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Text by Susie Rushton
Photography by Daniel Riera
Styling by Hannes Hetta
Issue n° 4, Autumn & Winter 2011

Parisian boulanger Lionel Poilâne turned his sourdough bread into an international luxury brand. But it is his 27-year-old daughter, Apollonia, who is maximising its potential. With no intention of letting her youth stand in the way of the company’s progress, she’s not only confidently leading a business with sales exceeding €14 million a year, she’s now expanding it overseas with a London operation that’s the next part of a grand plan to conquer the British bread scene.

So what, she says, if she misses a few parties? When celebrity customers like Isabelle Adjani and Robert De Niro are judging the fruits of your ovens, you don’t feel like staying out late.

Apollonia Poilâne runs one of the most admired bakeries in the world, a Parisian company started by her grandfather in 1932. Poilâne (say it ‘pwah-lahn’) is famed for a deliciously chewy sourdough sold in large, round, darkly toasted 2kg loaves that sell for €8 or more. This signature product, wrapped in squeaky cellophane and branded with a copperplate script, is considered something of a fashionable item – so much so that customers in LA and New York pay $25 to have a single loaf FedExed to them within 24 hours of its removal from the oven in Paris. So who is this icon of haute boulangerie, this marketing genius who has transformed bread – a dietary taboo among the stylishly skinny – into an object of desire?

Apollonia – let’s call her by her first name, since it’s so elegant – defies all expectations when she walks into the back room of the bakery and shop on rue du Cherche-Midi, in Paris’s Quartier Latin. She’s a slender, petite woman of 27 who doesn’t bother to hide her youth. Her large, grey-green eyes are un-made-up, and an auburn ponytail falls to her waist. She has her right ear pierced at the top, punkishly, and wears a full knee-length skirt and a black polo shirt. Sitting with the straight back of a dancer (she studied ballet into her late teens), she appears the definition of an ingénue. She is, quite obviously, at least 30 years younger than most of the other employees I can see anywhere in the Poilâne shop and offices. But make no mistake – Apollonia, the CEO of an international company that sees €14 million in annual sales and employs 170 people – is in charge.

The room in which we sit is decorated from floor to ceiling with artistic tributes to the family’s famous product: cubist loaves, rural scenes depicting fields of corn, splodgy still lives of bread with wine. It is lit by a chandelier made entirely from bread (which must be remade each year lest it go mouldy and crumble). On the scrubbed farmhouse-style kitchen table between us are flowers and a state-of-the-art Magimix toaster. Apollonia can see over my shoulder through glass panes into the shop. The laughter and polite greetings of the sales staff can be heard as the morning’s hungry customers pass through Poilâne’s doors.

Apollonia likes to say that as a child she always knew she would take over the family business, but “it just happened earlier than planned.” That moment came on 31 October 2002, when her father and mother were killed after a helicopter he was piloting crashed off the Breton coast in fog. Lionel Poilâne, a keen amateur pilot, and his Polish-American wife, Iréna, a designer and gallerist, had been en route to a holiday home on the Île des Rimains. France’s most celebrated artisan baker, ‘M. Pain Poilâne’ was a famous dandy who wore bow ties and courted the elite, who anointed his bread as the best in the country. The New York Times reported the death of the man “who sold the most famous bread in Paris.” His two daughters, then 18 and 16 (Apollonia’s younger sister is named Athena) had become orphans. The next morning, Apollonia addressed the Poilâne staff with a self-possession that would become characteristic: she was now in control of the business, she informed them.

“There was no question about what I was going to do or not going to do,” she says calmly, in perfect American English, when I ask her to tell me about that day. “Of course I was going to take over the company.”

Did anybody take you aside and say, Listen, you don’t have to do this? “Not really. I remember a few things about that time. I remember the team of people, some of whom you see here, the people who’d seen me grow up and knew I wanted to take over. They supported me, and we worked together on carrying on the business. A lot of friends of my parents told me they were there in case I needed it.”

The chef Hélène Darroze, whose restaurant is a few moments away from the Poilâne shop and who knew Lionel well, was one who stepped in. “For the memory of her father,” Darroze says, “I wanted to be as good as I could for her. She was so young, and just so alone at the beginning. Our relationship hasn’t been so concerned with the business side of things but more about her feeling comfortable being introduced to people, to be confident in meeting journalists. I think that was important.”

