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Apollonia Poilâne ’07 and the Culture of Bread

Apollonia Poilâne ’07 is a custodian of her family's storied bakery and of her cherished craft of bread-making.
Apollonia Poilâne ’07 is a custodian of her family's storied bakery and of her cherished craft of bread-making. By Courtesy of Philippe Vaurès Santamaria
By Thomas A. Ferro, Crimson Staff Writer

Apollonia Poilâne ’07 sat at the table in her office, a simple room with stacked books on the windowsills, clean white walls, simple furniture, simple art. A small dog slept nuzzled in a blanket on the couch. Light flooded in through the large glass windows. The room was bright, spacious, sparse.

“This is my family’s bakery, and we’ve been around since 1932,” said Poilâne in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.

Legacy. History. Institution.

All of these words come to mind when thinking of the famous bakery, an almost century-old Parisian institution of which Poilâne serves as the careful custodian. Three generations of family bakers labored to make the bakery what it is today, and Poilâne is quite aware of her role.

The boutique is small, unassuming, hidden, and it sits on the quiet Rue du Cherche-Midi, a small road near the bustling Boulevard Saint-Germain in the 6th arrondissement. Other than the roar of the occasional black taxi cab or a couple of motor bikes, Rue du Cherche-Midi is quiet; it’s a path for walkers, and, on this road, most people head to the same place.

With a brown-brick façade, flour-dusted wooden floors, and a large decorated loaf of their signature miche on display in the window, Poilâne Bakery has lived in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a neighborhood once home to artists and writers, since before the Second World War. Now, Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a world-famous quarter of Paris, and Poilâne Bakery remains unchanged.

The boutique is comfortable, old, weathered. Despite being one of the most famous bakeries in the world, it feels fiercely local. Enter if you want, though you’ll take what it serves.

The inside is tight, crowded. On the right are the Poilâne-branded products that remind you of the size and fame of the bakery. A bread loaf-shaped throw cushion with a printed signature Poilâne “P” on the front, the linen Poilâne tea towels, bread knives, and Christine Ferber jams and preserves rest on the shelves.

On the left are the old wooden shelves with the precious loaves. The cashier asks you what you want and retrieves it for you. Other than the traditional miche, which is their rustic country loaf, they serve a classic pain de mie –– a sandwich bread baked in a tin –– a brioche, a rye, among other breads and patisseries.

With a half loaf of sliced miche wrapped quickly in brown paper, you are ushered out the door by the rest of the line; the two elderly women, the mother with the stroller, the people on their way home from work. All French. All waiting to get their daily serving.

The bread is spectacular.

Inheriting a legacy can be difficult, but it installs a sense of purpose, a sense of self. While many leaders in the food world seek to innovate, to evolve, Poilâne stands her ground. Treating her bakery as a shrine to the past, Poilâne only heightens the value of the bread she serves.

When the bakery opened almost a century ago, Poilâne’s grandfather, Pierre, refused to conform to the fashions of the time –– generally delicate white breads. Tasty, perhaps, but empty, hollow.

Proving loyal to the rustic country loaves that are still in production today, Pierre Poilâne gained favor among the artists of Saint Germain-des-Près who valued the lasting durability of the classic Poilâne miches.

Poilâne was the bakery in Paris. They made the rules. They set the boundaries. “My grandfather –– and my father thereafter –– essentially created what were the Poilâne certifications, so to speak,” she said.

As a testament to the history of the bakery, the same sourdough starter made first in 1932 by Pierre Poilâne is still in use today. That’s how sourdough works, that’s how sourdough lives on. A piece of dough from each batch is reserved for the next. Generations may come and go, but the sourdough lives, evolves, matures.

As Poilâne described, slight change is good; it makes the bread complex –– interesting –– which the bakers then have to complement and balance with each new batch, each new season, each new year. It’s all about nurturing that equilibrium and adapting to the bread’s flavor profile, to the bread’s anatomy.

Sourdough is important, and, yet, many bakeries do not emphasize its necessity. “Whenever you go to a baker –– and that’s just a good tip for any bread-curious person –– asking about the way the sourdough is made is important because now you can buy sourdough off of a catalogue, and it embodies very different shapes and forms,” Poilâne said.

Like its near-century-old sourdough, Poilâne Bakery is a living entity. While it may evolve, its essence will always remain the same — “It's that fine line between greeting the difference and having a sense of consistency.”

100-year-old sourdough. A bread oven from before the French Revolution.

