Dec 27, 2013

My Secret Sous-Chef: Emmental de Savoie

My French friend, Marie, tells me that "No French woman would be caught without a freezer full of Picard. Picard is our little secret." Yes, it may be sexist but, hey, how many Frenchmen are cooking their family dinners (probably even fewer than American men...)? Popular as it is here, Picard may just be the worst-kept secret around.
Picard could best described, at least to Californians and people in urban hipster environments, as the frozen section of Trader Joe's on steroids. Without the steroids. That is to say that virtually all of the ingredients and meals are flash frozen, without preservatives, strange-sounding chemicals, or crazy hormones. Much like with Trader Joe's frozen foods, the ingredients are easily recognizable and generally what you would use to make it from scratch, if you had the inclination. Some are organic, but not all.

You can find a Picard pretty much anywhere in the country, and in Paris there seems to be one in each neighborhood. The stores aren't flashy or fancy -- pretty much just a big white room filled with freezers. Like Trader Joe's, they have a variety of ethnic foods. For example, in the freezer case above you see American cheeseburgers and Moroccan pastilles next to goat-cheese tartes, gougères, and crêpes. Below are some of the lunches I make for myself when we run out of leftovers and salad ingredients, including a little something to remind me of my trip to India (but yes, of course I add my own hot sauce. This is, after all, still made for a French market that is pathologically averse to spicy food).


One of the things that really sets Picard apart from Trader Joe's is not just the sheer variety of offerings, but also the way single ingredients are treated. Meaning: instead of a single frozen block of spinach that you have to thaw then separate, the bag contains ice-cube-sized chunks. So you can just shake out the amount you need and keep the rest frozen. Brilliant! On days when I just need a tiny little something and/or forget to thaw, it's perfect. Below, sauteeing frozen spinach and onions for a base, and cubes of pumpkin puree to help thicken a soup.


Many of the meals are quite good. Picard makes some of the better frozen lasagna I've ever tried, and some of the best pizza (period) that I've had in France, which frankly says less about the quality of the Picard frozen pizza and more about the quality of pizza in France. One dish that comes out looking exactly like the package (yet nobody in our family actually likes) is the mushroom-and-chestnut-stuffed guinea fowl. So if you see this on your hostess' table (including mine...) and she tells you she slaved for hours, don't believe her.

THE CHEESE: Emmental de Savoie
Emmental de Savoie -- usually just called Emmental -- is a ubiquitous, industrial cheese made with pasteurized cow's milk. It is more difficult to find the more "authentic" sister cheese, Emmental Grand Cru, which is made with raw milk, as the name "cru" (meaning "raw") would suggest. Since Grand Cru has more cache, you can be sure that if it's not labeled "cru" it's not. Technically, they are different cheeses, though clearly based on the same model.
And that model is Swiss Emmentaler cheese. Emmental de Savoie generally hails from the eastern side of the country, particularly near the Swiss and German borders, and particularly Savoie. This makes sense. This cheesemaking method was brought into France in the mid 1800s by the German Swiss. Just like in our stereotype of Swiss cheese, the hallmark of Emmental de Savoie is the holes. Let's just say I'm happy I'm charged by weight and not volume, or else I'd be paying for mostly air.
And what makes those holes? While it is ripening in the cellars, natural bacteria trapped inside the wheel transforms oxygen into carbon dioxide and creates bubbles inside the elastic, developing cheese. It's pretty much the same idea as the holes inside breads or cakes.

Emmental is aged 3-6 months in absolutely enormous wheels -- which are well named because in this case they are, literally, the size of car wheels. They weigh between 60 and 100kg -- that 132 and 220 pounds -- so you can see why industrialization would really appeal to the people who make it.
It's a hard cheese that retains enough moisture to be just this side of dry and crumbly. That makes it a bit rubbery in the tooth, if truth be known. Of all French cheeses, this one most closely resembles something we're familiar with in the US: basic, deli Swiss cheese. They are both mild and distinctly sweet.
Emmental is one of those cheeses that you see everywhere -- and especially used in prepared foods that are flavored with cheese. Frankly, 70% of the time in this country, it's either Emmental or Gruyère (and the other 30% some ambiguous goat cheese). And that's certainly true chez Picard. Here are some of their Emmental offerings. As you can tell, ham and Emmental are considered a classic combo. It's what Americans would call ham & Swiss. Except it's French.
product photos from www.Picard.fr  
There are Emmental crepes (10 for 1.95€), ham & Emmental crepes (10 for 2.10€, 20 for 3.10€), ham & Emmental gallettes (buckwheat crepes, 2 for 2.50€), ham & mushroom & Emmental gallettes (2 for 2.95€), ham & Emmental puff pastries (4 for 3.15€), ham & Emmental flaky crust pockets (4 for 5.95€), ham & Emmental & mushroom pasta (3.50€), mini flaky Emmental bread sticks (1.40€), and Emmental butternut squash soup for ages 8 months+ (1.95€).


  1. The best day of the 10 years we have spent in Belgium was the day Picard finally opened a shop in Brussels (And, luckily enough, within walking distance from our house)
    Now, I have got NO reason to move back to France, ever …

    (and I am only half joking …)

    Before that, the French expatriate women would pool together, and order one common monthly delivery, with a refrigerated truck driving up all the way from Lille, and stopping … in front of the French Lycée .
    True story ...


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