Gourmet Buzz: Apollonia Poilâne

By Margaret Kemp

Apollonia PoilaneFor Apollonia Poilâne a day without bread is a day without sunshine. And not just any old industrial cotton-wool, but the giant round four-pound, dark n' handsome, sourdough pain Poilâne, its top slashed with the initial "P", as baked by her family since the 1930's; designer bread.

 

Two years ago Apollonia was a carefree student working at Gap Kids, having passed her French Baccalauréat, waiting to hear if Harvard University had a place for her. Then, that world fell apart when her parents, Lionel and Ibu Poilâne, were killed. The helicopter her father was piloting, to their castle on a remote island had crashed in thick fog off the Brittany coast. Her mother's body has never been found.

 

The following day, Apollonia, confirmed that Poilâne's ovens would never be extinguished, and that she would take control of the business. Overnight, aged 19, Apollonia became President of Poilâne, with a turnover of £7million, a staff of 157, two shops in Paris, one in Elizabeth Street, London and a state-of-the-art manufacture at Bievres, outside Paris, where 16,000 organic loaves are baked daily. 40 Poilâne-trained bakers use just four ingredients: stone-milled wheat flour, water, a starter (that provides the leavening) and Brittany sea-salt. Rich in magnesium, selenium and iodine, the structural fibres prevent constipation and possibly some digestive cancers, so that's why the queue is so long outside Poilâne bakeries then. Forget the colonics, get yourself over to Poilâne; it's the best kept health secret in town.

 

A picture of vitality with shiny waist-length russet hair, peaches and cream skin, (think pre-Raphaelites), Apollonia explains, "My application paper to Harvard starts in this room, so do early memories of holding grandfather's hand, waiting for my father; thinking this is so where I want to be when I grow up." It's a rustic little room, behind the legendary rue du Cherche-Midi bakery. We sit at the scrubbed wooden table, above which hangs the kitsch bread chandelier designed for Salvador Dali (there's a replica in the London shop). From floor to ceiling, bread "portraits", small ones, tall ones, crusty fat ones, thin ones. "I know, I know, they're still life, but to me they're portraits and are very much alive. My inspiration always came from knowing this is my grandfather Pierre's heritage, the paintings he accepted as payment for bread during the last war when Saint-Germain-des-Prés' artists were starving. "This room is magic," she sighs, looking around as if it's the first time. "When I was small, I slept in a wicker bread basket in the corner. Then I fashioned the dough, and later on, from about six, I came on Wednesday afternoons (when French schoolchildren choose an independent activity) and school holidays, earned pocket money helping the bakers, putting the cookies in cellophane bags, giving change, sorting out the invoices in the office. I was in heaven and never wanted to go back to school. I couldn't really see the point, especially when they started teaching multiplication tables. 'We have calculators for that where I work,' I told the teacher!"

 

Outside the shop the line is a mile long, some customers retreating to the Cuisine du Bar next door, to eat fragrant Poilâne semi-toasted tartines, drink a glass of red, read the newspaper, try to spot Catherine Deneuve, who lives round the corner, and pops in for her Poilâne, croissants and apple turnovers—as do Lauren Bacall, Robert de Niro and Johnny Depp. Le Cuisine du Bar is unofficial Club Poilâne for "le tout Paris", with a drawer of "second" punitions (cookies) that did not come up to standard, if you know the right person to ask. If not go next door; they're on the counter when you pay the bill.

 

Impossible to spend time with Apollonia and not descend the steep stone steps to the bakery. Having served her nine month apprenticeship, Apollonia, since September 2002, is proud to be a qualified baker. "I can't tell you what a high I get from baking bread, the fulfilment it brings. A wheat seed transmits an unbelievable amount of information when it is planted," she smiles. "Scientifically, sourdough breathes, reacts to the seasons. The most tricky to bake is without salt, but there are no absolute rules, you have to be intuitive and adjust."

 

It's hell's kitchen down there. The baker works alone, in white shorts and a T-shirt, baking to the same recipe, with the same equipment, as Grandfather Pierre used in the 1930's. What the writer Rudolph Chelminski called "an operation so out-dated that it's like walking into a real life engraving from Diderot's 18th century encyclopedia." At Poilâne it's called retro-innovation. Only re-cycled wood from local carpenters is used to fire the ovens, "doing our bit for ecology, no one need cut up trees," Apollonia insists.

 

"My father was not at all sure that I should go down this road, having been pushed into the boulangerie by his father when he was 14, and for a long time was so unhappy. Finally he suggested, "Why not be a baker in the morning and an architect the afternoon"? "But Dad, I only want to be a baker!"

