France's Love of Frozen Food: Picard
France is a country of paradoxes and contradictions. Case in point: Picard, a popular and very successful supermarket chain that sells only frozen foods. You think the French have the world's highest standards for food, ingredients, and culinary technique? Perhaps it does, but how does that explain Picard?
With hundreds of stores across France, as well as ones in Belgium and Luxembourg, Picard brings French cuisine into home freezers. But this is nothing like the frozen food aisle in a typical American supermarket. At Picard they've reached a très haute level of convenient cooking by freezing what seems to be the entire French diet.
Everything they sell is frozen. A typical Picard store is perhaps about 3,000 square feet, very spare, with hip-high, glass-topped frozen food cases lining each wall. Depending on the layout, there may also be cases running down the center. There are few decorations, usually only a few product posters. To protect their purchases, customers buy a large, sturdy Picard-branded frozen food bag that is commonplace in many Parisian households. In the food cases you will regularly find such items as mini boudins blancs with morel mushrooms, Basque chicken, purée of potatoes with diced ham and emmentaler cheese, vegetable tagine, stuffed tomatoes, dorade with truffles, and coffee éclairs. Nice, eh?
The store is organized into categories as any supermarket would be, but with a few refinements that reflect the fact that much of the food is already prepared: vegetables, fruit, apératifs, starters and salads, main courses, bread and pastries, desserts, and ice cream and sorbet. They also have a section dedicated to what they call les indispensables du cuisinier -- cooking essentials -- which includes things like minced shallots, Thai curry sauce, beurre blanc, or raspberry coulis. There's an organic section -- what the French call bio, plus cases filled with foods for kids and babies.
Picard has monthly and seasonal specials, although you can't help but wonder why they need to feature foods in season since everything is frozen.
On my recent visit to Paris when I was staying, and cooking, in a Left Bank apartment (which had one of the Picard insulated shopping bags for us to use), I yielded to temptation and bought a classic savory tart called a pissaladière. Popular in the south of France, a pissaladière is made with caramelized onions, black olives, and anchovies and is wonderful as an hors d'oeuvres or for lunch with a salad. A package of two tarts, each about five inches in diameter, cost about $4.00 and is baked for about 20 minutes. To my taste it was not great but also not terrible and in a pinch, as when unexpected guests show up, it could be nice to have on hand. Likewise for their packages of frozen macarons or crème brûlée for late night cravings.
Picard's website is fun to explore, especially thinking how they take online orders and deliver in insulated packaging. I am still befuddled by how a country with such a vibrant food culture would invent something like Picard, but perhaps that's the whole point. Even when it comes to convenience and cooking from the freezer, the French won't dumb down their cuisine.