On my way to a meeting the other day, I offered myself the rare treat of breakfast out of the house. I had heard of a new shop in the fabulous Poilâne Bakery enterprise and thought I might leave a half-hour early to give it a try. Thank goodness I did! It was delectably worth the trip to the Marais.
Poilâne Bakery is an institution in Paris. And not just for tourists. Parisians line up after work evening after evening for a taste of their mouth-watering loaves. In 1932, during France’s booming entre-guerre period, Pierre Poilâne opened the doors of his first shop on rue Cherche Midi in Paris’ Saint-Germain des Prés corner of the 6ème arrondissement. Over the years since and despite isn’t enormous success, the business has stayed within
the Poilâne family, being passed down from parent to child. As Pierre’s granddaughter Apollonia, who has now taken over the business, says, “Nothing has changed regarding how we bake our bread since the doors were first opened all those years ago. We use the artisanal method.” When asked if she found it difficult to distinguish herself from all the other numerous bakeries in the French capital, her answer betrayed a well-deserved aura of confidence: “Our bread speaks for itself.” Indeed, it does.
Known by locals as the best bread in Paris, Apollonia has been able to capitalize on Poilâne’s reputation. After taking over the reins of the enterprise from her father Lionel, they opened a shop near the Eiffel Tower in the 15th on rue Grenelle, as well as two in London: one in Belgravia on Elizabeth Street and the second in Chelsea on Cadogan Gardens. Her newest project in Paris is a bakery/café in the Marais on rue Debelleyme, where I enjoyed breakfast the other day.
One of the secrets of their continued success is the fact that they haven’t changed very much about how they do what they do for 80 years – on the dot as 2012 marks their octogenarian anniversary. They still use only four very basic ingredients: water, flour, yeast and salt. And they bake their bread in wood fired ovens. The salt they use is specific, sel de Guérande; and the wheat is ground with a grindstone. They work directly with their wheat farmers to ensure the quality of their flour. It’s all so perfect, so organic in both operation and production. It’s reminiscent of a pre-globalization time gone by, indeed the era when grandpapa Pierre opened his shop early each morning wearing a three-piece suit and a Fedora.
Unlike their other bakeries in Paris, the Marais shop has a café restaurant where you can eat sur place. The other Poilâne shops are typical take-away bakeries. For the café, you can enjoy a scrumptious breakfast menu for about 9€ all-in.
If you make it by one of the Poilâne shops, I’d suggest giving their traditional bread a taste: the Miche Poilâne. This is French pain de compagne – a country loaf as opposed to the baguette – at its very best. They will even decorate the bread for you, if you have a special occasion. And if you are invited over for dinner to a Parisian home, rather than the traditional bottle of wine or a bouquet, you will see the twinkle of unexpected delight in your hostess’ eyes as she catches a glimpse of the Poilâne box in your outstretched hands.
There really isn’t anything I love more than stories about families having created businesses generations ago and those shops and traditions and savoir-faire being passed down from father to daughter, mother to son over the decades. Poilâne is one such story, a mere stab in the plethoric hay of similar family tales I’ve come across in France. It’s one of the particularities of the culture, and one of the most delicious parts of living in France, and one – thank goodness – we all get to share!