After having the first of what seems like many children, I found myself in a predicament that will be familiar to many new parents: I was about able to look after the bleating, squawking bundle of joy – that was just about do-able – it was looking after anything else that was a problem.
I was not prepared for this. Surely, having produced a baby from inside my actual body – a feat, I would argue, more mysterious and impressive than a magician producing a rabbit from a hat – I would be allowed to sit back and bask in applause and wonder. But, no. Niggly questions, like “What are we going to have for dinner?” kept being asked. After a while I realised I knew the answer all along. It was held deep in the recesses of my mind, in the form of a conversation I’d had a few years earlier, not long after arriving in France.
“Go to Picard,” said my teacher, Yoda-like. She was explaining how I was to survive a particularly intense period of training that left no time for niceties like food preparation. “It’s like Iceland but with Marks and Spencer’s food.”
Now there are some of you out there who, on reading ‘Iceland’, may be picturing the beautiful country where Game of Thrones’ Land Beyond The Wall is filmed; you people are not British. For British people, this same word invokes a Chistmas advert where ex-popstar/current who-knows-what Kerry Katona displayed her festive prawn ring at the behest of Iceland Stores – a different kettle of fish altogether.
Iceland – you see – is a British supermarket chain that sells frozen food. I’ve shopped in Iceland precisely once in my life so can’t claim to be an expert but I have the impression that more often that not their produce are covered in bread crumbs and designed to be ‘heated until golden brown’. (Saying that, I’ve just had a look at their frozen corn beef pasties. I so would.)
And this is where there is a clear difference with Picard. Sure, they both sell frozen food but Picard’s quality and reputation is far higher. To the extent that it is socially acceptable for a hostess (because let’s face it, it’s still women doing all this crap) who rushed home from work to prepare a dinner party to demur, “Oh, the vegetables are from Picard,” without having to douse herself in cognac and self flambée in shame.
Why doesn’t she just go to the French version of Marks and Spencer’s? some might ask, a little churlishly. Well, because there isn’t a French version of Marks and Spencer’s. (Except for Marks and Spencers, which relaunched in Paris in 2011). Quality chilled ready meals aren’t really a thing in France. They exist, sure, but not in the quantity nor with the same mad-professor-on-crack levels of inventiveness that exists in the UK. The French do have a fondness for meals in tins. Like the tinned ravioli you were forced to eat as a child. I know, weird. Let’s not linger over that. So shoppers are forced to either cook or go to Picard for quality frozen ready meals.
But that’s only half of the story. Where Picard sets itself apart is that, as well as selling complete meals, it also sells frozen prepared ingredients.
Picture this. You like to cook. It’s pleasurable and creative – plus you get to drink wine while you’re at it and say “ta da!” with a flourish when you serve it up to (in your imagination, if you are me) your grateful family. But you’re tired because you have a job and cooking can be a faff with all the washing, peeling and chopping. Urgh, just stick something in the microwave and be done with it already.
But, no, because Picard gives you an alternative. They sell bags of frozen vegetables, herbs, sauces, meat already chopped and ready to bung in the pan.
How much or little fresh produce you add is up to you and the contents of your fridge/conscience. It really does take so much of the pain-in-the-assness planning and preparation out of cooking. Plus you always have ingredients lurking in the freezer, not going off like fresh produce, with that real threat of use-it-or-lose-it ticking in the back of your mind.
Going back to those first bleary days with a new child. I knew the answer to our food problem was “Picard” but we only had a tiny freezer, home to a bottle of vodka and some ice cubes (contents which now seem as exotic as the moon). This clearly wouldn’t do. With our one-week old crying device in tow, we went to the closest Boulanger and bought a fridge freezer with capacity to store two weeks’ worth of Picard emergency supplies, then got back to the important business of making all the crying stop.
In the end, perhaps that’s why I hold Picard in such high esteem. I knew I could microwave something into existence, like a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, or – when time and energy permitted – make an actual meal almost all by myself. Picard makes me feel competent and when you’re a new mum in a strange place then sometimes that’s all that you need. Thank you, Picard, hidden wonder of France.