Almost 80 years ago, Apollonia’s grand-père Pierre, the son of a lower-middle-class farming family in Normandy, opened his first bakery on the rue du Cherche-Midi, where we sit today. The shop is identifiable by the queue that spills onto the narrow pavement: a mixture of locals and tourists, all waiting in line for their portion of miche – the name for the round sourdough loaf carved with a giant ‘P’ on top – or rye or walnut bread, croissants, an apple turnover. Pierre’s idea, Apollonia says, was to bake “the type of bread he’d known as a kid – big hunks of bread, country-style loaves using sourdough, which use a less refined type of flour that is more nutritious and also help the loaf keep for longer – and this is the Poilâne miche.” Luckily for Pierre, he opened just in time for the arrival of the bistro in the 1930s, as 19th-century ‘coal and coffee’ shops were replaced by casual eating places selling tartines, open sandwiches that are particularly delicious made with lightly toasted sourdough.

In the opening image, pictured outside her Paris bakery, Apollonia is wearing a check tweed wool cape by PAUL SMITH, a black cashmere and silk turtleneck sweater by YVES SAINT LAURENT, and a navy and black wool and lace skirt by VANESSA BRUNO with black tights by FALKE. Here, she wears a black bouclé wool dress with leather-trimmed neckline by ISABEL MARANT, black tights by FALKE and black leather ballerinas by REPETTO.

It was Apollonia’s father, though, who transformed a renowned bakery into an international brand. Clips of Lionel on YouTube show a slight, serious man with the same heavy-lidded eyes as his daughter and fashionably long hair, a philosopher of bread who captivates a TV interviewer as he lightly caresses the dough, raising his craft to an art. Apollonia describes Lionel as a reluctant boulanger, forced into working at the bakery by his father at the age of 14. “But he learned that bread was so much more than what he’d initially thought.” She mimes kneading dough. “These gestures seem repetitive to an outsider. The old French saying is that bakery is a job for les hommes grands, forts ets bêtes – tall, strong and stupid. The history of bread proves this is absolutely idiotic.”

It was the history of bread and its role in culture that changed Lionel’s mind about baking. He began to collect books on the subject, amassing a 2,000-volume library, with some dating back to 1544. “It’s one of the biggest of its kind,” says Apollonia. When Lionel took over the bakery at the end of the ’60s, the French were eating bland, sliced white bread and flavourless baguettes, rejecting the dark loaves they associated with the deprivations of war. Lionel strove to keep the best techniques of the past, combining them with new advances (he called it “retro-innovation”), and by the ’70s, pain Poilâne was regarded as the fashionable alternative to pappy white baguettes. In the next decade, it became a byword for the very best loaves. Cafés and brasseries advertised that their tartines were made with his bread: “Ici, pain Poilâne,” read the signs.

It also helped that Lionel, who dressed in velvet or tweed suits with shawl collars or exaggerated waists, was something of a celebrity hound. He let it be known that Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu regularly joined the queue outside the bakery. That Frank Sinatra had miches delivered to wherever he was in the world. That Lauren Bacall and Robert De Niro received Poilâne loaves directly from Paris. But it was his friendship with Salvador Dalí that produced the most charming collaboration. The pair met in 1969, “and to begin with,” says Apollonia, “Dalí would ask for simple things to be made, like a picture frame made from bread.” Then, in 1971, he asked for a full bedroom to be baked for his favourite room at the hotel Le Meurice, complete with Poilâne chandelier, a reproduction of which hangs in each of the company’s four shops. Perhaps the most delightful of the Dalí/Poilâne collaborations was a birdcage Lionel baked for one of the artist’s performance pieces: the bird pecked its way through the crusty bars to freedom.

Lionel was as inspired a businessman as he was an artisan, and never more so than when he set up a factory at Bièvres, near Versailles, to supply fresh loaves to the rest of France and the world. Close to a freight airport, the 24-oven “manufactory” – so called by Lionel because of the all-manual production line – bakes loaves that can be on tables in California the next day. It was a stroke of marketing genius. Apollonia modestly says her father was “lucky” to turn his bakery into a valuable brand, but the scale of his vision was unprecedented among craft breadmakers.

