Sunday, 16 December 2007

Ice Palace

With the exception of mobile phone outlets and wine shops, Paris has not really given way to chains. Small, owner-operated pharmacies, bakeries, tabacs (news and tobacco stands)—even clothing shops—are still the norm here, their societal place protected by governmental restrictions on sales and Sunday opening. Only in the area of frozen food is there an obvious monopoly.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its ubiquitousness, Picard is not easily recognisable as a food retailer. With its clinical white exterior and small, office-style windows, I initially thought that it was a chain of medical laboratories or dentists. When a colleague informed me that Picard sold food which was surgeles (frozen), I was only marginally intrigued. At best, I figured, I could pick up a few bags of peas.

Picard does sell peas—3 kinds, I believe, as well as some other predictable items: gourmet ice creams; flash-frozen berries and a wide range of potato products. It also offers many upmarket variations on the TV dinner, reputed to be good enough to fool discerning dinner guests. And there are some truly bizarre products for sale: who in France would buy frozen baguettes or croissants? (The demise of the traditional boulangerie has been predicted for some time, but I can think of at least 10 bakeries within a five minute walk of my local Picard. And unlike the transport workers, their employees never go en greve.)

Far more exciting is the choice of protein, taking in quails, wild Alaskan salmon, venison and super-premium Tarbais beans. Based on very limited sampling, the prices for these are reasonable, if not low, and quality is unimpeachable. A whole meal could be assembled sur place--including prepared sauces and vegetable accompaniments. But while many no doubt do so—or take the all-in-one option—Picard seems to encourage its customers to keep cooking. The chain's website includes no less than 121 fish recipes, ranging from the virtually pre-fab to the moderately involved (a warm fish terrine, for instance.)With over 600 stores across France, Picard has clearly been the beneficiary of declining interest in, knowledge of, and need for everyday cooking. But it can also be seen as a 21st century version of the traiteur, a highly-respected and historic institution peddling ready-made meals to those possessing more money than time, or a good sense of their limitations in the kitchen.
Curiosity and good will, a quick look in my (sizable) freezer reveals only this: a bag of peas.

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