05 April 2007

Le Pain par Poilâne

Last night Joe, Christine and I stumped through the wretched April snow to see Apollonia Poilâne, a baker and Harvard senior. She was speaking to the Culinary Historians of Boston about the book Le Pain par Poilâne. Her father began the book and she finished it after his death in a helicopter accident, which also left her in charge, at age eighteen, of the family’s bakeries—and her younger sister.

There are four bakeries: three shops, each with their own ovens, totally self-supplying, and a ‘manufactory’ (their word) that supplies restaurants, grocery stores, and Poilâne addicts overseas. Apparently you can get at least one kind of Poilâne bread at Formaggio in Huron, but only on Thursdays. (I hear it costs about £10 in London, so heaven knows what Formaggio gets for it.) There is no assembly–line production; each baker has his or her own oven, and is responsible for his own bread, and starter, and everything. It’s all sourdough starter there—it sounded like Apollonia thinks yeast is a little bit suspect, a little bit inferior. She doesn’t have anything nice to say about low–carb diets, either—she was somewhat energetic about that. (She’s very slim, by the way, extremely cute, and totally sincere and charming.)

She told some great stories about her dad, who was a friend of Salvador Dalí. Dalí once commissioned him to bake a bedroom set, which he did. It was recreated, four–poster, chandelier, and all, for the Dalí Centennial recently.

Joe asked if the sourdough starter was part of an unbroken lineage from the bakery’s start in 1932, and she exclaimed “Americans always ask that! Nobody else! Europeans are so blasé about tradition...” Turns out the sourdough starter does come from 1932. Graciously none of the assembled Americans told her the age of some famous sourdough starters from San Francisco—that would be boasting.

Also unchanged since 1932 is the design of the ovens. They’re wood–fired, and very simple. I asked her how temperature is controlled, and she said they have what’s called a “roaring mouth,” a vent that controls how high the fire burns and how it’s directed into the oven shelves. To test the temperature, they push a piece of paper to the back of the oven, and judge by the color—or size of the remainder, as the case may be.

Then the moment we were all waiting for: the actual bread! It was nice. Part rye. Very healthy–tasting, rye. Sourdough, though. Not my favorite. They don’t do baguettes at Poilâne. (Apparently baguettes are not authentically French. They’re Austrian. Same with croissants. Good thing I don't need my food to be authentically French, or I’d be done.)

The book is not out in English yet. They are having trouble finding a publisher. It looks wonderful, though, and Christine says she is able to translate any of the recipes. I may buy it.

So, a very nice evening, though there was an embarrassing moment when I gave Christine a pair of tortoise/Bakelite-handled items that Joe told me were pet combs. I wasn’t really convinced, but Christine has a really shaggy Bouvier, so I delivered them last night as we were waiting for Apollonia to set up. She took one look and said, “Max! These are cake slicers.” Wow. Way to collect kitchenalia, Max!

Speaking of people who are orphaned and left to raise their younger sister, is anyone reading the comic Buffy: Season 8? It’s written by Joss and it’s good. It’s very good. All of life is good again. Buffy! Yes.

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