The image that comes to most of our minds when we think about French bread is a classic one: the Parisian trotting home with a baguette tucked under her arm. Apollonia Poilâne finds that curious. “It’s funny that that has stuck,” she says. “The baguette came about relatively recently.”
The world-famous bakery that her grandfather Pierre opened in 1932 has its roots in a more ancient tradition that revolutionized bread-baking in France—and, ultimately, the world. Go to 8 rue du Cherche Midi in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and you’ll find hefty rounds of slightly acidic sourdough made with stone-ground flour. It’s hard to overstate the influence this move away from sourceless, bleached white loaves had; Alice Waters believes, for example, that all of the good bread in the United States exists thanks to Poilâne’s beautiful miche.
Apollonia always planned to take over the family business, but she didn’t plan on doing so at 18 years of age. In 2002, her parents Lionel and Irene died tragically in a helicopter accident, and she began running the bakery from her dorm room at Harvard. “From one day to the next, I became in charge,” she said. Some suggested she take on a CEO, but Lionel had put a strong team in place, and Apollonia grew up in the business. Under her stead, the number of shops in Paris doubled and Poilâne: The Secrets of the World-Famous Bread Bakery was published in 2019. She also introduced gluten-free corn flour.
Some things, though, such as the sourdough starter that has been lovingly tended since the 1930s, remain the same. As for the daily ritual of bread-buying in France, “our bread keeps for a week,” says Apollonia. “There’s no need to come in every day!”
You said there’s no need to come in every day, but some customers do…
Some want connection, so they come every day just to have a single slice. One man who lives and works in the neighborhood comes for an apple tart every day. We all have our theories about the why’s or how’s, but the reality is none of us have dared to ask!
But bread is such an essential ingredient to our lives, a staple food, so it isn’t that surprising to me its purchase, let alone the way we eat it, is ritualized. Rituals are about a rhythm, an internal clock that serves to reassure us. That’s why, during confinement due to the pandemic, I went through the list of all of our regular clients who are elderly, making sure we delivered bread to them.
The same customers might not come every day, but you certainly bake bread every day.
Yes, I run a business where there’s a sense of a frequency or a rhythm. What’s really beautiful about it, though, is that it’s not linear. When you’re baking bread, the basic recipe is not all that hard: You’re mixing water, flour, salt, and a rising agent or, with sourdough, you also have a piece from the previous batch. But the day’s weather and the season impact the way the loaf turns out. All of a sudden, there’s infinite variety and possibility. So, there is a sense of ritual, but the ritual is embracing the fact that we’re always trying to change things or adapt to the day’s challenges.
How did Poilane become world-famous?
Bread is something you eat daily, in one form or another, and it’s something you can just eat or you can let it inform your day. How long will it fuel you? Are you looking for quick sweetness and indulgence of a beautiful brioche slice or do you need to have a big hefty sourdough slice with butter, so that you can have a full stomach to go out and bike ride all Sunday morning?
We’ve thought about that. When you cut through a slice of my bread, it frees your mind to venture off to whatever you’re set to do that day. It’s not light and unfulfilling; it’s not the fluff that’s supposed to fill in the gap before lunch.
What was so revolutionary about the way you make bread there?
In many ways, our bread was deemed peasant bread, or bread of the countryside, when we started. People would almost overlook it, thinking it wasn’t chic enough. They had the idea that white bread was better. But my grandfather went counter culture because he believed that this bread, which he grew up with in Normandy, would really feed you. And he understood that bread is about community, too. Much of the artwork in the bakery comes from artists who couldn’t afford bread; my grandfather took their paintings as payment.
Both my father and grandfather looked at bread with all of its connections to art, politics, and language. When I say politics: I challenge you to find a single historical revolution that didn’t start in some way with the need for bread. Think about the French Revolution, for example. Those guys were asking for something: a piece of bread. This is what fed them on a daily basis.
Overall, eating is a social act, whether you realize it or not. You’re participating in a value chain that starts in the field and the finishes in your mouth. To have that piece of bread, someone needs to have baked the loaf. To bake the loaf, you need to use ground grains. So that the miller can have grains to grind, the grower has taken a year or even three years to nurture them. It’s a lifestyle, at the end of the day: What value chain are you participating in and nurturing?
Julia Bainbridge is an editor who has worked at Condé Nast Traveler and Bon Appétit, and a James Beard Award-nominated writer whose stories have been published in Food & Wine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among others. After building a career around why and how people gather, Bainbridge pivoted into why people don’t, launching The Lonely Hour podcast to explore social disconnection and other forms of loneliness. In the years since, the show has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, Women’s Health, Bloomberg, the BBC, NPR, Calm, and more.