Two years before his death, Lionel opened his first bakery abroad, a shop in London’s Elizabeth Street that not only sold bread and pastries but housed its own wood-burning oven to turn out hundreds more pains Poilâne each day. It’s an incredible legacy to which Apollonia is steadily adding her own contribution.

The tragedy that caused a premature inheritance to fall on her teenage shoulders in 2002 didn’t stop Apollonia from leaving Paris the next year to study economics at Harvard University. An Ivy League education had been a long-held ambition. “I’m half-American, and I grew up with an image of American colleges, with their lovely names – Harvard, Princeton, Stanford – that all sounded very cool to me. Harvard was my top choice. I wasn’t one of the top students at school, and it’s not easy to get in, but I was lucky to get on a waiting list, and they offered me a place if I was prepared to delay my entry by a year. It was during that year off that my parents passed away and I took over. I went to Harvard as planned, the only difference being that I was now in charge (of Poilâne).”

As she describes her routine at Harvard – waking early each day before lectures to call the management team back home, directing the master bakers at each of Poilâne’s bakeries, making frequent trips back to Paris, keeping tabs on the business via a trusted proxy who sat in for her on board meetings – this serious young woman’s immense determination becomes apparent. Did her ‘other job’ prevent her from enjoying the full student experience?

“In fact,” she says, “there were a lot of entrepreneurs at Harvard, not just me. Many people had extracurricular commitments, or were on varsity teams, which demanded a lot of time spent away from their studies. I had one friend who was an international squash player. My recreational sport was my bakery. And I choose that comparison deliberately, because my work here really is my passion. To me, it’s not a job job, and that’s very precious.”

“Never eat the bread they give you at the beginning of the meal – it’s like eating the peanuts on the bar.”

Down the footfall-polished stone steps into the basement, Apollonia leads me to the burning heart of Poilâne, its oven. A colossal arched brick construction that can bake 70 loaves at a time, it is tended day and night in never-ending shifts by bakers who must wear shorts and T-shirts year-round to bear the unrelenting heat from the burning wood. Stepping lightly around the room, the young CEO shows me trays of custard cakes, biscuits and apple turnovers waiting to be baked, an enormous wooden box holding 50 sourdough loaves all puffed up and risen, a kneading machine as big as a Renault 5, the chute down which colossal quantities of flour are sent.

No yeast is used to make pain Poilâne, she explains; sourdough is made from flour, water, salt and starter, a piece of naturally leavened dough from the previous batch that kicks off the fermentation process. In this sense, sourdough is an ever-reproducing organism, and each loaf Poilâne makes is a direct descendant of the very first miche baked by Pierre back in the 1930s. It’s this special biochemistry that gives the bread its juicy, mouthwatering flavour. You have to use grey flour that contains plenty of wheat bran, says Apollonia, and the sea salt must be the kind from Guérande in Brittany, which has a distinctive flavour and thus can be used in smaller quantities. “And we use regular tap water because, contrary to what some people say, you don’t need special water. That’s bullshit,” she says, with the air of an expert used to correcting the silly assumptions of amateur cooks and picky customers. “By the time the loaf comes out of the oven, the water is boiled.

Poilâne only makes a narrow range of products: a few types of bread, croissants and brioche, a handful of pastries that don’t use cream (the others being the preserve of the patisserie) and sweet biscuits called punitions, named for a game Pierre’s grandmother played with her children, in which she would pretend to dole out ‘punishments’ that turned out to be butter cookies – a game little Lionel is said to have loved.

For Apollonia Poilâne, whose cradle was a wicker breadbasket, the bakery is an extension of family, a place where she grew up and learned the craft at her father’s knee, and a business she nurtures with passion – a word she uses repeatedly on our morning together.

When we repair next door to Poilâne’s busy tartine café – the cuisine de bar – for a lunch of toasted open sandwiches (including chocolate ones for dessert), she talks with fervour about her product, urging me to “use your five senses” when choosing a loaf. “Don’t pick the whiter loaves! The English always do that, and when it’s not properly cooked, the crust is more permeable.”

