Gourmet Buzz: Apollonia Poilâne

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Gourmet Buzz: Apollonia Poilâne
For 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…
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Born in Hampton, Middlesex, UK, Margaret Kemp is a lifestyle journalist, based between London, Paris and the world. Intensive cookery courses at The Cordon Bleu, London, a wedding gift from a very astute ex-husband, gave her the base that would take her travelling (leaving the astute one behind) in search of rare food and wine experiences, such as the vineyards of Thailand, 'gator hunting in South Florida, learning to make eye-watering spicy food in Kerala;pasta making in a tiny Tuscany trattoria. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Financial Times Weekend and FT. How To Spend It.com, The Spectator, Condé Nast Traveller, Food & Travel, and Luxos Magazine. She also advises as consultant to luxury hotels and restaurants. Over the years, Kemp has amassed a faithful following on BonjourParis. If she were a dish she'd be Alain Passard's Millefeuille “Caprice d'Enfant”, as a painting: Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe !