One of my favorite parts of cooking school was our time in the bread kitchen. There is something so tactile, immediate and rewarding about making bread. All your senses are activated alerting you that you are about to consume something so simple yet so profound. Alice Waters visited the French Culinary Institute and I was fortunate enough to abscond with a few minutes of her time. My one question to her was simply: “What am I going to do with my life?” She said, “What do you want to do?” “I want to go to France!” “Well then go to France!” So I did…. but first I asked her to recommend restaurants where I should work. I shared with her my love of bread baking in cooking school and she recommended contacting Poilane Bakery here on the Left Bank. So I did…. When Alice Waters give you culinary advice, take it, whether it’s moving to another country or visiting a bakery!
I immediately wrote to Poilane, asking for an internship and received the most gracious rejection letter ever, which I will frame should I ever have an office again, saying they were unable to accommodate interns but invited me for a tour. A few months later I spent a glorious, flour-showered morning in their 17th century bread kitchen, formerly a convent, on rue Cherche-Midi in the heart of the Left Bank mesmerized by the baker and his methodical yet maternal handling of the dough. I can picture him now gently pressing his hand on top of each loaf, just before he slid the perfectly shaped dough cut with his signature “P” into the wood-burning oven. It is one of four original wood-burning ovens in all of Paris. I emerged 2 hours later coated in a thin layer of flour from head to toe.
A room of the small shop is covered floor to ceiling with paintings of bread. Mr. Poilane was a friend to the artists, many of whom lived in the neighborhood. When they couldn’t afford bread, they would exchange a painting for a loaf or two of bread. The Poilane art collection now includes stunning works by Chagall, Picasso, Monet, Dali, etc. His friend Dali once asked him to bake a bedroom set for him, bed, dresser, lamp, et al. Rather than laughing it on, Poilane accepted this challenge and in honor of his accomplishment, they hand a bread chandelier in their store at all time. When it finally crumbles beyond repair, they bake another one!
While I was there, a book delivery arrived that caused great excitement amongst the staff. Mr. Poilane’s daughter, Apollonia who is in her early 20s and is now running the enterprise (while juggling Harvard Business School) since the tragic death of her parents a few years ago, had just published a book, Supplique au Pape, of Mr. Poilane’s writings on his quest to change the name of one of the seven deadly sins. It is a fascinating story that adds yet another layer of wonder to this man. As it goes, one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony, in French was translated as "gourmandise" and this very much upset Mr. Poilane. He discussed this with philosophers, doctors, scientists, chefs, priests, statesmen, writers, professors, business executives, and actresses and he wrote a very long letter to the Pope (Pape) asking for and explaining why the word should be changed from "gourmandise" to the true French word for gluttony which I believe translates to "glutton" pronounced glue-TON. So this book is his letter to the Pope, along with all his writings, notes and discussions on this subject. I wish I had better command of the language so that I could read it and truly appreciate his endeavor and his prose. Until then, i’ll just keep eating his spectacular bread.
No fancy hi-tech equipment here, just good old-fashioned bread baking!
Feeding the beast – the oven in the basement of a former convent.
And ready to eat!