She describes how to weigh bread in your hands, how the ‘chew’ should feel, how the crust should crumble, how to slice it, and how to make it last for a week, and I begin to feel ashamed at all the years I’ve thoughtlessly masticated second-rate bread. She also dispenses her views on the contemporary fear of bread that has gripped a generation of women, notably followers of Atkins and Dukan, the diet tsars who have demonised carbohydrates in general and bread in particular. “Obviously, it’s a problem if you eat masses of white bread,” Apollonia says. “But diets should be progressive, and while, yes, you might reduce bread intake at the beginning, it should be reintroduced. Quality is what matters.” She says she has noticed the pre-dinner breadbaskets passing by untouched on fashionable French tables. “More people are having salads at that stage of the meal instead. I mean, of course you should never eat the bread they give you at the beginning of the meal – it’s like eating the peanuts on the bar that contain 20 different types of urine because people don’t wash their hands. But now we have the luxury of eating meat and fish whenever we like, bread should be something that accompanies a meal. You can choose breads that work with different foods – for instance, if you’re eating fish, rye bread works particularly well. It’s just like the way you choose a wine to match a cheese.”

If stored in linen and sliced judiciously, the Poilâne miche should last a full seven days, though Apollonia advises toasting it after the fifth day for optimum enjoyment.

Most days, Apollonia walks from her nearby apartment – her childhood home – to the rue du Cherche-Midi bakery, arriving for its 7.15am opening, checking the night’s work with her master baker, talking to staff, and breakfasting on toasted sourdough with them at the scrubbed office table. Then it’s time for corporate planning, meetings and site visits – Poilâne has two other bakeries in Paris, plus the manufactory, which she drives out to in her little Audi. She says that “a fair share” of loaves leave it bound for the UK. A year or two after she took over the company, Apollonia went into business with the high-end British supermarket chain Waitrose. Owned by the respected, employee-owned department store group John Lewis, Waitrose is a beloved culinary mecca.

The relationship is highly symbolic as the next move in her careful but bold expansion strategy to step up Poilâne’s presence in Britain:­ the company’s other UK stockists now include luxury department stores Partridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods, and it supplies London’s Ledbury restaurant as well as those at the city’s Dorchester and Berkeley hotels. “It’s all part of my plan to become part of the British bread scene,” she says. In October, she’ll open another cuisine de bar in London’s Cadogan Gardens – a place she wants to be “a bit secretive, not a place for tourists – or only the ones who like good food.”

Apollonia and her sister Athena have also kept up their mother’s art gallery in the Palais-Royal, so she’s sometimes involved in overseeing that, too. Does she ever wonder if she’s missed out on crazy nights out in her 20s, the years of light responsibilities, hangovers, parties?

“You know, I did wonder recently whether I’ve missed out. But then I thought, So many kids start work at 16 or 18 because they have no other option, and that wasn’t the case for me. Of course there were times in college when I had to miss a party, but there are always other parties.”

Watching her direct her staff with quiet authority and charm as we move around the offices, I believe her assertion that she simply refused to let relative youth interfere with the job in hand. And if eyebrows are raised? “I just deal with it,” she says, flatly. Her staff clearly respects her for it.

“Her father was someone incredible, but Poilâne is Apollonia now,” says Hélène Darroze. “She’s succeeded in not forgetting him while also finding a position and a name for herself. It hasn’t been calculated; it’s been done by instinct. She was intelligent from day one, always a hard worker, but it’s incredible how she’s developed over the last eight years. It’s hard to say she’s confident, because she’s the kind of person who questions everything every day, even herself, but you can’t imagine the respect I have for her.”

The long-term plan is to pass on the bakery to another generation of Poilânes. Apollonia says she’s not dating anybody at the moment, and, given her job, personal situation and wealth, one may imagine she’s forced to exercise caution. But, as she says with a shrug, “You know – I’m young.” And in the meantime, she has 7,000 loaves of sourdough a day to knead, bake, wrap and ship out, because the hungry fans of pain Poilâne from Saint-Germain to Santa Monica must have their daily bread.