I am standing inside a small room, in the warm embrace of the smell of just-baked bread. The room ends in a giant metal oven, embedded in a thick brick wall, and a wood-fire roars below it. A man dressed all in white swivels the iron wheel that lifts the oven door, and then, with a paddle-oar some 10ft long, brings out a massive, deeply browned loaf of bread with a cursive P slashed on its surface.

This could be the 19th century if it were not for the T-shirt and sneakers on the baker. There has been an oven in that very place for more than 220 years; a bakery has operated out of this spot, on the rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris, since at least the time of the French Revolution. In 1932, a man called Pierre Poilâne took over the bakery, determined to put into practice some rather old-fashioned ideas about baking bread, and named it after himself: Poilâne.

Walking around Paris, it is easy to believe that the baguette rules the city. But the most famous bread in Paris, make that France…no, perhaps the world, is not long, slender and golden, but an enormous, plump, deep brown disc. It’s called the pain Poilâne, and I had just seen one coming out of the oven.

The Poilâne bread, also known as a miche, is so highly coveted that more than 200,000 loaves are FedEx-ed to shops, restaurants and individuals every year, all around the world. It generates business worth more than $30 million (around 192 crore) annually. Bistros, cafés, and restaurants in Paris proudly put up signs saying Ici, Pain Poilâne (Poilâne bread available here).

At the centre of this empire is the shop that Pierre built. Like the bakehouse in its basement, the boulangerie itself is small. Stacks of bread adorn the wooden racks on two sides of the shop. A gaggle of women slice and pack the breads, and offer all comers little scallop-edged biscuits from a basket.

Apollonia at the shop. Photo: Mandakini Gupta
Apollonia at the shop. Photo: Mandakini Gupta

When you listen to Apollonia, bread transforms from mere food into a vehicle of history. “You know how you would go to different places in different cultures to get an understanding of how things work? The bakery would be that place in France," she says.

When Pierre started his bakery, cafés and bistros in Paris were largely run by people from the mountainous Auvergne region in central France. Pierre too was a migrant to the city, from the coastal area of Normandy. “His friends from Auvergne, who ran bistros, encouraged him to do these big hunks of sourdough breads," Apollonia says.

A master baker at the bakehouse beneath the shop in 1997. Photo: Maurice Rougemont/Getty Images
A master baker at the bakehouse beneath the shop in 1997. Photo: Maurice Rougemont/Getty Images

The sourdough bread, or pain au levain, is at the heart of Poilâne’s allure. Most bread—baguettes, and all packaged breads—is made with commercial yeast. A sourdough bread is made with “natural" or “wild" yeast, where a flour-and-water starter (levain) is left to “ripen". It attracts a symbiotic colony of good bacteria and fungus (yeasts), developing both complex flavours and the strength to make dough rise. A levain, properly nurtured, can survive indefinitely. The Poilâne loaves are still made with Pierre’s original starter, age 83.

“Sourdough has always been the tradition," Apollonia says, “commercial yeast is only about 150 years old."

Pain Poilane. Photo: Mandakini Gupta
Pain Poilane. Photo: Mandakini Gupta

Enter Lionel, Pierre’s son, forced into the family business at 14 and hating every moment of it. But somewhere along the way, he decided that if bread was to be his world, he would imbue it with all the radical ideas, the artistic creativity, the flair and panache he possessed. If Pierre stuck it out through troubled times, when people rejected his bread, Lionel made it the centre of a revolution. In 1970, Lionel took charge of operations.

He became an evangelist for traditional breads. He tirelessly collected books on bread, scouring France to catalogue dying regional varieties. He gave bread free to struggling artists. They returned the favour by gifting him paintings. Salvador Dali was a friend—he asked Lionel to make him a bedroom out of dough, and he did.

When Apollonia was born, Lionel and his wife Iréna fashioned a bassinet out of a bread-basket for her. Apollonia still has it.

Lionel opened two more shops in Paris, and one in London; his popularity soared and he began couriering the breads. He set up a larger kitchen facility on the outskirts of Paris, calling it The Manufactory, to indicate the marriage of “handmade" to factory scale. While some of the steps—like the kneading—were mechanized, the process remained essentially the same: A master baker still oversaw his bread from start to finish, and worked with the same ingredients: stoneground wheat flour, sea-salt from Guérande (a town on the Atlantic coast) and Pierre’s sourdough starter. The oven was wood-fired. The business was red-hot.

Then, at the height of his fame, a tragedy. On 31 October 2002, Lionel was flying his wife and their dog to the family’s holiday home on an island off Brittany. The helicopter crashed, killing everyone on board.

A few days later, Apollonia, all of 18, found herself at the head of the Poilâne empire. She had just been accepted at Harvard University, and was taking a year off before moving to the US. When Apollonia took over, opinion was divided: Some thought she would do well, others believed that a schoolgirl on the verge of leaving the country was hardly the person to run a wildly successful and deeply prestigious business.

“It was a legitimate thought, but they did not realize that I grew up in the bakery," Apollonia says. “I spent a lot of time here…after school, on holidays, touching dough, tasting pastry. I was annoying for both the kitchen team and the shop team, so I would go back and forth, and I saw and learnt a lot of things on both sides. All that slowly helped me develop my understanding of the business and… unfortunately, I had to take over a little earlier than planned, but that’s life."

For 10 months, Apollonia immersed herself in understanding the business and in setting up a system she could oversee from Harvard. “Running the bakery, that was my varsity sport," she says. “I had to compromise some aspects of my social life, but there is no regret. So yes, I never went to bed at 4am after a night of partying. I would call my production manager and talk about the quality of breads every day. I would be here every summer, working. Would it have lasted a lifetime? No, of course not. But at the time, it worked."

Like her father, Apollonia too is immersed in tradition and perfectionism. “A lot of people ask, ‘What is your new bread?’" she says.“I get really pissed by that question. The focus is on good quality, and not new new new new."

Her favourite way of eating the miche is toasted and buttered (the salted, unpasteurized version). No wonder. A restaurant extension next to Poilâne’s rue du Cherche-Midi shop makes a variety of delightful open-faced sandwiches with the loaf, but toasted, its deep golden-brown—almost blackened—crust is crackly and smoky, the crumb chewy yet yielding, gently sour and offering, with each bite, a new layer of complexity. Its aroma is the smell of contentment.

The miche, of course, is not the only bread Poilâne makes: There is a rye loaf, a rye and raisin bread, a walnut loaf, brioche, apple tartlets, and other viennoiseries, each of them spectacular, sensual yet simple, rooted in tradition.

“So far there are not that many techniques that we have had to change," Apollonia says. “Bear in mind that our operation is 80 years old—very small in the greater history of bread—and generations have worked in bakeries and have found ways of baking and worked on them. For all the technology in the world, and all the money that’s spent on things, nothing can make up for time and experience."

Time and timelessness, that is the enchantment of Poilâne. Like the paintings that line the wall behind Apollonia—oils of bread and wine, the stuff of life—a testimony to the 83 years of the shop, Paris itself, and its people. Or the buttery biscuits that are handed out to all who come into the shop, called punitions—“punishments"—because Apollonia’s great-great-grandmother would tell her children, “Come, get your punishment", and would hand them warm cookies instead.

As I get up to leave, I hit my knee on the wooden table across which Apollonia and I were sitting. She tells me that the table was once a proofing cabinet for their bread (thus the low sides). “I also got a lot of bruised knees from it as a child." I had been received into the Poilâne family.

For stories in the Foodprint series, visit www.livemint.com/foodprint

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