The Pleasures of Paris’ Most Famous Bread Bakery
Our columnist shares her lifelong love of Poilâne’s delicious sourdough bread and writes about its new cookbook.
Bread bakers spend a lot of time talking about the health of their so-called mother, the starter that is the base of every great sourdough loaf. And I’d argue that the famed Parisian bakery Poilâne has been the starter of sorts for nearly every artisan bread baker I know in the world—nourishing and inspiring them.
As Alice Waters writes in her introduction to Apollonia Poilâne’s new eponymous and exceptionally good cookbook, legendary American bakers, such as Acme founder Steve Sullivan, decided, upon their first nibble of a Poilâne crumb, to devote their lives to the art of breadmaking. And countless culinary amateurs are prone to speak of their first taste of Poilâne’s miche—the bakery’s now-iconic, generously-sized round signature loaf—in dreamy, ecstatic tones normally reserved for the most pleasurable of nocturnal murmurings.
My first visit to Poilâne did not turn me into a baker, but its impact upon my life was no less transformative. I was ten, and my family had just moved down the street from the bakery. It was a few days before the start of the school year; I was an American girl about to enter the Ecole Bilingue, and I was twitchy with nerves and the thoughts of all the things I didn’t know and had never tasted. I followed my father down the rue du Cherche-Midi—so named, he had just been telling me, because of the singular beauty of afternoon sunlight on the gentle curve of its trajectory through the 6th arrondissement—and into a bakery, where I was immediately struck by an enveloping, heady smell that I could not have named then, but which I later came to understand was a magic eau de vie of butter, sourdough, cooked apples, toasted walnuts, and the faint after-aroma of slightly burnt sugar and browned butter.
It was unlike anything I’d known, and yet I recognized in it something timeless, something profoundly French that had existed long before us and would live, just so, long after us. In a kind of trance, I found myself at the register, where a middle-aged woman was looking at me from behind the counter. I would come to know her very Parisian mix of precision and warmth. She was proper, formal and, perhaps to an American sensibility, even officious, but there was a great well of kindness behind her brisk, constant greetings of “Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle,” and the quickness with which she counted out centimes and francs with the unerring exactitude of a calculator.
That day, Madame nodded to a long basket of plain cookies that were slightly and unevenly brown at the edges. “Prenez-un,” she offered. And so, I tried one. The cookie—called, with perfect French irony, punition—yielded upon being bitten, but not without putting up a little fight, a little resistance, giving it more character than shortbread, say, or butter or sugar cookies. Its flavor was not pronounced but was the simple expression of high heat and good ingredients, exquisite butter above all. The edges were just short of burned, and that tiny hint of bitterness seemed only to make the cookie sweeter.
8, rue du Cherche-Midi was and remains the literal hearth of Poilâne. The wood-burning oven in the basement is still used, just as it was in 1932 when Pierre Poilâne opened the bakery.
Nearly every day and, most often, several times a day, I’d walk by the shop, my dog, Romeo, in tow and stop for punitions or for a little apple tart or a brioche. And always for the loaf of bread that was my family’s daily staple, the heart of our breakfast, lunch and my afterschool snack. If we were having cheese, we’d add a Poilâne walnut loaf to the mix, but that was about as far off-course as we’d deviate.
In the morning, I’d eat slices of the miche toasted with a thick lathering of butter from Fromagerie Barthelemy. Poilâne bread is amazingly dense and substantial, and the cool, slightly salted layer of rich butter would take a moment before melting into the toast. The yeasty, heady smell of toasted sourdough and wheat seemed then, and still, to be rooted in terroir, with much the same depth as you might expect from a venerable Bordeaux.
Many now know the story of Lionel and Irena Poilâne’s sudden and tragic death in a helicopter crash in 2002, when their daughter, Apollonia, was only eighteen. But few know that she had been learning the ins and outs of her father’s (and, before him, her grandfather’s) bakery from an early age. She once told me, with still-vivid frustration, of having to wait for her hands to grow large enough to work the dough; but there was little else she wasn’t doing by age ten.
Tragedy put her at the helm decades earlier than anyone would have wished, but she was well prepared, and the bakery has thrived under her watchful, active care. That she is both practical and imminently capable and yet still awed by the mysterious ways of bread—of wheat and yeast and heat—means she might discuss the science of milling grains one moment and, the next, the visual poetry of the letter “P” as it is written in the flour that tops every loaf.
On my last visit to Paris in October, Apollonia gave me a tiny wry smile when I asked the temperature of the bread oven. Instead of answering, she took a leaf of paper and pushed it a little way into the oven. Without hesitation, she removed the paper a few short seconds later. It was browned at the edges and just starting to crimple inwards.
“When the paper behaves just so, we know the oven is ready,” she explained. Yes, part science, part art. And, now thankfully, a bit of both in Poilâne, the cookbook.