"Poilâne is my favourite living Frenchman!" proclaimed one of the world’s favourite dead Spaniards, Salvador Dali, in 1977, or so the Poilâne bakery claims on its website. Of course, the master surrealist was still alive and well and chomping at the staff of life when he bestowed this accolade on one of France’s then foremost bakers, Lionel Poilâne. Even though this artist and artisan may have shared little in common, both carved a profitable trade from their non-conforming talents.
Having resisted mechanisation and industrial processes, instead, ploughing an isolated furrow by cultivating its own craft methods, the Poilâne bakery has always been something of a "black sheep" in France, says Apollonia Poilâne, heir to the ?15m turnover business. Thrust into the front line at the unbaked age of 18, following the tragic death of her father in a helicopter crash in 2002, she also inherited a reputation as heavyweight as one of Poilâne’s hefty 4lb sourdoughs.
Now 22 years old, Apollonia is undaunted by carrying the mantle of this top-end bakery. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be involved in the business.
"Ever since I was a child I used to say to my father ’I want to take over the business, I want to take over the business!’" she exclaims in a light French accent laced with an American twang, picked up while studying economics in the States. And she never felt any pressure to continue the family’s bakery lineage.
"My father was forced into the business so there was a strong effort from him not to do the same to me," she recalls. "I grew up in this company, my crib was made from a bread basket, and learning more about breadmaking techniques is what drives me on a daily basis."
Hailed by many as one of the best bakeries around, it’s certainly one of the most expensive, at nearly £10 for a white sourdough loaf. The slowly-slowly approach Poilâne takes to building on that reputation is perhaps unsurprising given that its empire has extended to just two shops in its native Paris in more than 70 years of trading, and a third in London, which opened in June 2000 - a short walk from Victoria Coach Station - and now accounts for about 20% of total turnover. There are presently no plans to open any more shops.
Much is made of ’retro-innovation’ - the term coined by Lionel, who took over from founding father Pierre Poilâne in the early 1970s, to describe Poilâne’s approach to baking as using the best of old and new methods. There is decidedly more ’retro’ than ’innovation’ at work. The unhurried evolution explains a limited array of breads, around a dozen, with only half delivered wholesale to restaurants, delis and stores.
New product development is something of an alien concept, with no new products in the past four years. Though Apollonia does not rule out introducing new products, the focus is very much to continue what it does best. Each shop has its own production on-site and the only machinery with a plug is a mixer and a slicing machine.
"We arrived at a level a long time ago and decided the best way of making bread was to use a mechanical mixer as that gives us a homogenous dough; but we also use a wood-fired oven, which is on the retro side," she explains. "Our motto is ’quality rather than quantity’ so we stick with a small amount of products that we do well, rather than adding another dozen that are so-so."
Apart from water, all ingredients used are the same as those sourced in France for the Paris outlets, including the original sourdough starter, which "astonished the customs people when my father brought it over on the Eurostar!" she recalls. So how does she source the right ingredients?
"Nuh-uh, that’s one of the house secrets!" she laughs. What we do know is that the flours used contain spelt from wheat grown by farmers who, it is claimed, use lower levels of nitrogenous fertilisers by ploughing the topsoil in as late as possible; no pesticides are used; the stone-ground flour preserves 85% of the original grain and contains 15% bran; an aromatic salt is sourced from the marshes of Guérande in Brittany; and a wood-fired oven, modelled on a 19th century French type, helps flavour the crust. All this culminates in the unique flavour and a loaf that retails at a price to scare the life out of a typical British consumer used to paying pennies for their crumb. Do people ever drop their jaws at the price?
"Not to my knowledge," she replies, clearly used to defending this question. "I’m sure it does happen but it’s our job to explain to people all the work that’s been put into the bread. Compared with a 250g baguette made industrially, yes, it is expensive. But it’s a 4lb bread, with top-quality ingredients, hand-made and we take the time to do it well. The quality justifies the difference."
The staff of life
Any trained bakers hoping for a job in this esteemed establishment would have been better off skipping school. All training is in-house and Poilâne requires a clean slate - only people with no baking experience. Lionel Poilâne put the nine-month development programme in place. In month one, the apprentice simply observes the baker; by month nine, the roles are reversed.
"Ideally, our bakers would not have touched a loaf of bread in their lives," says Apollonia, before quickly correcting herself: "I should say, will not have been bakers in their past! Our methods - although simple - are unique. People have forgotten how to use their five senses when they make bread. This is what we emphasise. It’s easier to train a baker from scratch than it is to retrain." Drop-out rates are virtually non-existent.
Twenty people work in the London bakery across sales, deliveries and production. Not all are French - Brits, Poles, Czechs and other nations are represented. Poilâne’s client base is "very heterogeneous, and mainly British," but a French speaker is always on hand to placate her country folk. "At one point, we didn’t have any French-speaking staff and it created a scandal in the French community. This was embarrassing, because if they are too lazy to learn English, then why are they here in the first place?!"
With competition hotting up on the high streets for French breads, with the likes of bakery chain Paul stepping up its expansion plans in London and beyond (British Baker, 18 August, pg 8), does she train a keen eye on her competitors, French or British, around the capital? A Gallic shrug and a "not really" is her reply reflecting her confidence in the bakery’s products, techniques and process.
"My father and I shared the same vision for this company, to perpetuate quality over quantity," she says. "My aim is to one day hand over the company - and it is a long-term aim - to the next generation of Poilânes. In the meantime, it is my job to do everything possible so that the company not only sustains itself but booms." Whether that takes the form of another shop or a new product, she’s not yet decided, before adding, in a spirit in keeping with this septuagenarian business: "These decisions cannot be taken lightly." n
History: Founded by Pierre Poilâne in 1932
Owner: Third generation Apollonia Poilâne
Products: 1.9kg sourdough, raisin, rye, walnut, 1.9kg decorated breads, milk, brioche, butter cookies, apple tarts, turnovers, custard cake and pain au chocolat
Turnover: ?15m, 20% of which is in the UK. Wholesale accounts for roughly two-thirds of turnover
Wholesale: Waitrose, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, delis and restaurants Locations: Two shops in Paris, one in London, with on-site bakeries
=== Consumer watch ===
Would you shop at Poilâne? Two who do...
Constance Andel, paralegal and information specialist from Austria:
"I’ve been shopping here for more than three years and I’ve tried many different kinds of bread in the UK. This is the best. It’s a lot cheaper than Harrods or Selfridges. The croissants are amazing and I love to come here and treat myself."
Bearne Ruth, pensioner, originally from Jerusalem:
"I’ve been coming here since it opened. I buy the croissants regularly but they’ve usually all gone by 3pm. I know people who order this bread from Los Angeles and I’ve been to the Paris shops. You must try the apple tart!"
...and two passers-by who don’t
Joe Bastick-Vines, unemployed, Streatham, London:
"I don’t see why anyone would spend a tenner on a loaf of bread. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing better than a nice loaf, but I’m just as happy buying Kingsmill at the supermarket for a pound. Unlike the French and the Italians, I don’t think the Brits are generally bothered about the quality of our bread - certainly not on a day-to-day basis."
Catherine Harvey, HR assistant, Wandsworth, London:
"I work nearby and must have passed it many times. I’ve never been in but I like nice bread and pastries so maybe I’ll try it. I’m not surprised at the price though - around here, people generally have lots of money to spend."