I confess recently to having succumbed to a new liaison. It started innocently enough a few months before christmas, developing into a full blown affair on christmas eve. The French really are a passionate bunch, dark, brooding and moody at times certainly, vital and energetic at others, but none can question the innermost esprit towards stretching the rules. The French have a phrase for this wanton crossing of the line, which still manages somehow to embrace a certain level of dignity and fundamental desire to maintain contented family life – it is ‘le jardin secret’.
In truth the ‘jardin secret’ can actually encompass a hidden passion for stamp collecting, as much as the secret cultivation of prize ‘Pivoines’ – or Peonies to you and me. But when it comes to affairs of the heart it is of course the illicit amorous liaison with a third person, and usually takes place between 5 and 7.30 whilst the spouse assumes their partner to be busy in the office, and not fraternising with another before hastily buying a bouquet of flowers on the mad dash for home.
My first contact with my soon to become ‘significant other’ demonstrated that we both were passionate about food, and that both were equally affected by the importance of style. Not only that but as well as being absorbed by all things french, the intrigue of travel and the allure of the exotic were vital to keep things interesting.
About a month before Christmas my main oven broke down. It was a pretty critical situation and necessitated a call to our ever unhelpful ‘agence immobilier’. It was of course inevitable that there would be a wall of silence, and after a quick personal visit to the bureau which gained nothing, I decided that there was no point wasting any further time. A letter ‘recommandé’ with ‘avis de reception’ was despatched. The landlord himself is a reasonably amenable guy, and some days later arrived at the apartment to see what all the fuss was about. Eventually, tucked behind some boxes in the boiler cupboard he revealed a tin from which he produced with all the panache of a magician a ‘resistance circulaire’. In a sort of confused gratitude I took ownership of this oven element, looked a bit blankly at the oven and wondered exactly what I should do with it as he disappeared out of the door.
There followed two weeks of ‘back and forth’ conversation about whether the electrician currently rewiring the building could install it; a belief firmly held by the agence immobiliere but negated by the electrician who declared himself not to be a cooker engineer; and a plan to buy a new oven suggested by the electrician and eventually negated by the agence immobiliere. And there I found myself the week before christmas with only the very small grill oven, approximately a hand span in height in which to cook my christmas turkey!
There is nothing like being rescued to fan the early flames of a budding relationship, and this is when Monsieur Picard became my own ‘jardin secret’. For Monsieur Picard suggested to me the ultimate solution of the ‘Poularde farcie,au foie gras de canard‘. A winning solution of a deboned chicken stuffed with fois gras, prepared and beautifully presented, and at only a smidgin under a hand-span high it fitted with ease into my tiny remaining oven. Monsieur Picard had saved Christmas day and in the process had marched forward to claim his place close to my heart!
Once crossed for the first time, it is remarkably easy to step over the threshold for a subsequent visit. Picard is France’s answer to frozen food. It is of a quality unknown to the average British person, a kind of ‘very best of Waitrose’ frozen and as I say, you cannot fault Picard for its style and presentation, its sense of the exotic, its elegance and its aura of healthy living. And once you have crossed the invisible barrier, transgressing from fresh to frozen and back again, and have benefited from the pleasures of both, and despite battling to remain true and faithful to all you have held dear -fresh market produce, and the local butcher on the corner – you realise that whilst Picard remains ‘caché in your ‘jardin secret’, it really is possible to have your cake and eat it too!
I hope my husband doesn’t find out, but I suspect my children already have!