Picture this: a twinkling tale that starts some eighty years ago, spanning two generations of visionary bakers before settling on Apollonia Poilâne, our initially-teenaged heroine. It is a tale that weaves itself through a particularly Parisian Paris and a distinctive set of globe-trotting subplots. It is a tale that unites Gerard Depardieu, Robert De Niro and a whole host of other supporting characters through a singular love for one special item. In a suitably surreal turn of events even Salvador Dali plays a part.
It could be played straight – the ultimate Hollywood biopic – or with a touch of the screwball, filtered through a Wes Anderson-esque lens. There is ambition in abundance and heart in equal measure. Ultimately though it is a tale about bread. More specifically it is about the famed bread of Poilâne, and its current custodian.
The recipe at the heart of all of this? ‘Well,’ Apollonia states simply, ‘we mix just four ingredients: the sourdough starter, water, flour and salt.’ Upon these unassuming foundations, three generations of the Poilâne family have cultivated a veritable luxury brand, renowned the world over for its sourdough rounds, or miches. Poilâne was founded by Apollonia’s grandfather Pierre in 1932 and brought to bonafide prominence by her characterful father Lionel. Over the years, the allure of the miche has seen movie stars queuing for fresh bakes if in Paris, and having them shipped around the world if not. In 1971, Salvador Dali even commissioned Lionel to sculpt an entire bedroom from bread. Elaborating on the unique, crucial component of the miche, Apollonia explains, ‘[The starter is] a piece of dough from one batch, which is left to ferment to feed the following batch.’ Hearing her speak about this unbreakable bond to past bakes, you begin to get a sense of her quiet yet intense passion for the bread itself. She acknowledges the parallels between ‘her’ Poilâne and the bread itself: both exist only as a result of their ancestral ties to that which came before them, yet here they stand new, distinct and (of course!) fresh.
Lionel had his own term for it: ‘retro-innovation’. It is an ethos that Apollonia still stands by today. ‘The term he coined, that is very powerful,’ says Apollonia. ‘What he’s trying to say is that in order to go forward you have to examine where you’ve been and why you’ve been doing things the way you have…but also challenge yourself to use the current technologies and ideas of the time.’ These words are so measured, and so softly yet firmly annunciated in her flawless American English, that you almost forget the potential for chaos that existed in Apollonia’s sudden transition from regular teenaged life to head of a globally-renowned bread-baking institution. On October 31st 2002, Lionel and Apollonia’s mother, Iréna were killed in a tragic helicopter accident. Two days later Apollonia assumed the title of CEO of Poilâne at the age of just 18.
Images by Giada Mariani
The years that immediately followed this pivotal moment featured, understandably, a crash-course of sorts in the business of Poilâne. Crucially however, Apollonia balanced this with a trajectory that focused on her long-term ability to take the company forwards. Perhaps most remarkably of all, a year after assuming the mantle she crossed the Atlantic to take up a place at Harvard, where she studied Economics for four years. Throughout, she remained at the forefront of Poilâne, making regular trips back to Paris between classes, when she was unable to meet the demands of the business remotely. When asking Apollonia about her studies now, some years later, her response is refreshingly free of the expected touchstones: the difficulties of balancing her two roles; the daunting academia that presumably goes hand in hand with an Ivy League degree in Economics. Instead, she says that Harvard gave her ‘a sense of perspective. It was great meeting people from an entirely different background [who challenged] my thought processes. I really feel I learnt a lot from them, and it just opened my mind to other things.’
This expansive, outwards looking point of view (‘curiosity and that sense of openness to new things is something that was forged in my childhood’ she says) is matched by a pronounced tenderness for the long-serving, resolutely loyal employees of Poilâne. ‘I think there are really good parallels to be drawn between the way you bake bread and the way you run a family business,’ says Apollonia, stressing that she believes ‘her role is putting together the right ingredients at the right time… And in my experience the people I work with are the crucial ingredients.’ From other heads of international companies with turnovers that run into the tens of millions, such statements might sound contrived, trite even. Here though they carry a poignancy of sorts – hinting at the gratitude she so clearly feels for those who stood by her and guided her from such a young age to where she is now.