Poilâne has been around for a long time.

Poilâne always knew her future would be in the bakehouse. “I was really groomed in some ways to take over my family’s business at some point; it just happened sooner than planned,” Poilâne said.

When she was eighteen years old, Poilâne lost her parents in a tragic helicopter accident. Instead of going down the stairs to the bakehouse, she went up and sat down in her father’s office. The flame passed to her. She was the new CEO of Poilâne.

“I grew up where my father worked at the bakery daily,” she said. “And so, you know, I was basically exposed from a very young age to this environment. And, so it came to me quite naturally that I would take over one day.”

To her, it was never in doubt: She would be a baker. Over time, however, Poilâne realized that her father’s job was not downstairs in the bakehouse, but in the office above. Nonetheless, anyone working at Poilâne had to not only know the fundamental aspects of their craft, but be masters of it.

Poilâne remembers what her mother told her at a young age: “Look, if you’re serious about taking over the family business at some point, you have to learn the craft. You have to learn the basics of the craft so that you can know what you’re talking about, but also so you can check if this is really your thing.”

With passion being the key word, Poilâne’s father also reinstated the need to believe in one’s work, to put it above all else, to be devoted to it above all else. “It’s great that you want to do this,” Poilâne’s father said to her one day. “But you have to be really passionate about your craft, because it is a tough craft at the end of the day.”

Poilâne’s parents made sure that their daughter knew the difficulty of the family business, and if it wasn’t for her, she didn’t have to do it; if she wanted to continue Poilâne’s long history, it had to be her choice. And she made her decision very easily.

“Baking was my calling,” she stated, simply.

“I really love how bread relates to just about anything –– I’ve never met a single person that bread has left indifferent.”

Bread is important to everyone in one way or another, but it’s also the building block upon which civilizations are built. “France has legislated profusely on bread because they’re just so scared of anything happening for lack of bread. And, if you look throughout history, everything: Every single revolution starts with a lack of bread,” Poilâne said.

Perhaps due to their justified insecurities, the French government restricted when Parisian bakeries could open and close, so at least one bakery stays open, in every neighborhood, at all times.

“Literally, until a few years ago, I used to receive a piece of paper –– an ugly, pink piece of paper — that would say ‘You can go on holiday in your neighborhood between this date and that date.’ We never close throughout the summer, so, that’s why it made me laugh, but, like, basically, if I wanted to go on holiday, it was that time! Pretty intense!”

As a Franco-American, Poilâne notes the differences between the bread culture in France and the United States, particularly with the discussion and understanding of different wheats, of different grains.

Poilâne said, “If you ask an average French person about corn, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, it’s animal feed.’ They’ll recognize that it is something that, like, really feeds you, but, they’re like, ‘it’s the underdog.’ And, oats. So, we have this vision of oats –– oatmeal –– and, in France, they have this vision of it being horse feed –– or stuff that’s just there to stuff you up. It’s fascinating.”

Perhaps without the centuries of strict tradition and rules, American bakers have a more innovative, inclusive, experimentative approach to bread and baking. In recent years, many locally-owned bakeries in the United States have been pushing the country’s bread culture forward.

“I think this has happened in the past 30-40 years, where there’s really been a rise in a new generation of bakers in the U.S. that –– funnily enough –– are now inspiring French bakers –– at least in some methodologies of baking,” Poilâne said.

While American bakeries may influence the French with new innovative techniques and methods, the French bakery has absolutely influenced its American counterpart. “If you look at the geography and the way bakers in America operate nowadays, I think they really have adapted the French model,” Poilâne noted.

With the French influence in mind, the famous Los Angeles-based La Brea Bakery paved the way for American bakers in the early 1990s. Led by founder Nancy Silverton, La Brea Bakery opened many Americans’ eyes to the wonder that is artisanal bread. While La Brea Bakery no longer leads the country’s bread culture, many other small-production bakeries have spawned in its wake: The small-town bakery has returned.

Flour. Water. Salt.

To Poilâne, bread is much more than simple nourishment — bread is the link that connects all civilizations. “What I realized is, when you talk about bread, it’s not only all of the links between bread and different domains of knowledge, but it’s also just the bread culture,” Poilâne said.

“Drop the word flour to generically mean ‘this very fine ground grain.’ Start talking about the grain — all-purpose flour doesn’t tell you much what it’s about. What kind of wheat is it? Or what kind of grain?”

Not that one can’t use the word flour, Poilâne quickly notes, but it is important to understand where bread comes from, what it is, why it’s important. All of Poilâne’s flours are from France, and each has its own character.

“One of the beauties of the French landscape is that we have just about any major grain that’s been sown around the world — we have an extraordinary diversity of geographies, and that’s actually one of the beauties of this country, is that you can go north, east, south, west and get very different landscapes in very little space,” Poilâne said.

Ukraine, along with Chicago, according to Poilâne, sets the world’s bread prices. “We really are at the mercy of those prices, even though France is a net-exporter of grain. So, like, we do not need Ukrainian grain in France, but it still defines things,” Poilâne said.

Ukraine is often referred to as the breadbasket of the world; its ability to export such large amounts of grain is due to its fertile soil and flat terrain. However, with the war in Ukraine affecting their access to grain, many countries will need to look elsewhere.

Right now, even though France has a very high level of wheat production, what is produced is “predominantly for animal feed,” Poilâne notes. “There is a new door to be considered if you don’t have access to your go-to –– which would be the Ukraine [sic].”

Finding locally-milled stone-ground flour is not an easy feat. Poilâne remembers the difficulty her father had in finding British grain to supply the London location. She noted how much of the flour milled in the U.K. was, in fact, from Canadian grain. Even today, Poilâne still uses primarily French grain in the London boutique, as finding traditionally stone-ground British flour proved to be difficult.

“We adapt to whatever is thrown our way, as long as we remain true to our ethos,” Poilâne wrote.

There are five Poilâne Bakeries in Paris and one location in London. A larger bakehouse that handles international orders lies just outside of Paris, in the suburb of Bièvres. Three of the Parisian bakeries supply the other two with bread, and the location in London has its own bakehouse. Additionally, the location in Le Marais hosts a grain library and fermentation lab; a space that pays tribute to the two fundamental aspects of bread: grain and fermentation.

When asked if she wants to expand further, Poilâne said, “The bulk of our sales is done in Paris and [its] surroundings.” She doesn’t want to add more locations to the list.

Poilâne’s grandfather opened the main Poilâne Bakery in 1932 in Paris. Poilâne’s father, Lionel, opened the London location in 2000. On top of adding three more locations to the list in Paris, Poilâne has only opened one more shop outside of France –– a project in Belgium. Not proving to be financially viable in the long run, the Belgium project was cut short.

Following the coronavirus, Poilâne wants to focus on bringing her bakery back to what it was pre-pandemic. “I think we’re still trying to stabilize and find our standings. I’d love to be able to serve more people around the world that like my products, but I don’t have an obsession with opening bakeries all around the world.”

While she doesn’t want the company to be spread too thin, Poilâne does want to serve the world and her customers, to teach and promote the idea that bread is a connector, an integral part of human life. To fulfill this goal as much as possible, Poilâne offers international shipping to Europe, the U.K., Japan, and North America.

None of this would be possible, Poilâne notes, should she be selling a different product. “The good news is –– and the secret is –– simply that we have a product that allows it,” she said.

A typical Poilâne miche lasts from three to five days. It’s durable, it’s strong, it’s versatile. Not only that, but it’s healthy, it’s real. “You have to have a bread that has flavor, because, otherwise, you know, you’d just go to competition — if you just have quick sugars, then you’ll quite quickly be hungry again,” Poilâne said.

Even more, Poilâne has found new ways to share her philosophy on bread culture. A few years ago, Poilâne gave her very own Masterclass; the online learning platform through which experts across the globe give lessons in their respective fields.

Poilâne taught her class on bread: What it is, how to make it, how to use it. Besides adding more fame to her family name, Poilâne’s techniques are now being used worldwide, and people everywhere are baking round miches with the signature Poilâne “P.”

“It [the Masterclass] is all about teaching the bread culture and what you do with a piece of bread. Not considering that bread is an endpoint, but it might be even a starting point: a starting point of a conversation if the bread is just part of the luncheon or at the dinner table. But also, bread is the starting point of yet more cooking, if you consider that it’s not only the food but can become an ingredient,” she said.

Even more, Poilâne notes that she sees the bakery as the cornerstone of the community. “In France, our bakeries are a very common place and very tightly knit,” she said. Like an American café or general store, Poilâne said, French bakeries are the pillars that uphold French culture.

People are loyal to their bakeries, too. People support their bakeries. People make their trip to the bakery daily; this is what bakeries are; this is what they do. This aspect, as much as the bread itself, is the reason bakeries play such an important role.

And, in the early days of the pandemic, this importance really showed. “We stayed open as essential workers, and, in fact, for the first time in the history of France, we were able to open seven days a week.” Upon seeing my confusion, Poilâne explained, “By law, in France, we could not open more than six days a week.” To which she added, jokingly, “Ridiculous. French.”

At first, Poilâne thought that if the bakery stays open all week, many people will still stop by just once to pick up their bread and go on with their lives. This was not the case. “People would come daily just to have that moment. Not only because we had a rather strict lockdown, but also the human connection.”

At this rare point of human history, bakeries offered much more than just bread. When all the distractions and excess of daily life and business came to a halt, it was very clear what was important to people. The once mindless ritual of going to the bakery in the morning became the center of the day.

Reflecting on her time as an undergraduate at Harvard, Poilâne said, “I had my bread sent every week to my dorm so that I could have something consistent and delicious to start my day with.” If she ran out one day, she would have to venture out before class to find her morning bread. “There is that sense of pilgrimage,” Poilâne said.

“I remember the first day of the lockdown –– before the lockdown hour, basically –– We had a huge queue at the bakery where I had one lady come in and say, ‘I’d like’ –– I can’t remember if it was fifteen or twenty croissants — that she wanted me to wrap individually so she could freeze them for an old granny.”

“She said, ‘Look, I won’t be able to come after the lockdown because you’re beyond the one-kilometer perimeter that we’re allowed to go to, so I’m doing this.’”

The human connection. The hidden moments of kindness.

Bread is more than food. It’s a culture.

A typical day for Poilâne includes overseeing the production, quality checks, and much more, but Poilâne reminisced over the pre-pandemic days in which she and her team would share a coffee in the backroom of the bakery with a “tartine or two of bread and butter.”

The quiet early mornings in the bakery. The rising loaves in the linen-covered baskets. The crusts hardening in the oven. The warmth of the fire. The small moments of the bakery play a big role to everyone involved.

This morning ritual has not yet been revived since the pandemic, though Poilâne hopes it will soon return.

“If you look for me on a typical Saturday, I’ll typically be working in the bakery; both practicing my craft but also testing and trying different things. We’ve had some generational changes since I’ve been in the position where I’ve transmitted some know-how, even though I feel much less experienced than my bakers and pastry chefs.”

But, she added, she knows some tips and tricks that she had learned from the old generations at Poilâne. The gift of cultural legacy, the passing on of knowledge from one person to the next, goes a long way to making Poilâne what it is today.

Across all locations, Poilâne makes between three to five thousand loaves per day. To make and sell this much bread, Poilâne bakes throughout the day, hosting three baking shifts: One from roughly 9:00 pm that finishes at 4:00 am, one from 4:00 am to 11:00 am, and one from 11:00 am from 7:00 pm.

“A typical day is about rituals to ensure the quality of production.”

In about 10 years, Poilâne will have had its 100th anniversary. It’s “just symbolic at this point,” Poilâne added. But, it’s significant. Poilâne’s grandfather first put Poilâne’s name on the storefront at 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi 100 years ago. The sourdough’s ancestor will have come into existence 100 years ago. The foundation for Poilâne’s life’s work will have been established 100 years ago.

But above sentimentality, Poilâne is looking to the future. “I really want to change the way people look at bread.”

People have to look “beyond the bread,” she said. “It’s all the culture it carries, the connection it makes, and the value chain between the grain and the bakehouse –– what happens in between and everything that happens thereafter.”

More than nurturing the bakery, Poilane said her duty is to develop opportunities to share the knowledge of bread. Bread, over all, is a building block. From it, civilizations have emerged; great improvement and innovation have occurred. All because of bread and the life it gives.

“It fashions our civilizations, cities, because, when you grow grain, you don’t grow it alone.”

“I love any opportunity that I am given to share the beauty of my craft,” Poilâne said. “I’m not trying to deny or overlook the hardship of it, but there is something very beautiful about it. And, if it doesn’t do anything else but nurture our clients’ appreciation for what they have in their hand, I’ve definitely won a battle there,” she laughs.

—In his column “The Vanguard of Global Cuisine,” Thomas A. Ferro ’26 explores the personal philosophies of chefs and bakers from around the world that have made lasting contributions to food culture. He can be reached at thomas.ferro@thecrimson.com.

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Apollonia Poilâne ’07