Michael McCarthy: French countryside: a throwback to the 50s</B>

Nature Notebook
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The Independent Online

What do you look for from a holiday in France? Almost certainly, the food will be high up on most people's lists, so here's a tip. Don't expect too much from restaurants offering modern haute cuisine, as unless you pay a king's ransom, you will often be disappointed by the gap between ambition and execution – by exciting-sounding dishes not actually that special on your plate.

The most reliably good food in France is to be found elsewhere, in the brasseries, those town-centre cafes that spread paper cloths on to their tables at noon and turn themselves into lunchtime restaurants for office workers. Every day, a brasserie offers a plat du jour for about €10 (£8), a piece of meat or fish cooked with an accompaniment – something like côte de porc forestière, or paupiettes de sole – that is solid, old-fashioned, and in my experience, unfailingly delicious. It's the French food of 50 years ago, still surviving, and the best food in the world.

But that's a digression. The point I digressed from is there are other remarkable attractions about France besides the food, and the politer civil society, and the more open landscapes and the warmer climate, and one of them is wildlife. Several days spent at a Normandy farmhouse last week proved this point. The garden was as full of butterflies as it was of flowers. One afternoon, on a buddleia bush, I counted six separate species feeding on nectar at the same time – for the record, red admiral, peacock, wall, gatekeeper, meadow brown and speckled wood. When did anyone last see a sight like that in Britain? It was like a throwback to the 1950s. Like the lunchtime food in the brasseries, in fact.

Violet or violent?

Other handsome insects seen around the buddleia: a hummingbird hawk-moth, which seems, like hummingbirds, to be able to fly backwards, and a quite magnificent moth with brown and cream forewings, and scarlet and black hindwings, which the reference book said was a Jersey tiger. Most spectacular of all: a violet carpenter bee, a monstrous dark-blue creature that is the biggest bee in Europe (and started breeding in Britain last year, probably because of the warming climate). It's harmless, although if I had my way I would rename it the violent carpenter bee, just so people would show it some respect.

Red squirrel reminder

Final French wildlife note: seen near the farmhouse, a red squirrel. Delicate-boned, with prominent ear tufts: you forget how beautiful they are, now that their grey cousins have driven them to extinction in England south of the Lake District, apart from colonies on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, and in a National Trust wood near Liverpool. No greys in France yet. It's only a matter of time.

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