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Take Me to Poilâne!

The signature Poilâne sourdough loaf, made simply with sifted whole wheat and spelt flours, Guérande salt and water.

If you’re a bread nerd like me, the world is teeming with outstanding bakeries and boulangeries. I could haul Jennifer halfway around the world with me, visiting bread and pastry shrines, paying homage, taking holy bread communion.

The place I would start is the Poilâne boulangerie in Paris.

It is revered in books and articles that discuss great breads. It occupies a mythic status in my mind, but I have never been!

An armload of a loaf

Poilâne is most famous for its enormous, two-kilogram loaf called Pain Poilâne. These large loaves are called miches and are about as big as if you stretched out your arms to make a circle in front of you. They are inscribed with a large “P,” scored by the baker in a grand, cursive style.

Pierre Poilâne started the bakery in 1932, creating bread using stone-ground flour, natural fermentation, and a wood-fired oven. Pierre’s son, Lionel, took over the bakery in 1970, continuing the traditional methods.

Poilâne bread is made in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where it is sold at the original boulangerie on rue du Cherche-Midi. There is a second store in the 15th arrondissement

It’s a relatively humble boulangerie that offers pastries, cookies, cakes, preserves as well as loaves of bread. The bread itself is ancient in origin, but the company’s great achievement is that it largely resurrected the old baking methods during a period when French bread was in decline.

Resurrecting the old bread methods

In the pre-war years, bread in France had fallen to industrial production methods and ingredients. White, all-purpose flour, instant yeast, and chemical preservatives were the norm, as the country was pre-occupied with the upheaval of two world wars.

Lionel’s great innovation was to expand operations and make authentic Poilâne bread available to broader markets. In the 1980s, he built a production facility in Bièvres, outside Paris.

The Bièvres bakery produces about 15,000 loaves a day in 24 wood-burning ovens, exact replicas of those used at the Paris location. Each is staffed by an individual baker that is responsible for mixing, shaping, and baking the loaves. Thus, each loaf is properly hand-made.

“Retro-innovation”

The basis of this vision was a concept Poilâne called “retro-innovation.” It combines all the best traditional elements with the best of modern developments. The only deviation from his father’s original formula was machine kneading, saving hours of work for the bakers.

The French government honoured Poilâne as a Knight of the National Order of Merit in 1993.

In 2002, Lionel and his wife died in a helicopter accident off the coast of Brittany. Their two daughters, Athena and Apollonia, survived their parents. Apollonia, a Harvard business school graduate, now runs the Poilâne enterprise.

The tradition continues

Lionel’s brother, Max Poilâne, went his own way with bread baking and now operates three locations in Paris. Bread lovers debate about which makes the better bread, but Lionel (and now his daughter) is the better known outside of Paris.

You can order a Pain Poilâne yourself and have it shipped hot from the oven right here to Pender Island. Next day delivery from Bièvres via FedEx costs a mere €40.30, or $57.50 Canadian. The loaves, I’m told, improve with age and are at their best after one week.

“Breadcooking”

Or you can purchase Poilâne, a new book authored by Apollonia Poilâne, and attempt to make the bread yourself.

It’s a beautiful book, loaded with pictures of the bakers, the ovens, and the store itself. Apollonia writes lovingly of her father, growing up around the bakery and how the bakery operates today.

She offers several bread recipes, including the signature Pain Poilâne, adapted for home baking.

Apollonia gives more recipes for pastries and others that make use of bread, such as tartines (open-faced sandwiches), a Croque Mademoiselle, a Caesar Salad with Brioche Croutons, and a bread granola, among others.

It’s called “breadcooking,” where the bread not only accompanies the meal, it becomes a crucial component of the meal. A salad is topped with freshly made croutons; a soup is thickened with sourdough bread; a piece of fish is coated with flavoured breadcrumbs and pan-fried.

She suggests the best way to make toast is to put two thin slices of Pain Poilâne into a single toaster slot. This affords a double-texture: the moistness of untoasted bread on one side and the crispness of toast on the other. Butter and dress the toasted side.

May I suggest the bread sandwich, Madame?

Avocado Tartine with Banana and Lime

Her take on avocado toast is exquisite. The avocado is topped with banana slices, a drizzle of honey, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes and a squirt of lime juice.

Lionel Poilâne’s Bread Sandwich is another curiosity. Apollonia remembers her father playfully making a sandwich with a piece of thin bread, toasted and buttered, between two buttered slices of untoasted bread.

She recommends the centre slice to be a currant-studded rye bread and “the best butter you can find.”

Apollonia includes a recipe for punitions, a simple shortbread cookie offered to customers that buy a loaf in the store.

I’m tempted to splurge and order a Poilâne miche and have it delivered to my doorstep.

But what would Mildrith, the Happy Monk’s wood-fired oven, think?

I’ll bide my time, working my way through the book and planning my next trip to Paris and the Boulangerie Poilâne!


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1 thought on “Take Me to Poilâne!

  1. We could celebrate Mildreth’s coming-out with a little party and a Poilâne miche, whadaya say?

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