I was a little surprised when I moved to France and learned that bread machines were popular here. I was equally surprised to see a generous selection of frozen breads at Picard, the chain of stores that spans across France which sport a comprehensive, and somewhat impressive, selection of frozen entrées, appetizers, main courses, and fancy desserts. Out of curiosity, I’ve tried a few things, and came to the conclusion that most of it tastes like the food you hoped to be served on an airplane, and might be if you were seated in business class.
Interestingly, I have not met a French person that ever had a bad think to say about Picard. In fact, a survey showed that it’s the most popular chain in France. Even people I know who are accomplished home cooks rave about it. I have to say that I like the frozen pitted sour cherries, and the corn kernels taste good to homesick Americans, especially when sautéed with ancho chile powder, butter, and cilantro, but I don’t crave frozen sushi nor do I need (or have space in my freezer for) a bag of already chopped onion pieces.
I think I can explain the appeal of the bread machine. French people are attracted to novelties and although they haven’t reached SkyMall-style proportions—you won’t see any uvula sterilizers or Big Foot lurking in the Luxembourg Gardens, things like tabletop machines that make raclette (when a regular skillet does the same thing), a toaster that sits high on stilts so the toast drops out of the bottom, requiring twice the usual amount of room (a real boon for space-challenged Parisian kitchens…), and serving food in bite-sized amuses-bouches resting in spoons or teensy-tiny casseroles, make folks smile with delight.
They find them all vraiment sympa. A French friend who lives just outside Paris in the suburbs explained to me that people who reside in the countryside don’t have access to fresh bread, so the frozen loaves are a godsend for them.
(Which doesn’t explain why the 108 Picard stores in Paris are so well-stocked with frozen bread. But each time I see les bagels in their deep-freeze chests…well, a little voice inside my head, that I’ve been able to ignore, has begged me to bring a package home.)
I’ll admit to giving precious real estate in my always-packed freezer to bread myself, albeit fresh loaves I’ve purchased, for a variety of reasons:
One is that I have certain favorite boulangeries where I get my bread and 2) I can’t get to them daily, 3) If I ate a whole loaf of bread everyday, people would think I was enceinte (pregnant), and 4) Bakeries by law close two days of the week, and those are usually the days I happen to always find myself out of bread.
Bakeries also close for les congés, which are official vacation periods. Normally bakeries work in tandem with the other bakeries in the neighborhood—and with the government, so that we, the people, don’t have to go too far for fresh bread. Although the other night, it was about 11:19pm and I realized that there was no bread for the next morning, and the two bakeries on my block were closed.
Luckily there is a branch of one of the major French supermarkets, that opened smaller shops dotted throughout the city that are—get this—open until midnight. Yes, that’s right. And they’re quite busy, from the moment they open right up to their midnight closing time. Romain calls them “the stores for les célibataires” since come dinnertime, there’s always a long line of young single people just coming off work and still in business attire, lined up at the checkouts, clutching salads and sandwiches packed in plastic boxes, which have been neatly pre-packed in individual portions.
But everyone, single or otherwise, has the right to fresh bread, even if they have to suffer the indignity of buying five leaves of lettuce with a plastic packet of dressing and calling it “Salad for One.” And when I saw this giant machine, the size of a small truck, right in the store, I had to try it out. You drop in a €1 coin, wait about 60 seconds for the bread to bake, then it cools the bread for another 30 seconds. A touch screen lets you monitor the progress every second of the way. It also lets you know the ingredients&Mdash;but would it kill them to put in a window? I’d love to what’s going on in there.
Then it’s ready and you slide the door open and pull out your presumably fresh, hot baguette du jour. I won’t comment on the taste or texture, but I don’t think they’re going to put any bakeries out of business soon.
Other Interesting Machines in France