• Picard's frozen food is "determinedly French and gourmet". (Cultura RF)Source: Cultura RF
Nowhere is taking the untapped potential of frozen meals more seriously than food-loving France. Helen Barlow explores the phenomenon with regular visits to Picard, a French store devoted to selling quality frozen food.
Helen Barlow

27 Sep 2016 - 1:31 PM  UPDATED 27 Sep 2016 - 1:35 PM

As people become busier and poorer, frozen food consumption has taken hold in Europe. Certainly Iceland, the UK’s top frozen food retailer, has expanded to some 40 countries including Spain, the Czech Republic and even Iceland. Yet nowhere is taking it more seriously than food-loving France. 

Picard, a store solely devoted to quality frozen food (Iceland sells fresh items as well) has become part of everyday life and the subject of water cooler conversations.

When I came to France close to a decade ago, a friend served me a scrumptious three-course meal. At the end he declared that the food came entirely from Picard: the salmon was frozen, he had purchased the sauce as a separate frozen item and the frozen green beans passed to my usually discernible tastebuds as fresh. They tasted nothing like the frozen beans I’d bought in Australia.

Sure, we have frozen supermarket meals, which largely are fairly tasteless though are gradually improving and I’ve always bought frozen raspberries, which are fine and cost-effective. Yet even with raspberries, Picard is better as they have an organic line (bio they call it) and the taste is far superior.

While I am not aiming to sing one company’s praises, Picard is a phenomenon. In Australia, rather than eating frozen foods, we are more likely to eat tasty, cost-effective take-away meals, which hardly exist in France.

Even if companies, including Deliveroo, are now making inroads, home deliveries from restaurants are costlier, have dubious wage-paying practices, and vary in quality.

For frozen foods, Picard maintains a high standard, even par-cooking vegetables or offering various stages of cooking in the one dish, as with their range of lasagne where the pasta is uncooked.

As a result, Picard shops have mushroomed with two new branches recently opening in my Republique area alone. 

According to the company’s PR, Christian d'Oléon, there are now 948 shops in France, with 20 more set to open, and the company has expanded with more than 400 shops in Italy, a smaller number in Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Sweden and they have sections in nine supermarkets in France-loving Japan. None are set to open in Australia, he says. 

Picard, a store solely devoted to quality frozen food (Iceland sells fresh items as well) has become part of everyday life and the subject of water cooler conversations.

As for the food itself, while in the working class-oriented Iceland, the emphasis is on burgers and pizzas and other low-priced items, which often go for £1 or less, Picard is determinedly French and gourmet. As a rule, half of its lines are cooked and the other half is frozen fresh.

Vegetables are an interesting case in that they can either be frozen raw or cooked and frozen in cubes (so you can use as much as you want), with the likes of spinach, sweet potato and leeks as well as a wide range of potatoes (for example, dauphin with cream, olive oil mash) on offer. 

As a film journalist with stories to write and movies to see, Picard is invaluable. My favourite dishes are Tandoori chicken tenderloins, salmon with spinach or salmon paupiette (with the fish wrapped around cooked leeks) that I match with fresh vegetables. The French adore Asian cuisine and Picard’s soups are superb, with Penang curry prawns and Massaman chicken also stand-outs. 

Particularly French are snails in that green garlicky sauce and the pain surprise — sandwiches on top of each other mounted elaborately as triangles — which are used at most parties and which Picard pioneered as a frozen item.

There’s an enormous range of savoury and sweet finger food (petit fours) that can readily be adapted for meals like the salmon in pastry shaped as a fish that a British friend regularly has for dinner, or spicy chicken on skewers.   

As for deserts, their 70 per cent cocoa dark chocolate-covered chocolate ice-creams are yummy and uncalorific while their Tiramusu aux Fruits (with mascarpone, mango, passion fruit and raspberries) is always a winner at dinner parties. Their sweet pastries and cakes, including a surprisingly good tiramisu, are also a highlight and come at a third of the price of patisserie items.

Picard is huge with expats. American Lisa Nesselson (SBS movies), a Paris resident of 37 years, notes how Picard is the only place to carry the excellent veal burgers and that their scallops are also very good. Certainly their pesto pasta with scallops and prawns is excellent.

An elderly American friend, who is determined to live at home despite her increasing immobility, loves the dish. I visit her every fortnight and stock up on Picard for her freezer and she finds it fun to be able to choose. She always bought delicatessen delicacies (at a prohibitive cost in France) and now doesn't need them. 

Sydney-born music and film publicist Christina de Briger lived in Paris for many years before re-locating to London. While she admits that Iceland’s “little nibbly things like fried prawns with sauce for a quid might be appealing for some, I would never buy it unless I had to feed 100 people on a budget”.

An elderly American friend, who is determined to live at home despite her increasing immobility, loves the dish. 

She cites food additives as part of the problem and it’s something Picard tries to avoid in part by making their own product. In London she is more likely to buy ready meals from the wide range at quality supermarkets like Waitrose and Marks & Spencers; the latter sends a range of meals across the channel to their small number of French shops. 

All I can say is there’s a market waiting in Australia for the kind of cash-strapped, time-poor folk who want something tasty and interesting at the end of their day — and only have to open their fridge door to find it.

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