The Poilâne family is often credited with bringing sourdough to London, having built the first wood-fired oven in the capital since 1666. But would Apollonia Poilâne let Flavour in on the famous recipe?
In spite of our growing gluten-intolerance, bread and the bakers who make it have never been so popular. No longer can cafés get away with serving the cheap white claggy stuff as a means to hold your cheese and pickle together: these days we’re all demanding sourdough.
The good news is that today good quality bread is easier to find than ever before. But what is perhaps less often acknowledged is that our renewed love of sourdoughs and quality crusts was actually due to the French. Though they stake no claim to have begun Britain’s bread renaissance themselves, the Poilâne family could call themselves the godfathers of sourdough. Their loaf is a national institution in France, with queues routinely stretching around the block. American fans, including Robert De Niro, James Coburn and Lauren Bacall, have been known to get it shipped across the Atlantic. When it first reached these shores a decade ago its £10 price point raised some eyebrows in the press but did little to stop people developing an addiction to its chewy texture and rich flavour.
We spoke to Apollonia Poilâne to find out where the age of the artisan loaf really began.
What’s the story behind the Poilâne bakery?
My grandfather, Pierre Poilâne, started in Paris back in 1932 when baguettes were a popular bread in France. He was different because he baked the country-style French sourdough loaves that had fed the French people for centuries, and stuck to it even after World War II, when Parisians preferred white bread because of all the dark flour loaves they’d had to eat during the war. He believed in making bread in the most natural way, and even today each Poilâne loaf is still handmade using the simplest tools and the same carefully selected ingredients.
The ingredients are simple: bread is made of water, flour, salt, and a rising agent.
So what makes your bread different?
Our flour is exclusively stone-ground and we work closely with our flour makers to use the very best varieties of wheat. We source our sea salt from Guérande. We bake our breads in wood-fired ovens which are fed with waste wood that cannot be used for any other industry. At Poilâne we use a piece of dough from the previous batch, the sourdough, as a starter for the next batch. Sourdough is something unique – there can’t be two identical sourdoughs. Combined with slow fermentation this accounts for a lot of our breads’ taste.
Your family already had three bakeries in Paris, so why open one in London?
My father wanted to open his next store in a cosmopolitan city – London was the perfect place and the rise of foodie places in the city in the past decade has proved him right! But since the Great Fire of London in 1666, wood-fired ovens have been forbidden in London. It took my father two years to get the paperwork together to obtain authorisation to burn wood at our Belgravia location. My sister Athena and I proudly lit the oven in May 2000.
Why was it important to have that specific type of oven?
The type of oven used to bake bread is important. We choose wood fire as a fuel for our ovens because it produces a heat that’s dryer than the heat produced by electrical ovens, for example. Wood fire heat cooks the bread more thoroughly and our loaves are best when the crust bears a dark golden colour. It’s one of the signs of a good bread.
Would you say the British can make bread as good as the French?
I don’t like to compare French breadmaking to English or to any other kind of breadmaking. French bakers have maybe had more opportunities to talk about their craft, but bread is universal. And taste definitely is a personal matter. The consumer is the one who will say what he or she likes best.
Sourdough is immensely popular now. Do you think this is because your family reintroduced the Brits to this kind of bread?
It would be quite presumptuous to claim that! However it is true that when my father Lionel Poilâne opened the Belgravia bakery at 46 Elizabeth Street in 2000, some bread lovers, chefs and gourmets said they were pleased that quality sourdough bread was now available in London. That said, because Londoners were used to eating white bread, when we started our bakery in Belgravia, it was mostly with an international customer base before Brits began to be converted to thoroughly cooked breads.
Do you plan to open any more bakeries?
It’s a little too early to talk about that yet…
What does the future look like and how do you hope to carry on the legacy of your father and grandfather?
We recently made a partnership with Ocado, which means many of our bread lovers around the UK can enjoy our bread from the comfort of their homes. We’re also working with a spectrum of other retailers like Waitrose and Whole Foods Market to widen our distribution around the UK into physical locations. I’m determined to carry on developing the business using my parents’ command to ‘always prefer quality over quantity’, to be curious and open to new things, and to ‘take the best of the past and present to build the future.’
Read Poilane’s fantastic recipe for their famous French herby-eggy bread here.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here