That position is at the helm of a uniquely successful business, from which Apollonia consolidates and expands the model set forth by her father. It is a both a boulangerie and a brand; a love letter to rustic craftsmanship and a slick global operation that sees a ‘concierge’ service Fed-Exing freshly baked products to admirers anywhere in the world. At a time when the finer things in life are increasingly defined by their heritage and artisanal qualities, the ethos of Poilâne – birthed some decades ago – proved to be startlingly prescient. It is impressive to see how Poilâne under Apollonia’s stewardship still embodies this. Expanding the commercial side of the business is one thing – Poilâne products are now available through a carefully curated selection of supermarkets in both France and the UK – but to do so whilst maintaining such dignified control over the rich tapestry of elements that first made the brand special all those years ago? That takes something special.
By James Darton for Semaine.
"Introducing Mr Poilâne"
Never heard of bread drama? Tune in this week to meet Mr. Poilane:
"Press Play with Apollonia"
Listen, Watch, Feel, Understand.
Larry Charles, 2006
“As outrageous as funny, and a little sad too!”
“The news (several sources, usually radio and online papers) – I think I qualify as a news junky.”
“A friend recommended Brené Brown’s podcast and I have loved listening to it!”
Kiss the Ground
Josh Tickell & Rebecca Harrell Tickell, 2020
Sean Connery as James Bond
If there is one thing we are sure of, it's that going into a Poilâne bakery will put a smile on your face. You might not be able to smell all the glory here, so close your eyes and imagine the smell of fresh bread and croissants....
LITHOGRAPHY « le 8 rue du Cherche-Midi »
Le coffret du connaisseur
Le coffret du boulanger en herbe
Le coffret de l’amateur de pain
"A Poilane World Trip"
Let Apollonia take you around her universe, we promise, you will enjoy the ride.
Jean Paul Hevin
côté cour, 231 Rue Saint-Honoré
“I love chocolate and appreciate the chocolatier’s expertise.”
Le Cherche Midi
22 Rue du Cherche-Midi
“Fresh pasta is always a good idea.”
10 Rue Saint-Florentin
“Japanese wagashi are a reverence to season and my favorite pastry.”
1 Rue Duguesclin
“For spices and the journey of traveling by smell.”
166 Galerie de Valois
“Featuring extra-ordinary everyday jewellery and works of artists in conversation with my mother’s (bronze) functional sculptures.”
Hélène Darroze at the Connaught
Carlos Pl, Mayfair
London W1K 2AL
“Hélène is a neighbor in Paris who’s cooking I love to visit the way you embark on and account of her latest travels and inspirations.”
Rapha Cycling Club
85 Brewer St, Soho
London W1F 9ZN
“I have found in cycling, at Rapha around the world, an amazing community of men and women to share the road with.”
9 Dering St, Mayfair
London W1S 1AG
“My teasmith since 2011, Tim’s selection of teas is what determines the quality of my day!”
Chelsea Physics Garden
66 Royal Hospital Rd, Chelsea
London SW3 4HS
“It is a calming and cocoon-ish garden to sit down, dream or just breath.”
Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Oude Koornmarkt 16
“For a family or friends meal in Antwerp, a historical place and comforting foods.”
47 Rue de Babylone
“My neighborhood café in Paris.”
3153 Glendale Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90039
“Kathy’s designs and fabrics are effortlessly chic and extremely comfortable, I wish I created more occasions to wear her works.”
Via Giuseppe Brentano,
20121 Milano MI
“Luisa created a material that is a composite of fabric (although other materials too) and polyurethane, she then creates everyday pouches and objects with. I use her bag and pouches daily as they are easy to clean, light, and great designs.”
Ever wondered what books Apollonia has staked on her night stand? Look no further…
by Aldo Sohm & Christine Muhlke
“I get a little daunted by wine. The visuals of this book and thoroughness of the authors make the rest.”