Forget the baguette. It’s a modern invention that traditionalists scoff at. No, France’s ancient bread is a large, round, sourdough boule. And perhaps Paris’s most famous traditional bakery is Poilâne, the legendary shop with a tragic family history, whose master bakers still create each sturdy, slightly tart loaf by hand. On a recent morning, I was lucky enough to go behind the scenes at Poilâne, visiting their tiny furnace of a kitchen, and learning a lot about bread — the stuff of life — in the process.
At 8 rue du Cherche-Midi, centuries before Poilâne, there stood an abbey. It’s uncertain if the nuns baked bread — though the basement oven certainly seems ancient — we do know, however, that the 17th-century convent was destroyed in 1789 during the French Revolution. The bakery, which moved in soon after, continued unremarkably until Pierre Poilâne discovered the location in 1932.
Pierre had his special recipe and special sourdough starter, but he also had a sense of humor. He accepted paintings of his bread as payment for the actual stuff, becoming a neighborhood favorite among the impoverished artists of Montparnasse. In the early 1970s, his son Lionel joined the business. Among more serious projects, he launched wacky side ventures like a furnished-by-dough project with Salvador Dali, in which the two created an entire room of furniture out of bread. The edible chandelier (photo above) is a recreation of the original (they last about two years).
The baker’s lair is in the basement, a small kitchen dominated by a wood-burning oven. I’m not sure if the photo above captures the tininess, and it certainly doesn’t capture the intense heat of the room. Here, master baker Jean-Michel is removing loaves from the oven. But wait… we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The bread begins with dough — simply flour, water and salt — and is kneaded in this giant mixer. This is the only mechanized part of the process.
The dough is left to rise for one hour in this wooden trough.
Then it’s measured, weighed, and formed by hand into boules, which each weigh 2.2 kilos. By the way, Jean-Michel is one of five master bakers at the shop — he’s been working there for nine years (he started at age 17).
Each boule rises for another hour, tucked safely into its very own linen-covered basket.
After they’ve plumped, the boules are flipped quickly onto a long-handled paddle…
They’re carved with that distinctly elegant “P,” which represents Poilâne, as well as pain, the French word for bread.
They go into the 250 degree Celsius oven…
And, an hour later, out they come.
But the baker’s job is far from over. The fire must be stoked and fed again for the next batch of bread. Poilâne’s bakers work six-hour shifts around the clock, continuously mixing, kneading, weighing, shaping, rising, with loaves going into the oven every two hours. That fire burns 24 hours a day!
This tiny kitchen produces all the bread and pastries sold in the shop at 8 rue du Cherche-Midi. But there are two other Poilâne bakeries — one at 15 boulevard de Grenelle in the 15th, the other at 46 Elizabeth Street in London. And a 24-oven factory in Bièvres makes the bread that is shipped around the world.
Aside from the oversized boules, Poilâne makes raisin or walnut loaves, butter cookies called punitions or “punishments,” sumptuously flaky croissants, apple tarts, or pain au chocolat, and also brioche bread. The bakery has been in the family for three generations, passed down from Pierre to his son Lionel. Tragically, in 2002, Lionel and his wife died in a helicopter accident. Though weighed by grief, the small staff resolved to continue, not missing a day of baking bread. Lionel’s daughter, Apollonia, who was only 19 at the time of the accident, immediately took over the family business and continues to run it today.
Poilâne is justly famous and generally overrun by tourists, but somehow the shop retains an unspoiled air. Perhaps it’s the 77-year-old sourdough starter that perfumes every loaf, or the 220-year-old basement bread kitchen. You can buy as little as two slices of bread — or you can enjoy a Poilâne tartine next door at Cuisine de Bar.
8 rue du Cherche-Midi, 6ème
tel:01 45 48 42 59