Behind the scenes at Poilâne bakery - Ann Mah | Ann Mah

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Behind the scenes at Poilâne bakery

By Ann | April 23, 2009

Poilane's famous Miche loaf

Forget the baguette. It’s a modern invention that traditionalists scoff at. No, France’s ancient bread is a large, round, sourdough boule. And perhaps Paris’s most famous traditional bakery is Poilâne, the legendary shop with a tragic family history, whose master bakers still create each sturdy, slightly tart loaf by hand. On a recent morning, I was lucky enough to go behind the scenes at Poilâne, visiting their tiny furnace of a kitchen, and learning a lot about bread — the stuff of life — in the process.

At 8 rue du Cherche-Midi, centuries before Poilâne, there stood an abbey. It’s uncertain if the nuns baked bread — though the basement oven certainly seems ancient — we do know, however, that the 17th-century convent was destroyed in 1789 during the French Revolution. The bakery, which moved in soon after, continued unremarkably until Pierre Poilâne discovered the location in 1932.

Chandelier of bread

Pierre had his special recipe and special sourdough starter, but he also had a sense of humor. He accepted paintings of his bread as payment for the actual stuff, becoming a neighborhood favorite among the impoverished artists of Montparnasse. In the early 1970s, his son Lionel joined the business. Among more serious projects, he launched wacky side ventures like a furnished-by-dough project with Salvador Dali, in which the two created an entire room of furniture out of bread. The edible chandelier (photo above) is a recreation of the original (they last about two years).

The baker’s lair is in the basement, a small kitchen dominated by a wood-burning oven. I’m not sure if the photo above captures the tininess, and it certainly doesn’t capture the intense heat of the room. Here, master baker Jean-Michel is removing loaves from the oven. But wait… we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Dough

The bread begins with dough — simply flour, water and salt — and is kneaded in this giant mixer. This is the only mechanized part of the process.

The dough is left to rise for one hour in this wooden trough.

Then it’s measured, weighed, and formed by hand into boules, which each weigh 2.2 kilos. By the way, Jean-Michel is one of five master bakers at the shop — he’s been working there for nine years (he started at age 17).

Each boule rises for another hour, tucked safely into its very own linen-covered basket.

After they’ve plumped, the boules are flipped quickly onto a long-handled paddle…

They’re carved with that distinctly elegant “P,” which represents Poilâne, as well as pain, the French word for bread.

They go into the 250 degree Celsius oven…

And, an hour later, out they come.

But the baker’s job is far from over. The fire must be stoked and fed again for the next batch of bread. Poilâne’s bakers work six-hour shifts around the clock, continuously mixing, kneading, weighing, shaping, rising, with loaves going into the oven every two hours. That fire burns 24 hours a day!

This tiny kitchen produces all the bread and pastries sold in the shop at 8 rue du Cherche-Midi. But there are two other Poilâne bakeries — one at 15 boulevard de Grenelle in the 15th, the other at 46 Elizabeth Street in London. And a 24-oven factory in Bièvres makes the bread that is shipped around the world.

Aside from the oversized boules, Poilâne makes raisin or walnut loaves, butter cookies called punitions or “punishments,” sumptuously flaky croissants, apple tarts, or pain au chocolat, and also brioche bread. The bakery has been in the family for three generations, passed down from Pierre to his son Lionel. Tragically, in 2002, Lionel and his wife died in a helicopter accident. Though weighed by grief, the small staff resolved to continue, not missing a day of baking bread. Lionel’s daughter, Apollonia, who was only 19 at the time of the accident, immediately took over the family business and continues to run it today.

Poilâne is justly famous and generally overrun by tourists, but somehow the shop retains an unspoiled air. Perhaps it’s the 77-year-old sourdough starter that perfumes every loaf, or the 220-year-old basement bread kitchen. You can buy as little as two slices of bread — or you can enjoy a Poilâne tartine next door at Cuisine de Bar.

Poilâne
8 rue du Cherche-Midi, 6ème
tel:01 45 48 42 59
Closed Sunday

Topics: Flâner, Paris, Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

16 Responses to “Behind the scenes at Poilâne bakery”

  1. CK Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Poilane is a rough, country-style bread that I particularly love to use for dipping into CTB’s delicious soups. And thanks for the description of the bread-making process. I had no idea the bakery was in the basement!

  2. heather Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    too cool. how did you get this behind the scenes tour? ive only been to poilane once, in 1995 as a student, and i remember we were typical tourists, bummed that they had such a small and select selection of patisserie, and picked something fast. but i still remember the chausson aux pommes, mmmmmmm.

