People sitting at cafe tables outside of the front facade of Picard grocery store.
Credit: Eileen Cho
Freezer Week

To Picard with Love: How France’s Frozen Wonderland Became My Lockdown Hero

updated Aug 12, 2020
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I would never have imagined that my favorite place to shop for food in France in 2020 would be Picard, a grocery store that sells mostly frozen foods. Imagine the frozen aisle at Trader Joe’s — the frozen chests plus the small assortment of snacks, chips, and canned goods organized on top — and multiply that by five and you get Picard.

When I was growing up in the United States, my idea of frozen food was often what my babysitter zapped for me in the microwave when my mom didn’t have time to cook that day. The concoction she usually made me was from Kid Cuisine and it came in a blue box with a picture of a cartoon penguin. I always got the version with chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, corn, and a dessert. I didn’t hate it — the soggy chicken nuggets were especially quite memorable — but it would become a problem if my mom’s Mahjong group wanted to meet more than once a week. 

Credit: Eileen Cho

Because of this vision of frozen food ingrained in my brain, it actually took me a while to warm up to Picard at first, but I’m now a proud convert. My first introduction to their frozen concoctions was like a scene in a movie. It happened at my first house party in Paris, where the host served the French version of pigs in a blanket — tiny sausages housed in puff pastry — with freely flowing Champagne. I had to know where I could find them for myself and I remember her telling me with a wink, “It’s our best-kept secret: apéritifs at Picard.” 

Picard has over 1,000 shops in France, and you can find one with ease in every region. Their products don’t compromise taste, appearance, and quality for convenience. Picard has, in my opinion, perfected frozen food. And while I liked Picard before the 55-day lockdown in France due to the pandemic, I now thoroughly love this frozen food wonderland. 

Credit: Eileen Cho

When France entered a full-on lockdown on March 17, I had to become creative with how to cook at home for myself and my partner because we didn’t feel safe enough to go to the grocery store. We only left our apartment a handful of times, and when I did physically go to the store, there were shortages, from eggs and flour to butter and packaged steaks. Because of the confusing 1-kilometer travel restriction in France during the lockdown, I didn’t dare to walk 1.4 kilometers to my favorite butcher, La Boucherie Gregoire.

Despite these challenges, I cooked three meals every day those first few weeks. A lot of my life before COVID-19 revolved around elaborate home-cooked meals and even more elaborate meals out, so when we were suddenly at home all the time, cooking was the only thing I could and wanted to do to keep myself occupied. In those first few weeks I decided to cook my way through Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. There really is no better way to spend your days locked indoors than cooking ragù from scratch and watching it simmer for over three hours, or chopping vegetables by hand and cooking soffritto to make your grocery store meats taste better (a trick I learned from Michelin-starred Chef Antonin Bonnet of Quinsou). 

Credit: Eileen Cho

The ragù was delicious and transported me back to better times, but no matter how much I tried to escape into my happier memories, the results from my kitchen were short-lived. Once the dishes were done, I was miserable again. All of it became too much — especially when I was running out of ingredients and had to stay up until midnight trying to land a grocery delivery spot — and eventually I didn’t want to cook at all. In Paris, we live in tiny spaces with tiny kitchens and cooking in it all day while trying to push away the grief and anxiety the pandemic brought burned me out. It was time to face reality. 

This is where Picard comes in. I discovered Picard’s online shopping offering after I had failed to reserve a grocery delivery slot on four different websites. My fridge is small for American standards and my freezer is the size of an average microwave, but I went for it and ordered everything I wanted to eat: pain au chocolat, bagels, potato galettes, Scandinavian meatballs (I was craving IKEA food), and more. 

At the time, Picard was also celebrating “Hello America,” an event that happens once a year where they sell foods they think Americans eat (think: piñata cake filled with chocolate candies, lobster rolls, and tortilla chip-breaded cheese balls). I ordered everything from the collection, including the Beecher’s “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese that they import specially for this event. Originally hailing from Seattle, Beecher’s tastes like home and transports me back to Pike Place Market. It was only when I was using my Tetris skills to organize my Picard delivery items in my tiny freezer and seeing over a dozen “Hello America” items that I realized I was also homesick for the U.S. 

Credit: Eileen Cho

Almost everything I ordered from Picard was delicious. For a week, we only ate Picard food and it improved my mental health. Instead of escaping my feelings in the kitchen, I finally had the time to sit on the couch and just digest what was happening outside my walls. For breakfast, the surprisingly flaky Picard pain au chocolat I baked fresh taught me how to be grateful and feel joy again. They came out of the oven warm, buttery, and puffed up to perfection. The savory Scandinavian meatballs (think: IKEA meatballs but smaller in size and with more herbs and an extra pinch of pepper) come fully cooked, so they can be reheated in under 10 minutes in my air fryer. For a more balanced meal, I also added potato galettes — what I call “fancy Picard hash browns” — into the air fryer and cooked them until crispy. All I had to do was plate and toss leafy greens in olive oil and vinegar. 

Picard also makes single-tray meals, like Kid Cuisine, for around two Euros each. My favorite is the “gnocchis au chèvre et aux épinards,” which is made up of pillowy-soft gnocchi on top of a bed of tomato sauce with a creamy goat cheese and spinach sauce. All you have to do is peel back the cover at a corner, heat in the microwave for five minutes, and voilà! Gastronomy on a tray. 

Credit: Eileen Cho

Another time I woke up really craving a breakfast bagel egg sandwich, like the ones I grew up eating. Bagels with the right flavor, chew, and texture are hard to come by in Paris because of the water, but Picard actually does a decent job. I whipped up some eggs with shredded cheddar cheese, chives, pickled hot peppers, and bacon bits and, using the shiny Picard bagels as my vessel, I instantly had the best bagel sandwich in Paris and in my kitchen.

On the days I felt extra sad because the weather was so nice outside, I cheered myself up indoors with Picard coconut ice cream. Picard’s ice cream offerings are endless and their coconut version truly is joy in a cup — it even comes perfectly portioned in a coconut shell.

The reason Picard is embraced by so many French people is because they champion terroir and still use mostly French produce to create their products — which means everything tastes better. This, coupled with the fact that they introduce new products every month with new themes, and everything is budget-friendly, keeps grocery shoppers coming back. In the final few weeks of lockdown, I even tried (unsuccessfully) to convince my partner in investing in a chest freezer because I grew to love Picard so much. 

Credit: Eileen Cho

Now that the lockdown is over and my mental health has semi-recovered, I rely on Picard a bit less, but I’m still having a blast testing their new products and offering reviews on my Instagram (the Korean chicken and kimchi mandoo dumplings are actually spicy and truly phenomenal). I’m also using Picard for shortcuts in the kitchen. Instead of cutting vegetables for soffritto by hand, I now rely on frozen chopped vegetables from Picard. Herbs were almost impossible to come by during the lockdown so I switched to Picard frozen herbs, as the herb window garden I had planted at the beginning of the pandemic is long dead. 

This might sound dramatic, but we are living in dramatic times: Picard saved my life. It took a pandemic for me to realize that sometimes, convenience tastes best.