 

In fact she's doing exactly that, continuing "Ibu," the art and sculpture Gallery created by her mother, in a sensuous boutique under the arcades of the Palais Royal. Gallery director Cyril Emel comments: "Apollonia has a vision, an ability to make fast decisions, which I put down to the double-culture, cosmopolitan, lifestyle her parents gave her. She's very focused and very attached to the gallery; she has the final say so for our exhibitions and is totally intrigued by the work her mother produced."

 

Polish born Irena (nick-named Ibu) was a style maven. You saw her wearing something, carrying a handbag, decorating a dinner table, you immediately had to have it/do the same. As did Karl Lagerfeld, who immediately commissioned her to create jewellery for his Chanel haute couture runway shows. Flash she wasn't. "Her inspiration came from nature, "from odds and ends, from the small daily details we do not see; she did not like decoration as such, or any form of excess," explains Cyril.

 

"My mother did not want to live by bread alone, or to be known just as the 'femme de boulanger', so she invented the perfect recipe for her designs. My parents' contrasting styles always blended perfectly," says Apollonia, fingering dangly gold- link signature earrings, designed by Ibu, which go everywhere with her.

 

At present, Apollonia (fluent in English, French and Spanish) is living on campus at Harvard, a freshman reading for a BA in Economics. "I often feel inadequate amongst such brilliance," she says. As well as riding and competing on the equestrian team, she has at least 12 hours of lectures a week, and a business to run back home. "I have three more years, who knows if I'll stay the course," she admits with absolute honesty.

 

Of course, she checks out the local bakeries, groceries and restaurants, is thrilled that Fromaggio Kitchen exists. The Turkish-born owner, Ishan Gurdle, met Apollonia in Paris when he was ordering provisions for his Cambridge, Boston, delicatessen. "He stocks Poilâne, that is so amazing," she grins. "And cheeses you can barely find in France! The food at Harvard is yuk, I get the feeling they try, but it's depressing. By the time I finish my degree I'll never look at a pizza, pasta or hot-dog again." Her big high is pain Poilâne, toasted with salty butter and ham, "J'adore, it makes me feel alive." Boston is not her favourite city: "It's over-run with students, a weird dirty place, a mix of too much conflicting architecture, some of which will never be finished, and even the stuff that is, I don't like. Let's just say it's not my cup of tea!"

 

Was her father, Lionel Poilâne a poet, philosopher or baker? Apollonia, thinks all three, and continues to promote her father's quirky, it could only happen in France, "Association on the Question of Gourmandise". That's a group of top chefs, intellectuals and religious personalities lobbying to convert "gourmandise", a French term translated as greed, from a sin to a state of grace, replaced by gluttony—which is pigging out in any language.

 

For centuries French Catholics have been taught that gluttony and gourmandise rank among the list of 7 deadly sins; the pairing of gourmandise and gluttony has long rankled French epicureans. "We wish the Vatican would reconsider whether extreme enjoyment of food is a cardinal sin," explains Apollonia. "In January, during an audience with Pope John Paul in Rome, I presented the 'gourmandise' plea to him. Bearing in mind that he once recalled 'the memory of cakes with custard cream, eaten after exams', we're waiting with much humility for His Holiness to reflect on this question." she admits.

 

Don't expect changes from Poilâne's feisty young President. How do you improve on the perfection of retro-innovation? "By checking the quality and texture of the baking constantly, I'm on the phone daily; tasting hourly when I'm in Paris. The company motto remains, 'intention rather than extension'," she explains.

 

Of her situation she reflects, answers in a soft but firm voice. "I don't accept sympathy easily. What happened, has happened and it's up to me to continue the Poilâne dynasty, not wallow in self-pity!" There is also her younger sister, Athena. "There's definitely a place for Athena here if she wants it. You know, because I have always worked in the business, know everyone here so well, every nook and cranny, I kind of feel as if my parents have gone on holiday, and left me in charge."

 

8 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th (Metro: St. Germain des Pres)
T: 01 45 48 42 59

 

46 Elizabeth Street, London, SW1W 9PA (Underground: Victoria)
T: 0207 808 4910



Born in Britain and now based in Paris, Margaret Kemp graduated from The Cordon Bleu and spent a year working and watching in the kitchens of top chefs from Sydney, Australia via Bangkok, Hong Kong, California, New York and France. Realising she would never win the coveted 3-Michelin stars, she decided to write about the people who do, the "disciples of Escoffier."

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