  3. Taitauwai Says:
    April 29th, 2009 at 3:27 am

    Hi Ann, came across your writing when searching for more info on Poilane. Lovely post! Hope to read many many more from you and hope to find your book on my shore in 2010 (it’s a long time though…). A bientot :>

  4. Bob Says:
    May 5th, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Thanks for the fascinating insider view of Poilane’s bakery. In London, we now have a branch of Poilane in Knightsbridge and it services our local Chelsea French market, making it very convenient to keep us supplied. There’s nothing like a sandwich made from the freshly sliced country bread but I especially like their walnut bread, thinly sliced and toasted for dipping. I wonder what the kitchen looks like here.

  5. Ann Says:
    May 5th, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Heather — Someone from CK’s office organized this tour, but I got the feeling Poîlane often invites small groups to visit. No more than 8 people, however — the kitchen is teeny-tiny!

    Taitauwai — Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! How did you become interested in Poîlane? By the way, I’ll be updating my site with news about my novel in the coming months. It would be amazing if it were translated into Malay! P.S. I really like your blog!

    Dad — They told us on our tour that they’ve replicated the oven above in all their shops (and their factory). In London, they import all the bread ingredients — except for water. For their London croissants and other patisserie, they even import butter and milk!

  6. Grant Johnson Says:
    July 5th, 2009 at 11:30 am

    I really enjoyed this article.I was able to visit the bakery in London when last there, and was dissappointed on my timing as I missed they day they would allow tours.They do have arranged times for tours if anyone wants to see.
    I would love to see the “manufactory” location with their 24 ovens and to see how this operation works.Can you do a story on this?

  7. Jim Hanson Says:
    February 22nd, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Hi Ann, enjoyed your web site. two years ago My wife, Madelene and I were in the basement oven, as you say very small, one baker. I wish I could have visited the 24 oven bakery outside of Paris. I have a fire brick oven in my home in Bozeman Montana, have tried to duplicate his loaf, not much success, my bread looks like his, just does’nt taste the same, I’ll keep trying.

  8. karen Says:
    March 28th, 2010 at 10:21 am

    hello; now that Ive discovered this bread how as a living in America get this bread delivered?

  9. louis sisbarro Says:
    March 28th, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Applonia
    I will be in Paris France April 10th to April 18th
    Looking forward to meeting you and your staff.
    I write free lance and anticipating doing a article
    on Poilane Bakery for the Star Ledger news paper.
    largest news paper in New Jersey. I will call you
    to speak in person. Sorry for using Comments for
    getting in touch with you, but could not locate a
    E-mail address. My best regurds
    Lou Sisbarro

  10. Linda Atkins Says:
    March 29th, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    This was amazing! I saw the CBS Sunday Morning show highlighting this shop, and it was amazing! Would love to intern at this place!

  11. Ann Says:
    March 29th, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Karen, Louis
    Please see my post today for a response to your questions:

    http://annmah.net/2010/03/29/poilane-revisited/

    Linda —
    It is indeed an amazing place!

  12. Twitter Trackbacks for Behind the scenes at Poilâne bakery | Ann Mah [annmah.net] on Topsy.com Says:
    March 30th, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    [...] Behind the scenes at Poilâne bakery | Ann Mah annmah.net/2009/04/23/behind-the-scenes-at-poilane-bakery – view page – cached Freelance journalist Ann Mah has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune and many other publications. This blog features her articles and also discusses food, restaurants and Filter tweets [...]

  13. Danny Says:
    September 22nd, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I was doing a bible study and in a scripture it talked about a “kneading trough”. I searched the term on Google images to see what it looks like. The image I chose to look at is on this page. So I took a break form Bible study to read your article and it is wonderful. I live in Florida and love to learn about other places.

    My wife and I bake bread products, we get flour in 50lb bags (22.6796185 kilograms). My wife make awesome sweet yeast rolls and sandwich buns. I tell her about your article when she gets off work. Love form the USA.
    Danny

  14. Kathy Pearson Says:
    October 29th, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    I would lke to know how to purchase Poilane bread, in the USA. I’ve never tried the bread, Thankyou, Kathy

  15. Ann Says:
    October 31st, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Kathy, Thank you for your message. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to buy Poîlane in the States. This follow-up blog post could answer some of your questions.

    http://annmah.net/2010/03/29/poilane-revisited/

  16. The Bobo Palate: Context Travel Paris Food Tour Says:
    February 2nd, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    [...] bakery, one of three in the city.  The family and the company has quite a history (here is a great post on them from Ann Mah) and they are most known for their boule (pictured below) which they call a La miche [...]

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