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Prolific French prepared dish scene serves up tasty hits and some misses.

Prolific French Prepared Dish Scene Serves Up Tasty Hits and Some Misses

QFFI frozen food critics, sampling everything from Moussaka to Duck with cherries to Salmon conserved with shallot, are impressed with recipe varieties. But quality varies, to be sure.

Sales of French "plat prepares" (prepard main dishes) are growing at a phenomenal rate. During 1988 they increased 16% -- from 72,778 tons (including 1,256 tons of exports) to 86,154 (tons of which 1,853 tons represented exports), and the upward trend continued through 1989 and '90.

Sampling the food throws light on a reason for its popularity. The frozen dishes are, as a general rule, of good, but not superlative, quality. They seldom, if ever, surpass a plate freshly prepared by a knowledgeable French host or hostess willing to spend time in the kitchen, let alone a dinner at a good restaurant. The French appear to be buying them less because they are searching for a culinary treat than because they no longer have hours to pass at the stove. Consumers can and often do purchase canned or chilled foods, but these alternatives to home cooking tend to be less satisfactory substitutes than frozens. Canned products are generally not of as good quality as the frozens, and chilled items are more expensive.

This is not to say that the frozen dishes are inexpensive. The price of a typical package that serves one person ranges from around 21 to 25 francs. With the exchange rate at 5.8 francs to the dollar, the serving costs $3.62 to $4.30. Nevertheless, a dinner in almost any French restaurant would be more expensive. In Paris a fixed menu at 49 francs is now considered a bargain.

For this study Quick Frozen Foods International (QFFI) bought about a dozen frozen prepared dishes in stores in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris and in the Quatre Saisons shopping center at la Defense outside the capital. Some of the purchases might be classed by the French as "entrees" or side dishes, but all were foods that could be used as the main dish of a meal.

The primary aim in making selections was to obtain an assortment of recipes sold under a variety of brands. Procuring a diverse sample was not as easy as perusing French frozen food magazines would make it appear. Findus dishes appeared in virtually every store visited. Gorcy and Marie products, both produced by Gorcy, were often in evidence, as were Vivagel and Bonduelle items, but each of these three producers was generally represented by only a few packs.

Auchan hypermarkets pride themselves on offering customers a wide choice of products; and the Auchan hypermarket at La Defense was certainly well above average in its offerings. Even here only eight brands with a total of 54 prepared dishes were in the frozen cases and 21 of the 54 dishes were from Findus. Freezer centers, as a general rule, present customers with a greater variety of frozens than do the hypermarkets; but in the thirteenth arrondissement Picard-label products were crowding out the name brands at the Picard store, and the Frio center was dominated by Findus, Gorcy, and Bonduelle. The selection of frozens available to the average shopper appears to be limited.

An article in a recent issue of the consumer magazine Que Choisir revealed a more serious problem for buyers -- in France transporters and stores do not always respect the cold chain. Four of 20 frozen food samples purchased by Que Choisir were deemed to be unsatisfactory or doubtful in microbiological quality, probably because of improper handling or storage; and 15 of 20 products did not have an internal temperature of -- 15 [degrees] C or lower at the time of purchase. Thus the dishes sampled for QFFI may not, when purchased, have been in the condition in which they left the factory. Que Choisir notes that changes in temperature may affect the texture, taste, and nutritional value of food before they are great enough to allow bacteria to multiply.

Disappointing Eggplant

The least pleasing of the dishes reviewed by QFFI was a Moussaka, Gratin of Eggplant with Meat, sold at a Casino supermarket under the Casino label. The bottom of the moussaka was a thick layer of meat ground to a disconcertingly fine texture. The meat was sitting in a pool of orange oil. Surprisingly this oil was not simply grease from the meat but, according to the package was, at least in part, added to the dish (for a total of 12 grams of fat per 100 grams of casserole). Also, according to the package, the meat was a mixture of beef and lamb; and it tasted strongly of lamb. The eggplant was a little bitter, as if too old, and the cheese topping was scanty, in fact considerably scantier than the picture on the box indicated.

