This holiday season, many French families will be serving stuffed capon or turkey, foie gras in various preparations and perhaps an elaborate buche de Noël for dessert. And they won’t have prepared any of it. Rather than ordering from a caterer, or traiteur, they will have bought their festive dinners at Picard.
Picard is one of those particular French food chains I’ve come to love and also, like a lot of Parisians, to rely on for certain things. It’s a store that’s dedicated to frozen foods – or les surgelés, which means deep-frozen – and it’s fabulous.
I’ve been to dinner parties at friends’ who’ve served with pride the Picard saumon en croute, alongside a purée de céleri aux pommes et aux truffes noires, with a Picard opera cake for dessert.
Over cocktails at someone’s home, you’re likely to see alongside the nuts or cherry tomatoes that are the usual nibbles before dinner, a sliced savory cake (zucchini and goat cheese or ham and olives) from Picard, or their gougères or their bouchées apéritives aux noix de Saint-Jacques. In France, shopping at an open-air market remains important, and each of us has a favorite local marché or boucher or poissonnier. But if you’re in a rush or out of luck regarding operating hours (open-air markets close at 1 p.m.), you can find a host of vegetables, meats and fish at Picard.
Picard looks nothing like an American grocery, and there’s really no equivalent in the U.S. to its range of high-end frozen foods, both for prepared meals and for individual ingredients.
The stores have a rather clinical décor – white and blue, implying a sort of culinary operating room – and the staff wear white lab coats. All to give you the idea of purity. When I first stepped into one – a Picard was a couple of doors down from the first apartment I stayed in – I was taken aback. Not only by the very idea of frozen foods being a go-to for so many Parisians, but also by breadth of products for sale as well as the apparent local attitude toward using frozen products in the first place. I had a naïve idea that everyone in France shopped every day for something absolutely sparkling fresh to make each night. Well, maybe then, but not now. I quickly learned too that many of my French friends (good home cooks all) loved shopping at Picard. And since today more people have refrigerators with good-sized freezers (though American behemoths are nowhere to be found), they can stock up on frozen foods.
I began myself to buy Picard products. I started as an American might – with a frozen margarita pizza (not bad, but no mistaking it for fresh). I then moved past prepared foods to the simple frozen vegetables and fish and poultry (good chicken is quite pricey in Paris), and to the little sacks of sauces and stocks (frozen into heaping tablespoon sizes) that I could add to any dish I was making.
And, of course, the desserts. Even with boulangeries and patisseries on every corner, you still find yourself gravitating toward Picard for certain items. One of the biggest bargains is its galette des Rois, a seasonal specialty. It’s a puff pastry and frangipane dessert served in January to mark the feast of the Epiphany. As with so many holiday traditions these days, the season has stretched, this one from late December to early February, and it’s the dessert of choice at many dinners during the first weeks of winter. Unlike some of the desserts at Picard, which you simply thaw, you bake this one. And at 5 euros (serving six people) it was easily as tasty as the little gallette des Rois that I once bought at a nearby patisserie, Les Enfants Gâtés, that served three and cost me 22 euros. You can see why people shop at Picard.
I worked my way through quite a few products, to see what worked for me and what didn’t. And though you could tell that the products were prepared with care, not everything benefits from freezing. Certain frozen foods aren’t worth picking up at Picard: sliced mushrooms (too watery), chopped onions (too pungent), frozen herbs (tasteless) or chopped frozen garlic (likewise). Still, it’s impressive how much attention is paid overall to quality in the frozen foods at this particular chain of stores (despite that shocking lapse a few years ago, when horse meat may have made its way into the lasagna bolognese). Of course you can find frozen foods at supermarkets in France just as you can in the United States, and the quality of these in France, as in the U.S., is variable. But in Picard, France offers a different sort of frozen-food experience. Or so I tell myself.
I haven’t yet offered guests an entire meal of Picard products, and I’m not likely to. Like many other home cooks, I have bought and served the little cocktail cakes and the reasonably priced desserts. But I rather like that labor-intensive and time-consuming trip to the market for stuff you make from scratch. At the same time, I also take comfort that frozen foods done in a French way really do show a culinary sophistication that’s as rigorous as that for fresh foods.
In any event, even if I prepare a New Year’s dish made entirely of freshly sourced ingredients, I’m eager to offer for dessert a heated-up galette des Rois from my local Picard.