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Jon Tseng

The revival of bread movement in France: Poilane

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Below is additional information on Poilane's sad situation:

-- Agence France Presse, November 1, 2002 ("Bread giant Poilane presumed dead in chopper crash"): "Lionel Poilane, head of the internationally renowned French bread-making business, was presumed dead Friday after the helicopter he was piloting crashed off his private island on the Brittany coast. Divers who traced the wreckage of the aircraft in waters near the port of Cancale said it contained a body, though they were unable to confirm if it was that of Poilane or of his wife, who was accompanying him."

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I had breakfast two weeks ago with Mr Poilâne, Chef Terrance Brennan and Daphne Zepos. Chef Brennan and Daphne Zepos were in Paris for the Sial show looking to establish relationships with artisanal cheese producers. We visited the bakery at rue du Cherche Midi with Mr. Poilâne. Whilst there he introduced us to his daughter who was learning to bake the eponymous "miche" loaves, getting up at 4 am to mix dough, knead it and bake several hundred loaves each day. She is a bright young woman who will be going to Harvard next September. It was a pleasure for me to listen to three impassioned food professionals wax philosophical on ingredients, tradtional production techniques and the importance of teaching new generations about focusing on quality rather than quantity. Below is an article I wrote on the Poilâne bread "manufacture" for my web site.

POILÂNE MANUFACTURE

A friend visiting from America asked me about Poilâne bread. Unless you live in a cave you know that Poilâne bread is a masterpiece of baking. My friend wondered how 2 small bakeries (at 8 rue du Cherche Midi in the 6th arrondissement and 49 Bd de Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement) could supply so many restaurants and stores every day with fresh bread. It is true that Poilâne bread is ubiquitous. It is also true that the quality remains the same whether you buy it in a store in Nice, a gourmet shop in New York or in the Poilâne bakery in London. What is the secret to so much quantity with steady quality? I thought this was a good question and decided to investigate.

I called Joan Richardson, Head of International Development at Poilâne and she invited me to tour the Poilâne facility in Bièvres on the outskirts of Paris. The manufacture is a large, white, completely round building that looks like a flour-dusted loaf of bread. It is quite anonymous yet intriguing by its size and shape. Lionel Poilâne showed me around and started by stressing that his facility is a “manufacture” not an “usine” (factory). A manufacture is simply a large place where something is made by hand (main) on a large scale. There are no machines in the manufacture. When Mr. Poilâne asked for an authorization to build, local authorities asked that he choose an industrial zone. He argued that his was not an industry. There is no wastewater, no fuel or chemicals and just enough electricity for his employees to see what they are doing. His logic prevailed and instead of being surrounded by factories, discount stores and fast food restaurants, the manufacture sits on the edge of the woods.

I entered through a revolving door and discovered a reception room lined with framed photographs of the Poilâne family and bakeries. One was a photo of a birdcage made of bread as part of an all bread bedroom suite made for Salvador Dali. Senor Dali loved the idea that a bird could eat its way to freedom. Lionel Poilâne is a handsome mid-50’s man with brown hair falling on each side of his face. He is always impeccably dressed and wears a dark grey smock over his town clothes when he is in the manufacture. He has a soft yet impassioned voice, every word measured as carefully as bread dough.

A visit starts in the dispatching room that he calls a bread library. Tall racks hold the days baking, about 90 loaves to each rack. The racks bear the names of the “compagnon” (baker) who made the bread. Quality control is simple. Mr. Poilâne looks at the loaves, tastes a few, taps them, squeezes them and notes any observations. At night the loaves are shipped by truck to the many gourmet stores and high-end supermarkets Mr. Poilâne has accepted as clients. Other loaves are double wrapped in paper bags and placed into boxes to be air shipped to the United States, throughout Europe, Mexico, the French Caribbean territories and as far away as Japan. 19 tonnes of bread are shipped each day.

We continued the visit and entered a huge round room (the centre of the building), which is the wood storage area. Stacks of split wood (elm, oak, poplar and others) line the walls. A massive steel claw lifts the wood and drops it into huge chutes that lead directly to each one of the 12 “fournils” (groups of two evens). Wood-fired bread ovens are as old as time itself. Using wood as fuel to make a product with international distribution in the 21st century is part of the Poilâne “retro-innovation” philosophy. Mr. Poilâne espouses the use of new and old techniques as long as they are good. So simple yet so rare today.

