Newsletter Archives

January 2003 - Lionel Poilâne (1945-2002) Master Baker

On October 31, 2002, a helicopter crashed into the Bay of Cancale off the coast of Brittany. Its pilot - world-renown baker Lionel Poilâne. Its passengers - Poilâne's wife Iréna and their dog. They were headed for the Ile des Rimains, where they owned the only home on the island. All three perished.

Poilâne was the owner and the mastermind behind the Poilâne bakery, established by his father Pierre in 1932 at 8, rue de la Cherche-Midi, Paris 6ème. He took control of the shop in 1970 and turned it into a veritable empire of breadmaking. Never forsaking old, tried-and-true equipment, the best of ingredients and human skill, he ingeniously introduced a touch of modernity here and there to maximize both the productions and the marketing of his pain levain (sourdough bread). Poilâne baptized this philosophy "retro-innovation".

With two bakeries in Paris and a suburban facility that operates 24 ovens, production hovers at around 7,000 loaves daily. In Paris, 297 caterers, gourmet shops and other food establishments sell Pain Poilâne; 373 businesses in the surrounding departments also propose it to their customers. Farther afield, 99 shops in the French provinces sell Pain Poilâne. Consumers living in other countries need not worry obtaining their supply, because Poilâne ships a selection of its products around the world. The bakery opened a facility in London's Belgravia district in June 2002.

The Poilâne bakery is most famous for miches, rounds of sourdough bread bearing a capital "P" carved into the surface. Pierre Poilâne, founder of the bakery, produced this bread from stone-milled flour, natural leaven, sea salt and water. He baked in an ancient, wood-burning brick oven that dates back to 1789; it was first used by monks who used to live on the site. Exact replicas of this oven are used at the rue de Grenelle site in Paris and at the suburban facility in Bièvres, and wood is still the fuel used to bake the bread.

The flour used in Poilâne's sourdough bread is called farine bise in French; it is a mixture of wheat and épeautre (spelt). It retains 85% of the original grain and contains 15% bran. This is what gives the bread its greyish-brown color. After World War II, when it became fashionable for the French to eat bread made from white flour, Pierre Poilâne continued to make his traditional loaves. They soon became known as Pain Poilâne.

Lionel knew better than to alter his father's recipe and operating methods; the only change that he incorporated was machine kneading, saving countless hours of work for the bakers in his employ.

In addition to miches, the Poilâne bakery proposes rye bread, raisin bread, nut bread, Punitions (wonderful shortbread cookies), and an assortment of pastries to its clients.

Lionel Poilâne loved bread. He saw his bakery not only as a place that produces it, but also as one that upholds and contributes to the culture, art and tradition of breadmaking. He was a true artisan, and will be greatly missed.

8, rue du Cherche-Midi
75006 Paris

49, boulevard de Grenelle
75015 Paris

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2003