Poilâne, a tale of loaf and pain

Poilâne, a tale of loaf and pain

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” -James Beard


The story starts in 1932 when Pierre Poliâne, a Normandy native,  set up his bakery in Paris at 8 rue de cherche-midi in the Saint- Germain des Prés neighborhood. His trademark round loaves where not exactly fashionable at the time, and even less so after the war when people preferred the white baguettes to push back the memories of the coarse dark flour that they were forced to use during leaner times. Pierre kept producing his round loaves with conviction. They might not have been as stylish as the elongated baguette but they lasted longer and could be sliced for different uses.

There is something earthy and rustic about the round loaf. It smells heavenly when fresh, the texture is weapon-hard on the outside and tender and yielding inside. Unopened it keeps for about 5 days or so, and left overs can be toasted to stretch it even further. It goes as well with cheese and cold cuts as with butter and jam. It’s a vehicle for other flavors but it’s also hearty and comforting in its own right.

To say that Pierre’s product caught on would be an unfair understatement.  First it was the bars around the bakery that started serving slices of his bread to go with the cheese. Pierre never compromised and continued to bake this bread using stone-ground flour, sea salt from Guérande and a wood-fired oven. The bars, seeing how customers would ask about the source of the loaves, smelled an opportunity and not only served but also started to resell the miches. Then came the restaurants and more and more orders.

Pierre had two sons, Max and Lionel. The legacy lived on through both. They learned the trade alongside their father from the time they were small children. But every legend is made of both the sweet and the sour. Sadly Max and Lionel’s fraternal bond broke down thereafter and they branched out in two different directions. Lionel remained operating the original store and Max opened his own under the “Max Poliâne” name after a long court battle determined that he was indeed allowed to use his own name for the bakery and therefore did not constitute plagiarism.

Lionel built on the original model and dug deeper into the philosophy and science of bread. He amassed an impressive collection of reference works and research and wrote several books on the subject. He expanded internationally and rubbed shoulders with Dali, Man Ray and the jet-setters of the time. His product line expanded and diversified. Despite this growth he knew better than to tinker with the source of Poilâne’s success. The ingredients, recipe and handcrafted method remained ironclad as well as the signature slit in the shape of a P emblazoned on the golden domes of their loaves. His entrepreneurial spirit was further tested when he embarked on his international expansion to London. It took him over two years to obtain the permit to use a wood-fired oven ( that the Great Fire of London in 1666 began in a bakery couldn’t have helped his case) but he succeeded.

In a further twist of fate, Lionel and his wife Iréna died in a helicopter accident on their way to their holiday home in l’Ile des Rimains. It was thus that the third generation of Poilâne, their daughter Apollonia, was thrust in the midst of her pain to the frontline of the business while still a teenager. By all indications, the grandaughter of Pierre Poilâne is proving to be a faithful keeper of the flame, following in the tradition of her paternal line.


In case you would like to try your  hand at the therapeutic endeavour of making your own bread, Poilâne has kindly allowed us to share their recipe for apricot bread with you. You can find more recipes on their website at www.poilane.com





Poilâne locations:


•8 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris 6th

T. +33 (0) 1 45 48 42 59

•49 bld de Grenelle, Paris 15th

T.+33 (0) 1 45 79 11 49

Open on Sundays

•38 rue Debelleyme, Paris 3rd

T. +33 (0) 1 44 61 83 39

Open on Sundays

•46 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W

T. +44 (0) 207 808 4910



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