On a charming side-street in Paris, you’ll find Pain Poilâne, one of the best bread bakeries in the world. Since 1932, they’ve been producing traditional round sourdough loaves with a capital P carved into the top. The ingredients in the four-pound loaves are simple: water, stone-ground flour that is milled just for them, sea salt from Guérande, and the sourdough starter, all baked in a wood-fired oven.
Pierre Poilâne was swimming against the current, as Parisian tastes had turned to the soft, white baguette and away from the dark bread of the First World War years. But the stubborn baker also knew two important facts: his bread would keep fresh longer, and it could be cut into slices. Poilâne was as good at marketing as he was at baking. He began selling his bread to wine bars and restaurants – “Ici pain Poilâne” became a highly desirable sign across the city. He also gave a lot of it away to starving artists; if an artist couldn’t pay, Poilâne would exchange bread for a painting of a loaf of his bread. Today, the walls of that first shop are covered with paintings of the ample round loaves.
The now-flourishing business was handed over to son Lionel in the early 70s. This was no gift. Lionel had started his apprenticeship when he was only 14 years old. Under his leadership, the network of retail outlets became international. Lionel also forged friendships with artists, including Salvado Dali for whom he built an entire bedroom suite out of bread so that Dali could test his theory that he’d been invaded by mice. Demand for the bread had grown so much that Poilâne built a small factory, where 24 wood-fired ovens were presided over by 24 Poilâne-trained bakers. He also expanded into London, which took two years of red-tape to get permission to install the wood-fired oven, since that’s how the Great Fire started in 1666. He coined the term “retro-innovation,” which means combining the best of the tried-and-true with the best of what’s modern.
Today, Poilâne is under the capable management of Apollonia Poilâne, Lionel’s daughter. In 2002, her parents died in a car crash while she was a student at Harvard. She left school to take up the reins. She’s made her own tweaks to the winning formula, such as selling partial, sliced loaves for those for whom there actually can be too much of a good thing. Here’s a short video telling the story of the three generation bakery.
Georges Jacques Danton, an early figure in the French Revolution, said “Après le pain, l’éducation est le premier besoin d’un peuple” (apreh luh pahn, lade-u-ka-see-ohn eh luh prem-e-ay bezwahn duhn peupluh), which means “After bread, education is the first need of a people.” France’s Revolution started when the price of bread soared and the baguette is a national symbol. Clearly bread holds a special place in the hearts of the French. For more than eighty years, so has Poilâne.
8 rue du Cherche-Midi,
Paris 75006 (St. Germain district)
49 blvd de Grenelle,
Paris 75015 (Eiffel Tower district)
38 rue Debelleyme
Paris 75003 (Marais district)
46 Elizabeth Street,
London SW1W 9PA (Belgravia)
39 Cadogan Gardens,
London SW3 2TB (Chelsea)