Lionel Charles Poilâne
Boulanger, or crafter of magical yeast-risen goods
Born Paris, June 10th, 1945 - Died October 31st 2002
Have a little think about what you've eaten today. There is a fair chance that at least one slice of bread has passed your lips. This mainstay of western cuisines has become in some parts a pale imitation of the original and noble wheat-based staple; flabby, spongy and unappetizing rectangles of sliced white suburbanity.
Bread was not always so maligned - and indeed need not be today. There are breads crafted around the world that will never see a plastic wrapper, or commercial yeasts, or even worse - dough improvers. These fabulously soul-warming creations are leavened by full or partial spontaneous yeast fermentation - what you or I would call sourdough.
Perhaps the most celebrated and adored - certainly the most famous practitioner of this art was lost forever last month, when he and his wife were killed in a helicopter crash.
The young Lionel was born into bread making. His father, Pierre-Léon Poilâne started the original Poilâne Boulangerie in 1932, in an imposing 18th Century former monastery on the rue de Cherche-Midi, located in the sixth arrondissement of Paris. The wood-fired ovens they use to bake the loaves also dated back to when the building was a place of worship, not baking. The bakery established an early and loyal following and a fourteen year-old Lionel was apprenticed to his father in 1959, however it wasn't until Lionel took over the family business in the early 1970's that this following increased to a near fervor, and the bread eventually achieved an international renown.
Lionel Poilâne's dedication and attention to detail through the fledgling years of his leadership paid handsome dividends - his loaves became perhaps the most famous, lusted-after and imitated in the world - they were unquestionably the most expensive, with one type of his 2 kilogram loaves infamously fetching £10 in London. His early years running the bakery took him to the point of obsession regarding the history of French sourdough. He contacted thousands of traditional regional bakers, badgering each for the secret to leavened heaven, and his library of close to 2000 tomes on the subject of bread led to Poilâne becoming affectionately known as "the archeologist of baking"
Poilâne capitalized on his baking success, and expanded that original small bakery to an empire of four - two more in Paris and one in London. In 2001, the Poilâne Empire was baking 15 000 loaves a day, or 2.5% of all the bread baked in that bread loving city, Paris. Some of these were tantalizingly arranged in the bakery window, but the lion's share was transported by Poilâne's own distribution network to roughly 2500 stores and restaurants throughout France. The balance was shipped internationally to around 20 appreciative countries.
So what did Poilâne's genius taste like? You know what - I can't damn well tell you, because I live pretty much on the other side of the globe, and have never visited France. What I can share however, is Poilåne's legacy. 2 hours drive west of Sydney is the Blue Mountains. This segment of the Great Dividing Range is not particularly high - but what it lacks in altitude, it compensates keenly with breathtaking beauty. Perched near enough the top of the Blue Mountains is a small hamlet named Blackheath - population of five thousand or so. There is a baker there - Brent Hersee, and this lucky gent spent quite some time in Paris under the tutelage of M. Poilâne. The Blackheath Bakery churns out sourdough loaves that simply leave you weak at the knees. As you tear and chew at the dense and complexly flavoured product of this mini-shrine, the oft abused quote, "Man cannot live on bread alone" becomes comically redundant. I have spent many a winters' morning, heavy fog still shrouding the lower parts of Blackheath, taking the fine white paper off a fresh sourdough loaf. The air was so cold, and the loaves were so new, that an enchanting wisp of steam lifted into the air. The butter was too hard to spread, but that mattered little - any accompaniments to perfection like this seemed almost heresy.
As you would expect, a baker as famous and revered as Poilâne would amass a few chunky anecdotes over his time. As a small token of my appreciation for teaching Hersee, who taught me to love bread - here are some of my favourites.
- Poilâne's bread, of course had more than a few famous admirers. Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve and Robert de Niro among them. The surrealist artist, Salvador Dali was one of these celebrity devotees, and eventually became a close friend. Dali commissioned some unusual loaves from Poilâne, including a set of table furniture, and later, a birdcage. The cage struck a cord with Poilâne; to him it was a symbol of his early apprentice years, working in the bakery basement.
"…The bird could eat its way out of the cage. That was very real to me. As an apprentice, I too felt like a bird in a cage…"
- Poilâne obviously has many fans, but none were as obsessed as the anonymous gentleman that paid him $100 000 in 1997. What was required of this enormous stipend? Simply that his children and grandchildren took delivery of one of Poilâne's loaves per week...
until the day they died.
- Sydney chef, Serge Dansereau was also an admirer - so much so that he devoted an entire section of his book, Food and Friends to Poilâne. Dansereau describes the queues that would form outside the original boulangerie, and goes on to say that communist spin-doctors of the day would photograph these queues, and take them back to Russia as evidence that capitalism was ill-equipped to feed the population.
Poilâne was a keen amateur aviator, and despite his bread-making duties, rose to become the President of the French Helicopter Federation. Sadly, this other passion proved disastrously fatal, when the Augusta 109 helicopter he was piloting went down close by the Island of Rimains, near Saint Malo, Brittany. His wife Iréna, and their pet dog were the only other passengers, and were also killed.
Poilâne leaves behind 2 children, Apollonia and Athéna