This philosophy motivated him to develop bread for astronauts. The biggest problem with bread and space travel is lack of gravity. A single stray crumb could wreak havoc with sophisticated onboard systems and cause a space station to come crashing down to earth. (Well maybe not, but if any screenwriter uses this idea in a scenario, I want some royalties!). Lionel Poilâne determined that an average bite of bread weighs 6 grams. He then designed tiny bite-size bread balls made with his miche (the miche is the centre of a loaf of bread), raisin and walnut recipes. The result, which is not yet for sale, is amazing. Imagine a loaf of bread the size of a marble. You pop it into your mouth; bite through the crust and the taste of Poilâne bread fills your mouth!

Next we visited one of the 12 “fournils”. Each fournil includes two ovens, a kneading table, rising area and wood supply. The temperature in this area is carefully controlled to allow the dough to rise. The ovens weigh 100 tons each and a single oven load or “fournée” equals one hundred miche loaves. The original Poilâne oven was designed by a “fournier” (oven maker) whose claim to fame was drinking at least one bottle of Chambolle-Musigny per day. Considering the cost of this delightful wine, oven design must be a lucrative trade. Each fournil is named after an important figure in bread history such as Saint Roch, the patron saint of bakers; or Squanto, the Native American who taught the pilgrims how to plant corn.

After watching all this bread being manufactured we returned to Paris and had lunch at the “Cuisine du Bar” restaurant near the bakery in the 6th arrondissement. Poilâne bread is served toasted with a variety of toppings. The € 11.50 formule includes one open-faced tartine of miche bread, a salad with couscous and raisins and a glass of wine or mineral water. I had a delicious roast chicken tartine with anchovies and capers. A perfectly caramelised tarte tatin and a heady cup of cappuccino capped a wonderful day with a baking legend.

La Cuisine du Bar

8 rue du Cherche Midi

75006 Paris

01 45 48 45 69

Open from 9 am to 8 pm

Closed on Sundays

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Actually Poilâne does make baguettes but only for 1 restaurant. They are made daily and delivered 1 block away to "Le Récamier" an eating place for French politicians and intellectuals. His 19 year old daughter was named as President of the company after Lionel's death.

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Marc, at Le Recamier do they sit and pick each other's brains? Actually I used to make it a must when I was in Paris. Do you know if it is holding up? Although I like to try new restaurants, I am having a devilish time finding really good-sounding restaurants (not too "far out") that are not unvisited three stars and the classics like Le Recamier that I already know? Any suggestions? Anyone? (Helene Darroze would be an example, but I have been there before).

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Robert -- I found Helene Darroze extremely disappointing, I was amazed that I didn't even like her Foie Gras. Overall I found the food unfocused. In addition it is very expensive, perhaps the worst price performing restaurant that I know of in Paris, well into the 2 star price range with food that is less than the one star she gets, I think a 15 from GM. In that area, although a very different style of cooking, I very much like Maxence.

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Marcus, what keeps me from returning to Helene Darroze was the inept service that kept us sitting and waiting seemingly forever for the food. I thought the cooking was very nice, however. This was nearly three years ago. When were you there? Maxence is a place I have not visited. Thanks for the lead.

Marc, that was a superb piece about Lionel Poilane.

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We tasted Van Laer's rillettes de lièvre au chocolate, or something like that, last year and couldn't wait to dine in Maxence as a result, but for some reason, when we finally made it last month, our dinner fell short of our expectations. It was a good meal, but it was flat. Maybe it was our fault, but we didn't find the carte exciting and that may have left us ordering poorly. I have no complaints, and maybe after our experience with l'Astrance, we expected too much from one star in Paris. I had an excellent boudin noir served with sauteed apples and puree of potatoes presented in a small pan on the side. That's normally the sort of dish I'd order in a brasserie or a old time bistro. That I ordered it here may have been an indication that I was unexcited by the menu. I had some croquettes for a starter and although they were crisp and greaseless, I found the filling stodgy.

