French Say: Vive le Microwave!

'Chez Swanson'

The menu at Sophie Chauvet's house tonight is salmon mousse, braised rabbit in mustard sauce with pasta and stuffed tomatoes, and crme brle for dessert. The guests arrive at 8 p.m.; she'll start cooking at 7:30 p.m. Right now it's 6 p.m.

"No problem," she says, as she maneuvers her daughter's stroller around grocery- store aisles lined only with gleaming white appliances. "The only hard thing," she says, waving a hand at her sterile surroundings, "is deciding the menu."

Ms. Chauvet is not the legendary French woman of yore who could make culinary magic out of bare bones and a few onions. But she doesn't have to be. The store she's in, Picard les Surgeles, will do the job for her. It is part of a chain that leads a growing movement in French cuisine: frozen food.

This being France, that doesn't mean fish sticks. Tour through Picard's freezers and you'll find oysters, croissants, chef-designed entrees, even escargot and hollandaise sauce, all packaged in tidy plastic containers.

But Picard and its competitors don't signal a shift in gastronomic tastes so much as a story of social changes and enduring tradition.

"We're not a country of farmers and shopkeepers anymore," says sociologist Claude Fischler. "Fifty percent live in cities, where we generate most of our income and economic activity. No wonder that stores like [Picard] exist, here and elsewhere. But here they have a value that is fundamentally French.

"Meals are an important part of daily life, and when you look at the what they do in these supermarkets, you see they're selling that quality," he says.

Gathering around the table may still be an important part of the social fabric, but daily trips to the market to assess plump chevres and musky truffles take time many French women no longer have. Increasing numbers of them have been working over the past decade, giving France one of the highest percentages of working women in Europe, according to Eurostat.

"If you work 10, 11 hours a day, it's impossible to manage without something like Picard," says Maria Letizia Cravetto, a Paris-based teacher and writer. "My friends and I laugh about how much we rely on it."

Picard and competitors like Vik Surgeles and Marks and Spencer cannily play to that sense of limited time in their packaging and marketing. A monthly Picard newsletter, available at all 310 stores, offers menu advice and recipe ideas. There's also a phone line to answer questions about any of the 950 products. And while Picard stores are closed for the obligatory two-hour lunch, many are open on Sunday, a rarity in this heavily Roman Catholic country. All of them make deliveries.

The approach works. In 1992 alone, Picard opened 28 new stores. In the 10 years to 1989, frozen-food sales doubled and have only risen since then, store employees say. In Paris alone, there are least 110 Picard stores in addition to others owned by its competitors.

The splashy Picard newsletter tacitly acknowledges other social trends: The September cover features a note from "Maman," under a fridge magnet, telling "Arthur" what prefab meal to make for himself. Inside, individually portioned dinners are promoted. Latchkey kids and single parents are big customers.

In the 20 years since Picard was founded in 1973, divorce in France has almost tripled, and out-of-wedlock births have boomed, government statistics show. Today, single-parent families are growing almost five times faster than two-parent families.

This has yielded a boom for frozen- food purveyors. Pre-cooked entrees account for the greatest dollar sales, according to Danielle Lostimolo, a spokeswoman for Syndegel, a frozen-food industry association. Items like frozen orange juice and pizza, which are "popular" in the US, don't sell all that well here.

But like the United States, as traditional family life and rituals disappear, the convenience of frozen foods allows French families to retain a semblance of the old ways. "I'm working, but I can make the same kind of dinner, with three courses, that my mother did," Chauvet says.

There are, of course, doubters. "To eat well, you have to know the food," says Michel Colbert, a professional waiter who pooh-poohs the idea of Picard and its kind. "You have to choose it, cut it, cook it yourself."

Bistro's like Mr. Colbert's are chasing the same consumers the frozen-food stores are serving. The biggest trend in restaurants these days is cuisine bourgeoisie, or home cooking. Appealing to people too busy to cook, hot young chefs are opening bistros with menus featuring coq au vin and roast lamb.

While restaurants emphasize their freshness, Picard doesn't cede that battle easily. There is a great emphasis on the freshness and origin of their ingredients, which is given on labels and in the newsletter. Customers know the sausage and beef are from France, the shrimp from Greenland.

Which is exactly what the French are looking for, Mr. Fischler says, even as they rush toward the 21st century. "The French are looking for quality. They want to know where does it come from?" he says. "The French believe, much more than other cultures, that food is one of life's greatest pleasures."

Taste? Strudel, Oui; Salad, Non

OW good can France's frozen food be?

After sampling several entrees, multiple appetizers, and many desserts, this writer's answer is ... it depends.

A few things were immediately clear:

* Frozen puff pastry - depending on fillings of soft cheese, shrimp and scallops, or fruit - is a hit-and-miss affair.

* No one, not even the French, should try freezing a salad.

* Desserts - tiramisu, strudels, opera cakes - were wonderful.

So were some of the full meals. Many top-line chefs have worked with frozen-food purveyors to create in-house meals that sales people say are among the most popular items.

The cod in lemony cream sauce ($7) at Vik Surgeles worked well, and Picard's Normandy beef stew ($5) was rich and flavorful. (An added bonus: All meals come in ready-to-cook containers, so there are no pots to scrub.)

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