Lionel Poilâne was boulanger and entrepreneur whose commitment to crafting quality bread earned him prestige throughout the world.
His father Pierre Poilâne started a baking business in 1932, creating bread using stone-ground flour, natural fermentation and a wood-fired oven. Poilâne was one of the first people Basil Kamir contacted when Basil was trying to save the boulangerie building he was using as his office from the wrecking ball. Poilâne and Kamir were two of the principal leaders of the baking renaissance in France, showing the country once again how good well-crafted bread can taste as opposed to the mediocre pain industrielle of the XX ème siècle.
Lionel took over his father's boulangerie in 1970, continuing the traditional methods. Poilâne is most famous for a round, two-kilogram (4.4 U.S. pound) pain au levain referred to as a miche or pain Poilâne. Loaves smaller than the miche have the now-famous "P" signature cut into the top of the loaf. Poilâne's bread is often referred to as wholewheat but in fact is not: the flour used is a very good quality, tasty, and nutritious stoneground product but it is doubtful whether the superb texture and versatility of Poilâne bread could be achieved in a high fibre loaf. Even so, its superior nutritional properties are beyond doubt.
In addition to miches, the Poilâne boulangerie offers pain au seigle (rye bread), raisin bread, nut bread, and Punitions, "punishments," which are sinfully addictive shortbread cookies. Poilâne focuses on bread and thus is not both une boulangerie et pâtisserie. Poilâne is perhaps the most famous name in the baking industry today.
Poilâne mastered his single product and trained his apprentices in the physical baking process, which he believed to be the most important aspect of his vision. He believed as much of the work as possible should be done by hand, by one person taking responsibility for their loaves from start to finish. Lionel Poilâne laid the basis of a concept he called "retro-innovation"; combining the best of traditional elements together with the best of modern developments.
Pain Poilâne is produced in le quartier Latin of Paris where it is sold at the original boulangerie on rue du Cherche-Midi, VI ème. The shop is tiny by American standards, perhaps twenty feet wide and a dozen feet deep, with racks on either side and behind the windows of Poilâne's famous miches, the only bread in France known by its baker's name.
There is a counter and cash register at the far end of the room, and beyond that a room the walls of which are full of paintings and drawings and photographs of Lionel and his father Pierre-Léon. It was Pierre who began the boulangerie in 1932 and who, in the 1950s, as a reaction to the boring and nutrionless industrial bread made of bleached white flour that became chic after the war, established their practice of baking naturally-leavened stone-ground whole grain wheat in a wood-fired oven.
At the back of the room with the graphics is a curving stairway, its worn steps carved out of solid rock 600 years ago when the building was a monastery. The steps go to the baking room, a space perhaps 15 feet on a side. Directly in front of you at the bottom of the steps is the wood-fired oven, with its firebox below and water injectors above. To the right is a table where the boulanger and an assistant weigh and shape loaves from a huge box of fermented dough. The loaves are stacked in linen-lined wicker baskets, bannetons, for the final rise before they go into the oven. In summer and winter the temperature hardly varies. It's a space of grand stability.
When he took over the business in 1970, Lionel set about improving his father's recette and technique and expanding the business. He interviewed 10,000 traditional bakers all over France and identified 80 distinct regional varieties of bread. (In 1981 he published his findings in a book famous among bakers, Le guide de l'amateur de pain. Many of the bakers were surprised that anyone wanted to talk to them,for it was a time when France was turning more and more to mass-produced white bread and per capita consumption of bread had dropped to a quarter what it had been in the years many of them were working boulangers. It wasn't that French cuisine had changed; rather it was that French bread had become boring.
Poilâne would change all that. At a time when Parisian bread was getting lighter, less nourishing and more tasteless he was finding ways to extend production of his father's basic product without altering the ingredients, time, or quality. He took special care to use wheat grown with no pesticides - one of the first to use farine biologique - and salt from the marshes of Guérande on la côte de Bretagne.
A second boulangerie Poilâne is located in the at 49, boulevard de Grenelle, XV ème arrondissement. The worldwide demand for Poilâne bread is met in a facility located in Bièvres which was built in the 1980s. The Bièvres bakery produces around 15,000 loaves per day in 24 wood-burning ovens which are exact replicas of the ovens used at the Paris locations. These loaves are shipped worldwide. The firm opened a facility in London's tony Belgravia district in juin 2000.
The shop in London is a replica of the shop on rue du Cherche-Midi. He ships in the same ingredients, staffs it with boulangers Français, and got permission from the British government to install London's first wood-fired baking oven since the Great Fire in 1666, the irony being that the Great Fire began when a candle tipped over in a baker's shop on Pudding Lane.
Lionel Poilâne was killed when the helicopter he was piloting crashed into the baie de Cancale off the côte de Bretagne on le 31 octobre 2002. They were enroute to their second home, a XVIII ème siecle château on l'Île des Rimains, a tiny island in la Manche, (the English Channel), a few hundred yards off the shore of Cancale. Poilâne's wife, Iréna, and their dog, also died in the crash. Iréna was a sculptor and jewelry designer. Poilâne is survived by his daughter Apollonia who now runs the enterprise.
Lionel's brother Max Poilâne operates his own boulangeries in Paris and has become famous for quality bread in his own right.
- • -
8, rue du Cherche-Midi
49, boulevard de Grenelle
This article is also posted at The Frog Blog of Louis la Vache