The unattractiveness of this dish was surprising in that, according to a poll, French consumers rate Casino top among hypermarkets for the quality of its private label products, and the author has been satisfied with other Casino items that she has purchased. In fact, Casino is so sure of the quality of its goods that it offers dissatisfied customers double their money back. The moussaka cost 20.90 francs for 460 grams and would serve two or more people.

Two Picard Items

Two private label items under the Picard name were superior to the Casino dish, although imperfect. One was a Melange Guardian, a mixture of rice, corn, peas, green beans, and red peppers that could be consumed either hot or cold. We ate it as a salad, after it had been thawed with running cold water. The rice was somewhat mealy in texture and the fact that the mixture was not seasoned in any way meant that it tasted flat. However, the lack of seasonings was obviously a means of letting people individualize the dish; and the possibility of eating the preparation without cooking and the healthiness of the ingredients, including a lack of synthetic additives, were big pluses. The one kilo bag for 18.80 francs seemed a good value.

Picard's Filet of Plaice, stuffed in the Duxelles style with mushrooms and two vegetables, was a more ambitious recipe. We cooked it in a standard oven, although it could also be prepared in a microwave. While the fish was of good texture and taste, the strips of carrots which, with broccoli, constituted the vegetables, were tough; and the French woman who shared in the sampling characterized the mushrooms as "tres triste" (very sad) and wondered whether they had not originally been preserved by drying. For the author's taste, the mushroom sauce was too peppery.

Since Picard, like Casino, has a reputation for the high quality of its private label offering, one wonders why they put this particular dish on the market.

Duck with Cherries

From Tipiak, under the label Madame est Servie!, came Duck with Cherries, Sweet-Sour Sauce, and Rice, 300 grams with 270 calories, at a cost of 24.80 francs. Like the two dishes from Findus, it was packed to be heated in two boiling bags or in a microwave oven. The duck, which was presented with rice, spinach, carrots, and onions, was somewhat dry. The sauce, containing porto, tomato puree, and orange juice was adequate, but it was the cherries (7.5% of the ingredients) that lifted the dish out of the ordinary.

Uninspiring Cod Filets

A light dinner from Congesal under the Iglo label was downright disappointing -- Filets of Cod with celery and Roquefort sauce. We cooked the dish in the oven as directed, but the sauce separated into creamy and watery portions and the pieces of celery were soft. Furthermore, a goaty taste to the sauce was not for all palates. A hunk of cod was the main ingredient in the single-serving 230 gram dish (21.30 francs). Calories were limited to an all too believable 246. The serving contained 14.7 grams of fat.

Three name-brand items that were to be heated in the oven and that could be eaten as entrees or simply vegetables rather than main dishes varied from pleasantly lightly flavored to annoyingly bland.

Fish Gratin from Vivagel

A Fish Gratin with four vegetables from Vivagel was an attractive change from the usual fish alongside vegetables. Flakes and chunks of fish (30%) were whipped with a puree of carrots (9%), leeks (6%), and potatoes (5%) to form a cake, relatively light in texture and in calories though not packaged as a "light" dish (110 calories for each 100 grams of the 450-gram package). The mixture would comfortably serve 1.5 people as a main dish, we judge, more as an entree or side dish, and cost 23.60 francs. Fish was the predominant though not strong flavor, and cheese could occasionally be tasted. The leeks, though visible, did not make a distinguishable contribution to the taste.

Tasty Sofrino Dish

A Gratin Dauphinois by Sofrino was surprisingly smooth, soft, and light. The dish, which, according to the box, was based on prefried potatoes (44%), apparently contained far more cream than grated cheese. The flavor was more interesting than usual for potatoes, cream, and cheese. Spices were not named, but garlic appeared to dominate. The 500 grams for 16.20 francs would serve two people as a main dish. With 10.4 grams of fat and 160 calories for 100 grams of product, the item was not for dieters.

