Don’t Mourn, Bake!

Lionel Poilane, 57, the best known baker in Paris and the man who, perhaps more than any other, made French traditional breadmaking honorable and artistic again, died Thursday evening when the helicopter he was piloting went into the sea off the Brittany coast. His wife Ibu (Irena), a sculptor and jewelry designer, and their dog were with him. They were enroute to their second home, a partially converted 18th century fort on Ile des Rimains, a tiny Channel island a few hundred yards off the shore of Cancale.

I met him once, in his famous boulangerie at 8 rue de Cherche-Midi, a narrow street in the 6th arrondissment, a few minutes’ walk from St. Germain des Pres and St. Sulpice. The shop is tiny by American standards, perhaps twenty feet wide and a dozen feet deep, with racks on either side and behind the windows of Poilane’s famous 1.9 kilogram (4.2 pound) round loaves, the only bread in France known by its baker’s name, and smaller arrangements of rye breads, currant raisin breads, walnut breads and his famously immoral butter cookies, Punitons (“punishments”).

There is a counter and cash register at the far end of the room, and beyond that a room the walls of which are full of paintings and drawings and photographs of Lionel and his father Pierre-Leon. It was Pierre who began the boulangerie in 1932 and who, in the 1950s, as a reaction to the boring and nutrionless industrial bread made of bleached white flour that became chic after the war, established their practice of baking naturally-leavened stone-ground whole grain wheat in a wood-fired oven.

At the back of the room with the graphics is a curving stairway, its worn steps carved out of solid rock 600 years ago when the building was a monastery. The steps go to the baking room, a space perhaps 15 feet on a side. Directly in front of you at the bottom of the steps is the wood-fired oven, with its firebox below and water injectors above. To the right is a table where the baker and an assistant weigh and shape loaves from a huge box of fermented dough. The loaves are stacked in linen-lined wicker baskets, bannetons, for the final rise before they go into the oven. In summer and winter the temperature hardly varies. It’s a space of grand stability.

When he took over the business in 1970, Lionel set about improving his father’s recipe and technique and expanding the business. He interviewed 10,000 traditional bakers all over France and identified 80 distinct regional varieties of bread. (In 1981 he published his findings in a book famous among bakers, Le guide de l’amateur de pain, The bread-lover’s guide). Many of the bakers were surprised that anyone wanted to talk to them,for it was a time when France was turning more and more to mass-produced white bread and per capita consumption of bread had dropped to a quarter what it had been in the years many of them were working boulangers. It wasn’t that French cuisine had changed; rather it was that French bread had become boring.

Poilane would change all that. At a time when Parisian bread was getting lighter, less nourishing and more tasteless he was finding ways to extend production of his father’s basic product without altering the ingredients, time, or quality. He took special care to use wheat grown with no pesticides and salt from the marshes of Guerande on the Brittany coast. He opened a second Paris shop on 49 Boulevard de Grenelle (in the 15th) and, in 2000, a shop in London that is a replica of the shop on Cherche-Midi. He shipped in the same ingredients, staffed it with French bakers, and got permission from the British government to install London’s first wood-fired baking oven since the Great Fire in 1666. In his large bakery outside Paris, 24 ovens are manned 40 bakers working in teams of 2 sending Poilane bread by truck to 2500 shops and restaurants in Paris and by FedEx to Japan, the US and about 15 other countries.

All of his breads were popular, but sales of pain Poilane, the boulangerie’s trademark sourdough loaf, were greater than everything else combined, about 15,000 loaves a day. Every one of them is formed by hand, given long fermentation, put in and taken out of the wood-fired ovens on paddles. Poilane made a lot of bread, but he never mass-produced it. “J’utilise le materiel le plus sophistique, la machine la plus extraordinairement complexe: l’homme, I utilize the most sophisticated material the most extraordinarily complex machine: the human being,” he told the Liberation in 1981.

He never made a bleached white flour baguette, which he considered tasteless and boring, nor did he keep secret his contempt for that staple of the Parisian diet. France’s prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, called him “l’infatigable militant de la qualite”–the indefagitable minitant of quality.

His good friend Salvador Dali thought him a great artist, and so he was. Bread making is one of the fine arts. Perhaps only music is more ephemeral. Classic French bread has only four components: flour, leavening, salt, water. The quality of those four components and how they are mixed, the amount of time given to each of the stages (mixing, fermentation, baking), and the temperature of each of the stages determine the character and quality of the product.

The factories that make the bland bread you get in most places use yeast for the leavening. Industrial yeast makes dough rise rapidly, so the factories can turn out huge quantities in short periods of time. Poilane and the traditional bakers like him used dough set aside from the previous batch, which makes for far slower rising and fermenting, but much greater flavor and much longer life. The technique also ensures that every loaf is part of the physical tradition of every loaf that preceded it and every loaf that succeeds it. Poilane took great pleasure in that fact. “Using old ways is a glorious way to make new things,” he famously said. “The man with the best future is the one with the longest memory.”

I suppose every traditional baker who ever met Poilane has his or her favorite story about him. Mine is one Ron Lieber tells in a March 2001 article in Fast Company:

Poilane and Dali made a birdcage together out of dough. “The bird could eat its way out of the cage,” Poilane said “That was very real to me. As an apprentice, I too felt like a bird in a cage made out of bread. I just fed on my limits.”

Poilane’s web site http://www.poilane.fr describes the company, their products, their vision and has the largest on-line annotated bread bibliography that exists anywhere.

BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.

His email address is bjackson@buffalo.edu.


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Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

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