This week I visited Picard, France’s favourite frozen food emporium. In all the years I’ve been visiting France, I’ve never set foot in one, single Picard store. There’s even one smack bang, opposite my apartment. So, I decided it was time to begin breaking the ice with Picard.
When you’re staying in a hotel, there’s no real need for frozen food, unless your day has been so catastrophic that you need a litre bucket of ice cream. It wasn’t just that I was freezer-less that was preventing me from entering Picard. I’ll stick my head around the door of most places with no intention to purchase anything, just for a look. It was something else.
A Clinical Facade
From the exterior, there is something a little, well, clinical about Picard. The sanitised, identical rows of white freezer cabinets, alabastrine walls reflected in panes of sterile gleaming glass put me in mind of a purveyor of high street cosmetic surgery. Something resembling a more upmarket version of your local hairdresser offering two for one botox on a slow Wednesday. I like my food frozen, my face, not so much. Part of the reason I haven’t been inside isn’t just for want of a freezer. I found it all a bit off putting, reminiscent of the kind of store a Stepford gal might embrace.
A Very Cool Business
I admit, my initial assessment is more than a little unfair. Ahead of his time, Raymond Picard began trading as Les Glaciéres de Fontainebleau in 1906. He sold huge blocks of ice to homes in Paris, enabling them to keep their food cold and fresh long before anyone had even dreamed of fridge freezers. Today, Picard has a knack of constantly introducing new products, maintaining their position as a market leader.
In addition to France, Picard can be found all across Europe. Although there are no stores in the UK, Picard has teamed up with Ocado for home deliveries.
It’s one of the world’s most successful frozen food brands. Today’s stores embrace new culinary trends, eschewing GMO, hydrogenated fats and excessive levels of salt. All good reasons to begin breaking the ice with Picard.
Picard Vs Iceland
I wrestle with Picard’s popularity in France, the world’s food snobbery capital. God forbid I should even begin to compare Picard to the UK frozen food giant, Iceland. Kerry Katona and Peter Andre wouldn’t get a look in here. Picard regards itself as a très upmarket establishment with prices to match. Voted the country’s favourite brand in 2014, this isn’t any old frozen food shop. This is quality frozen food, French Style. Think gourmet rather than 50 mini sausage rolls for a quid and you’ve got Picard. I can’t help but feel it’s still just frozen food. Albeit in Paris. The French, however, wax lyrical about Picard, it just can’t put a frozen foot wrong.
Food you never knew you needed
Inside the cool, air conditioned, walls of that sophisticated veneer, Picard presents a well ordered avalanche of frozen food. Those glossy, white freezer cabinets cradle everything from organic 9 Vegetable Frozen Soup in a bag (ok, yes, I did buy some) to Lobster, Macarons, Pacific Mussels, Veal Burgers, Hors d’oeuvre, Tiramisu aux Fruits, stuffed Burgundy escargots, and frozen Crepes along with a selection of sweet, eggy, flakey pastries just waiting to clog your arteries with their buttery delirium. Food that you never even knew you needed, let alone existed.
Letting the side down
The first time I came to France, the neighbours of my French exchange student enthusiastically regaled me with tales of a local English girl who had married a Frenchman. After their initial ebullience that a real, live, English girl lived on the same street, their faces fell. “She can’t cook” they added solemnly as though they had just informed me that she was a social pariah. “She buys frozen food.” they whispered, eyes darting around to make sure that they had not been overheard. I kept quiet about the gargantuan chest freezer, sitting at home in our garage.
They were totally mystified by a woman unable to cook. Those hushed tones suggested it might be the work of the devil, a woman who could not (although I suspect, would not) perform in the kitchen? It just wasn’t natural. Not in France.
I can’t help feeling guilty as I skulk along the aisles. As though I am engaging in an activity which I should feel ever so slightly ashamed of.
The food snobbery capital
My neighbourhood has over four Picard stores within a five minute radius. The popularity of Picard defies logic, flying in the face of what I know to be true about the culinary capital of the world. Food in Paris is all about the ingredients. Using fresh produce and knowing how to select it. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve been to the market every day, cooking from scratch. Stepping over the threshold of Picard felt as though I was letting the side down.
The store was empty. For all intents and purposes, I was incognito. I furtively wandered down the first antiseptic aisle. So. This is Picard. Now it was clear. I knew why it was so popular. It was the innocence and experience of frozen food in France. The assistant nodded with a “Told you so” look as he continued refilling a nearby cabinet. He swiftly stacked boxes and bags of croissants, brioche, baguettes and pain aux raisins. Hmmm, pain aux raisins I thought to myself. Swiftly followed by, you have 4 boulangeries within spitting distance. What’s the point of a frozen pain aux raisin when you can buy a fresh one just over the road? For me, therein lies the problem with anything frozen when you live in a city. It’s all there, on your doorstep and sometimes, it’s just as quick to cook yourself.
Time for a test drive
Throwing caution along with my icy prejudice to the wind, I decided to test drive some Dauphinois Potatoes and a Tarte Tatin, along with that frozen soup in a bag that I’m deliberately keeping quiet about. Making my purchase before surreptitiously legging it over the road, back to the apartment, I felt a rush of exhilaration. I bounced up the four flights of spiralling stairs, ensconcing my stash safely in the freezer before beginning a coaching call with a client.
Thoughts of my frozen extravaganza interrupted my focus. Should I start cooking now or later? After some stern talking to myself I resolved to beta test the Dauphinois spuds immediately after the call.
So how were they? The potatoes were ok. They weren’t awful. Could I have made something equally as well? Yes, probably. The Tarte Tatin? Oh my goodness, the buttery, caramelised, soft, sweetness of the French apple Tarte Tatin. It was good and then some. So much so that I managed to help myself to two slices in one evening.
The success of Picard is down to it’s convenience. In a world where we’re all time poor, it’s hugely convenient to have access to a store after work, when you’re tired or you just can’t be bothered. Who wants to peel and chop after a hard day? To hammer home the point, Picard’s best seller? Extra fine green beans which they sell by the 16 metric ton load, daily. It’s a case of we just don’t have the time to do everything on the list, so where we can effortlessly cut corners, we do.
Just like ma mère made?
Is it really possible to buy something just like your mother made? Based on my own mother’s cooking, I sincerely hope not. The world of food has thankfully moved on since Findus savoury pancakes, Shipham’s spread, dale steaks and frozen choc ice. It’s heartening to know that every French kitchen isn’t home to a gourmet chef. For me, that stereotype has been reassuring shattered. Something that clever English girl in Villeneuve d’Asq had managed to work out all on her own.