Did the French Bread Revolution start with Poilâne Bread?
The familiar French word for friend, “copain,” means “to share bread with each other.”–Apollonia Poilâne, now head of the Poilâne bread “empire”
A humble baker called Pierre Poilâne started a bakery on the rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris in 1932. The 6th arrondissement was not a chic neighborhood at the time; penniless artists lived there, and often paid Poilâne in paintings. We might ask, did the French Bread Revolution start here at 8 rue du Cherche-Midi?
Poilâne used stoneground, unprocessed, whole-grain flour and sourdough starter, baking his bread in a wood oven — then unheard of in Paris, the capital of the baguette. It was unfashionable to eat anything other than white bread. This way of thinking was further reinforced by WWII, during which the French had no choice but to eat heavy, dark bread. He continued making it nonetheless, says France Today, and today, Apollonia Poilâne, Pierre’s granddaughter, runs the bakery.
Until 2007, she studied at Harvard and ran the bakery at the same time, having her personal supply of bread sent to her every week in Boston.
This now-classic Poilâne loaf has a hard, crusty outside and a firm, dense crumb on the inside. It can keep be eaten fresh for up to 5 days after baking, after which it can be toasted.
Pain Poilâne or miche, meaning “round loaf,” weighs in at around 2 kg / 4.4 lb. The recipe is secret, and it is not a whole-grain bread in the traditional sense of the word. Environmentally correct, pesticide-free varieties of wheat are grown and stored. They are then stone-ground, thus preserving the wheat germ. Stone grinding makes it possible to eliminate any coarse bran that might contain impurities.
Poilâne flour is what is called in French farine biseor wheatmeal — a brown flour intermediate between white flour and wholemeal flour — which maintains a higher nutritional value than white flour. Levain or sourdough starter and salt from the salterns of Guérande, a swamp of salt water in Brittany.
Pierre brought this type of bread with him from his native Normandy, where loaves were large and round, in the style of what the French now call “country bread.” Today, it is distributed all over the world.
Pierre’s sons Lionel and Max took over the bakery in 1970. Just like Apollonia, they had learned bread baking by working right alongside their father, and continued the tradition of the original round loaf marked with the signature “P.” They eventually took separate paths, with Lionel keeping the original bakery started by his father, and Max going off on his own to start a bakery under his own name, Max Poilâne. In Paris, people have long discussions over which of the brothers makes/made the better bread, since both have continued to bake their father’s signature recipe.
Lionel Poilâne is better known outside France, since he grew the original family business, making it into an international name. This growth was made possible by his excellent teaching skills and his embracing of modern developments in the industry, such as the use of machine kneading, while at the same time maintaining his father’s philosophy of each baker following and taking responsibility for his or her loaves from start to finish. He referred to his concept as “retro-innovation.”
Lionel and his wife died when their helicopter, piloted by Lionel, crashed in 2002, leaving behind daughters Athena and Apollonia, the latter who is now following in her father’s footsteps. She started running the bakery on graduation from high school.
In this video, Martha Stewart visits the Poilâne bakery in Paris and learns about the bread making process in an interview with 22-year-old Apollonia Poilâne when she was still at Harvard. Click here to watch the video interview of Apollonia by Martha Stewart herself.
The offiical Poilâne site lists a number of recipes, for making and using some of the Poilâne bread and pastries.
Poilâne Bakeries8 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris 6th arrondissement
Tel. +33 (0) 1 45 48 42 59 49 bld de Grenelle, Paris 15th arrondissement
Tel. +33 (0) 1 45 79 11 49
Open on Sundays 38 rue Debelleyme, Paris 3rd arrondissement
Tel. +33 (0) 1 44 61 83 39
Open on Sundays 46 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W
Tel. +44 (0) 207 808 4910
To read more about the French Bread Revolution, see also (bilingual in French and English):
The Revolution of French Bread Baking (part 1), by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
The Revolution of French Bread Baking (part 2), by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
Book Review: Jean-Philippe de Tonnac’s “Dictionnaire Universel du Pain” or Universal Dictionary of Bread, by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
The 7 Lives of Bread: Pascal Auriac, master bread baker in Laguiole, a hidden corner of France, by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac