Apollonia Poilane is the owner of the family-run, legendary boulangerie Poilane. I met her at the incredible smelling shop on rue du Cherche-Midi and it was the most delicious interview I have ever done, since Apollonia generously gave me a whole loaf of the bread and a bag of my all time favorite butter cookies to take home.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born to a French father and American mother in NY. But I grew up in France, where my father had his business, a traditional French bakery.
You said you did an apprenticeship at Poliane when you were a teenager. Tell us about that experience and how long the process was.
Poilâne is a traditional French bakery. We make the centuries old French country loaves. French bakers are not taught to bake this kind of bread in bakery schools so we developed our own training program for our bakers. It takes 9 months for someone to become a baker! I did that apprenticeship during high school holidays and finished it after I graduated high school.
Your grandfather started the boulangerie in 1932. Tell us about how he started, why he chose this special kind of bread, and what the neighborhood was like then.
My grandfather – Pierre Poilâne – opened a first shop in 1932 in the heart of St Germain des Prés, 8 rue du Cherche-Midi. He had grown up in Normandy where breads were big enough to feed the whole family and kept for a few days. Encouraged by his friends and neighbors he started making this traditional French sourdough loaf. At the time, St Germain was filled with artists and bistrots were appearing on street corners. The artists paid for their bread in paintings and the bistrots started serving sandwiches using our bread.
If you were stranded on a desert island, which Poilane product would you choose?
The breads to feed myself! Some sourdough bread, some walnut bread, some rye bread, some rye and raisin bread and some ‘pain de mie’…
I noticed your office the walls are lined with lovely paintings of bread and a chandelier made of bread. Is there any significance to these?
The walls of the office right behind the shop are covered in paintings. They are lit by a bread chandelier. The paintings were gifts to my grandfather, and later my father, from artists to whom they would give bread to. The chandelier is a replica of the one my father made for Salvador Dali. The artist had commissioned a whole bedroom made out of bread to know if he had mice in his house!
Your parents were in a tragic accident about eight years ago.What happened and how did it affect your life?
My parents died in October 2002 in an aircraft crash. Subsequently, I took over the family business. Something I had planned to do in the longer term.
How was it to go to school at Harvard in Cambridge and run the Poilane business 5,000 miles away at the same time?
When I took over my family’s business, I had just graduated high school. I was taking a year off before college. So, I had 10 months ahead of me to decide what I was going to do with my college admission. Since American colleges encourage extra-curricular activities, I decided to try to do both: study and take care of my business. During the school year, I would be in Cambridge, MA. I had daily contact with my team to check on things and deal with that days’ businness. I also returned to Paris every 4-6 weeks for a few days or a week to attend meetings and appointments that required my presence.
Your mother also owned the IBU gallery in the Palais Royal. How and why did she open the gallery?
My mother, IBU, was an architect with a passion for design, ‘functional sculptures’ and jewelery. In 2000, she opened a gallery in Palais Royal. The gallery features her work, as well as the works of other artists. Cyril Ermel, her assistant, takes care of the gallery on a daily basis. Together, we choose objects, paintings, drawings, jewelery that can “have a conversation” with my mother’s work.
Walk us through the process of how the bread is made and how long it takes to make one of your perfect loaves.
It takes 6 hours to make a loaf of bread. We start with the sourdough – a piece of dough from the previous batch – which serves as a starter for the dough. We add flour, water, and salt and mix it in a big mixing bowl called ‘pétrin.’ Then, we let the dough rest. After the dough has risen enough, we weigh it and shape it in a ‘boule’ – a round shape about the size of a hug. And we place the dough in a wicker basket covered in linen to let the dough rise a second time. Just before it is cooked, we draw a ‘P’ – for Pain Poilâne – on our loaves.
What do you prefer about Paris?
Each city, each place has its specificities. I like Paris’ cafes where you sit early in the morning and see the city wake up. I like strolling along the river on a sunny day and see the river’s course. And I enjoy the last-minute dinners you enjoy with friends on bridges and in parks during the spring and summer.
8 rue du Cherche-Midi,6th arr.
Open Monday to Saturday 7:15AM -8:15PM
Tel. 0 1 45 48 42 59