

My wife, Margaret, had shopping in London off to a fine, investigative art. In Paris, she was devastated to have to pay 75p for a lettuce after 19p in London. A chicken in Paris might cost pounds 4.50, compared with pounds 2.95 in London. Two baguettes come to just under pounds 1, compared with 27p for a Sainsbury's sliced loaf, equivalent in bulk though no contest in taste. Two litres of milk in Paris cost pounds 1.25, rather than 89p in London. Some vegetables and fruit are comparable in price with Britain. Wine is substantially cheaper.

Convinced that, however good they might be, we were being ripped off by the neighbourhood shops, we tried the market, then the supermarkets in the suburbs, then the vast hypermarkets, as large as airport terminals, in the provinces. The price differences were tiny. In many cases, the figures were suspiciously similar.

There are occasional price promotions but in France, the price of fish is the price of fish. You can shop around for quality but looking for bargains saves only centimes. Overall, Margaret estimates that shopping to feed five people in Paris costs pounds 450 a month - compared with pounds 320 in London.

Part of the difference can be explained by the fact that food is taxed in France - at a minimum of 18 per cent - and not in Britain. But what of the rest? Are we not supposed to be in a single European market with common farm prices? Why is food in France so expensive?

The broad and easy answer is that France is a regulated, producer - and retailer-led, not a market - and consumer-led economy. Although the large hypermarches have undercut the small artisan food shops in some provincial towns, the price of food seems in mysterious ways, and maybe not so mysterious ways, to be pegged within certain limits. Jacques Chirac, when he was mayor of Paris, forbade large supermarkets from entering the city.

The French consumer tolerates this state of affairs because - when it comes to food - France is a quality, not a price- led culture. There must, however, be many working wives on limited incomes in the suburbs who would love to be able occasionally to walk into a Sainsbury's and buy a tin of cheap baked beans. On the other hand, we could ask a different question. Why is food in Britain so cheap? The French gain something from having expensive food. What do we lose from having such cheap food?

On a brief visit to England this week, I was under orders to go to Sainsbury's to buy a lifetime's supply of tea-bags (French love of quality does not extend to tea). Walking around the aisles, I was afflicted by reverse culture shock. Yes, everything was cheap compared with France. But where were the rows of sausages and cooked meats? The banks of vegetables? Instead, there seemed to be an aisle each for biscuits, baked beans and pet food.

By forcing down producer and processor margins, the large UK supermarket chains have cut the price of food shopping in Britain. They have also enormously increased their market share and driven scores of smaller rivals out of business.

A recent survey of UK super-markets by the Epicurean World Master Chef's Society complains that the quality of food offered in supermarkets chains in Britain is atrocious. Good quality foods exists there, the chefs say, but obsession with price and market share has driven it out of supermarkets. Much was the same in America, I recall, where food was even cheaper but the quality even lower.

Here, then, is a great conundrum for the market ideologists and the dirigiste social planners alike. A relatively controlled economy like France produces an alimentary cornucopia; but no easy escape from high prices for poorer families. A "free" economy like the UK or the US produces cheap food of poor quality and limited choice, save 400 kinds of biscuits, or 400 kinds of peanut butter, all of which taste the same.

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