No Hit for Bonduelle

Unfortunately a vegetable caserole from Bonduelle did not live up to the firm's reputation. Gratin in the Manner of Provence, one of the firm's Bon Gratins, was judged by the French, German, and American critics who sampled it, as, in the words of the German, "neither a main dish nor a good side dish." Although the box contained 450 grams, the product included such a large proportion of sauce that it seemed insufficient to feed three people as suggested by the manufacturer. The vegetables -- tomatoes, red peppers, squash, onions, and eggplant -- had lost their individual flavors and textures; the sauce of whole milk and cream with, according to the box, a little grated cheese, was bland.

Pure Delight from Findus

In contrast to all the other dishes that we sampled, Findus's Salmon Conserved with Shallot, created and signed by the chef Michel Guerard and costing 42.50 francs for a single serving, was frankly a gourmet offering. Its preparation was somewhat complicated, and the result was an artistic achievement at the same time as a meal. The preparer had to plunge four bags into boiling water, three for 15 minutes each and one for eight; place a bed of cabbage cooked in cream on a warm plate; put the salmon on the cabbage; remove the salmon's skin; arrange a shallot and prawn nearby; and pour sauce around the cabbage. The prawn, which was soft and tasteless, and the shallot, the skin of which was too tough to eat, seemed to be included mainly for appearance.

Nevertheless, overall the flavor of the dish was delicate and distinctive. For our taste the salmon was salted correctly by Findus and did not need the recommended extra salt and pepper. The cream sauce with Vermouth was rich and smooth.

With 13 grams of fat and 161 calories for 100 grams of product, the gourmet dish was, like Sofrino's potatoes, not intended for the calorie conscious. Though the package weighed 400 grams, a larger serving would have been welcome.

Ample Lasagna Offerings

A solid and satisfying main dish for the hungry was Lasagna Gratin in the Manner of Boulogne from Gorcy. We sampled it in a 1 kilogram family package under the name Marie used in hypermarkets and a 500 gram box under the name Gorcy sold in freezer centers. The Gorcy package seemed to us on the salty side; the Marie product, bought several months later, had an excellent, individualized flavor. In both packages the texture of the noodles was firm and just right. The beef seemed slightly fatty, as some grease seeped out when the dish was cut; but the flavor was good and the casserole as a whole contained only 6.6 or 6.8 grams of fat and 132.6 calories for 100 grams of product. The cheese topping was light and creamy. The lasagna, at 29.80 francs for the kilo package, was a good buy and one that we would certainly not hesitate to make again.

To sum up, the quality of the recipes QFFI sampled varied considerably. The producers could not, in most cases, be faulted on the proportions of their ingredients. Servings of fish and meat were generous. The French firms were making no obvious attempts to use filler to cover for a shortage of primary, expensive ingredients.

We would in several cases have preferred more cheese and less cream, but that was a matter of individual taste. The French traditionally use and like cream. If a general fault could be found, it was a tendency to overuse of salt. Not surprisingly seafood and meat were more likely than vegetables to be satisfactory. The recipes tended to be complex, not something that a housewife could whip up in half an hour herself.

PHOTO : QFFI's frozen food critics found the private label Casino Moussaka to be less than appetizing.

PHOTO : Picard's Melange guardian, a blend of rice and vegetables, was rated a good value at 18.80 francs per kilo bag.

PHOTO : Duck with Cherries from Tipiak was deemed an "out of the ordinary" recipe dish. The 300 gram offering, which has 270 calories, sells for 24.80 francs.

PHOTO : Vivagel's Fish Gratin with four vegetables is an attractive change from routine fish offerings with vegetables on the side. More of an entree than a side dish, the 450 gram pack retails for 23.60 francs.

PHOTO : Bonduelle's Gratin Provencal features tomatoes, red peppers, squash, onions and eggplant with milk sauce, cream and grated cheese.

PHOTO : Getting the highest rating as a gourmet offering was the Findus recipe of Salmon conserved with shallot by chef Michel Guerard. A single serving of 305 grams runs 42.50 francs, but is well worth it.

PHOTO : Boulogne-style Lasagna Gratin from Grocy tends to be a little on the salty side, but is a solid and satisfying main dish for those with big appetites.

MARY B. DAVIS QFFI Special Correspondent
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Author:Davis, Mary B.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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