It is pure passion for bread that has kept the wood-fired oven burning at Poilâne for almost two decades. Words by Corrie Bond-French.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Parisian boulangerie Poilâne arriving in Elizabeth Street.
By then, Poilâne loaves were already loved across the world.
Sent from France internationally, Frank Sinatra and Robert De Niro were reputedly fans.
In Paris, it was said that actors including Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani regularly joined the queue for Poilâne’s produce.
These days, the bread can be found at Waitrose stores across the UK.
But back then, Lionel Poilâne, who had taken over the family business from his father, was opening the bakery’s first branch outside France.
Tragically, just two years after lighting the oven on Elizabeth Street, Lionel and his American wife Irena were killed in a helicopter crash.
They left two teenage daughters Apollonia and Athena.
Taking up the reins
Now an orphan, Apollonia, aged 18, stepped up to take the reins of the family business she loved.
At the same time, she took to her studies in economics at Harvard.
While others partied, Apollonia was making transatlantic telephone calls and dealing with suppliers.
Apollonia has now been running the company for just over half of her life.
“What I like with having a shop presence is that it allows you to have contact with your clients. That’s a personal preference.
“I’m the third generation, we’re entrepreneurs, we like to go beyond our craft. For us it’s a philosophy and a way of life,” she says.
She adds: “I think that maybe there’s some resemblance in the way the French go about their rapport, their relationship to baking with the way the British have a connection to their pubs, and what I mean by that is that it is a place of emotion.”
Apollonia also remembers the very first day her father lit the oven in Elizabeth Street with clarity.
“It was quite an adventure. My sister and I came to light up the oven, it takes about a month to light it up to the right level, and my father, who had a sense of putting things together and creating memories, had me and my sister (at 14 and 16 we wanted to be doing other things!) to light up the oven,” she says.
By the time her father Lionel opened the doors to the bakery in Elizabeth Street, he had already elevated bread to an art form.
He had even created structures out of dough for Salvador Dali, including a birdcage from which the bird pecked its way free.
And he continued the legacy of the sourdough loaf, or ‘miche’, which his own father had popularised on Paris’ Rue du Cherche Midi in 1932.
Monsieur Poilâne senior offered this dusted, darkly magnificent rye sourdough to Parisians, against a backdrop of tough times in the 1930s, because it would last longer.
Parisians took it to their hearts, cherished it and savoured it.
And there has been no waning of appetite for Pain Poilâne ever since.
Baguettes are one thing – a Poilâne ‘miche’ is another.
This article first appeared in Victoria magazine.