I did get my satisfaction a week or so later in Romoratin at a two star dining room where we had a most staisfying cuisse de lievre en civet au cacao. I owe eGullet a report on that meal and one in nearby Onzain at another two star Relais Gourmand. Both meals were "delicious" and reminded us of exactly why we come to France and cause us to at least rethink our strategies about focusing on three star avant garde restaurants, which is why I need to talk about these dinners.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Poilane article

There is an article about Poilane in today's Guardian. I have no idea whether my link will work as it is the first time I have tried this!

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The link worked for me and it was a pleasure to read about his daughter's intent to take over the family business. I certainly wish her the best. Her success will be measured by how great the bread tastes and not by the profit the company makes.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I suspect a well run and well organized company of certain kinds can continue running on inertia for a while if the staff are dedicated to their jobs and the product. Apollonia Poilne intends to spend most of her next few years studying economics and business in the US. There's no reason why that should reduce her interest in producing the best of all possible loaves, but it often leaves graduates focused only on the bottom line. The result is often the best possible loaf at the best price for maximum sales. I don't begrudge anyone the right to maximize their profit, I just hope she's dedicated to the maximum quality of the loaves. In the meantime, she's not going to be around full time to run things, so most of us are going to hope she's got a loyal and dedicated staff. I wish her and the company well, for your sake and mine.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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recent purchases from Borough show no discernable reduction in quality.  Still pretty damn good bread

S

Does this mean that you are eating bread again, Simon? I just started a modified Atkins on Monday, you being an inspiration.

No, I don't count Poilane as bread, it is ambrosia

And, I don't eat it very often

I am still of the opinion that CARBS = DEATH

S

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And Pain Poilane is to die for?


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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i buy pain poilane @ fairway, $4.99/lb. i have found that if u r able 2 purchase the 1st day it arrives on the shelf, generally 5 da b4 the printed expiration date, then u DO seem 2 get a full 3 days of "freshness". but, when it begins to "turn", u still have a fabulous base 4 croutons w/whatever is left!!

curious as to how those who have had "fresh" pain poilane n paris compare that 2 "fresh" poilane @ fairway?

as an aside, recently ate @ a newly opened little bistrot, part of a french chainlet around manhattan, Nice Matin, corner of amsterdam & 79th, where the pain is very, very good. unfortunately, they serve it w/herb butter soaked n olive oil. i say unfortunate because 1 has 2 h/2 helpings!!!!!

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curious as to how those who have had "fresh" pain poilane n paris compare that 2 "fresh" poilane @ fairway?

Sorry, but there's no comparison. I've had it from the Bristol Farms in West Hollywood - the site of the late, legendary Chasen's - and straight from the baker's hand, directly from his wood-burning oven in the basement on rue du Cherche-Midi, and there's just no comparison. None. I'm guessing that at Fairway it's still better than what passes for bread in the States but have it fresh, warm, crisp, chewy, and you will weep.

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with air travel, etc... why do u think that poilane is NOT able to deliver 2 the states, particularly nyc, the same pain as 1 experiences n paris. obviously, i am assuming we r comparing apples-2-apples, i,e., buying "freshly" delivered pains @ a fairway n manhattan - vs - buying a pain poilane @ the rue du cherche that has been sitting out, not fresh from the ovens, which, i agree, cannot b duplicated!

as an aside, i h/done an nformal study, & aside fr francophiles like myself, most seem 2 like pains made here much better than the pain poilane!!?? the restaurant i mention above gets its pain from a bakery n staten isle!

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with air travel, etc... why do u think that poilane is NOT able  to deliver 2 the states, particularly nyc, the same pain as 1 experiences n paris.

Because CDG is further away from an oven than is Cherche-Midi? Because CDG is still 5 hours away from JFK which is an hour away from Fairway? Because I doubt that any loaf in the poilane shop sits around for six hours? In dog years, six hours is a year. In wine terms, it may be last year's beaujolais nouveau.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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baruch, are you kidding? Have you flown lately? Have you shipped anything lately? The fact that they're able to get anything remotely edible across the Atlantic is a miracle in and of itself. And this was mentioned in the article but I don't know if it's clear - most of the pain Poilane in the world comes from their factory just outside Paris. And that includes pain Poilane in Paris itself. The bread baked at Cherche Midi is sold only there - and fast.

Bux, six hours is a year in dog time! :biggrin:

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