Baking Icon: Lionel Poilane

Friday November 4, 2016

the original boulangerie on rue du Cherche-Midi in the in the artsy Saint- Germain des Prés district

In the realm of professional artisan bread baking there is one name that is instantly recognizable by serious bread bakers: Poilâne.  Part of the brotherhood of artisan bakers, Poilâne is not only a family of French bakers, but a standard of excellence for from-scratch-production sourdough bread baking all over the world.

The original Boulangerie de Poilâne, located at no 8, rue du Cherche-Midi, is the most famous bakery in Paris.  It is still a daily destination for locals, neighbors, and international tourists alike. Poilane wasnt always the landmark it is today. It had humble beginnings like most mom and pop bakeries. Poilâne’s first client was Au Sauvignon, a neighboring wine bar that served the bread with cheese and charcuterie.

lionel posing in the doorway to the bakery with full shelves

The Left Bank bakery is on the site of Presmontres, a twelfth-century convent, and was opened by Pierre Poilâne, a young baker from Normandy, in 1932.  Steep winding stairs descend to an archaic vaulted cellar where the bread is mixed, risen, and baked around the clock in brick ovens.  The bakery featured a dense, over sized sourdough four-pound loaf found throughout rural France; it was designed by nature to stay fresh a week.

Poilâne is most famous for a round, two-kilogram country bread referred to as a miche or pain Poilâne. This bread is often referred to as wholewheat but in fact is not: the flour used is mostly so-called grey flour of 85% extraction (meaning that some but not all of the wheat bran is retained).

According to Poilâne’s own website, the dough also contains 30% spelt, an ancestor of wheat, an ancient wheat that has never lost popularity in Europe and is just being discovered here in America with the gluten free and alternative flours movement. The flour is stone-ground and uses the famous sea salt from Guérande. It looks like a rough, slightly blackened field stone of a loaf, often decorated with a traditional grape pattern or shaft of wheat made of dough.  It is now considered the flavor of France, ever so different than the icon of French bread, the all-white flour baguette, utilizing age-old baking wisdom passed down by generations of dedicated country bakers clad in floury shorts and canvas shoes.  The bread is so dense and chewy that it can be described as a “jawbreaker” to one used to packaged bread, regular homemade sandwich-style loaf bread, or baguettes. This type bread is very easy to find in the country, but in the city, Poilane started the craze for the old style bread.

When I was in France in 1977, we had absolutely fresh baguettes for the appetizer with the homemade pate, then the over sized country bread with the meal. I had never seen loaves so big. The crust was so hard, it was broken with a hammer, then we ate the soft insides by picking it out. When I ate that bread, I could understand how the crust section could be used as a soup bowl or dinner plate.

window displaying bread sculptures

Lionel apprenticed in his father’s bakery and subsequently took over the family operation in 1970. He had started his apprenticeship as a baker at the age of 14, like all good French bakers and restauranteers. An artist more than an artisan, and renaissance man with diverse philosophical interests melded with marketing acumen, Lionel catapulted the Poilâne loaf from its humble homey practicality to being a fashionable trend in venerable French gastronomy.

Described as an excruciating purist when it came to baking bread, even as his business expanded, Lionel kept his master bakers making the loaves from start to finish by hand to retain the exact same genuine and unpretensious taste and textural quality as his father’s original loaves. Poilâne laid the basis of a concept he called “retro-innovation”–combining the best of traditional elements together with the best of modern developments. The only deviation from his father’s original formula was machine kneading, saving hours of work for his bakers. Each loaf is still handcrafted by a baker trained with Poilâne techniques.

lionel poilane in his office/1969

Described by his co-workers as the essential 18th century industrialist, Lionel the self-taught scholar has made a viable bridge between the old and new worlds of food production.  “Man communicates something to the material he touches, both biochemically and spiritually,” says Lionel as he stands in a room decorated from floor to ceiling with framed canvases painted of his round loaf painted by a legion of hungry artists who traded them for a loaf in decades past.  “Human beings make better bread than machines do. The secret to good bread is a lot of hard work.  If there is any secret to Poilâne bread, it is the magic of the hand.”  That magic and old-fashioned hard work has created a multi-million dollar a year business.

Eloquent and passionate when it comes to speaking on the history of bread, in 1981 Lionel authored the Guide de l’amateur de pain (Guide for the Bread Lover), still in print, but has not been translated out of the original French. Its for sale on the bread counter. Poilâne also conducted research on the link between bread and humanity. For him, bread was intimately linked with history, politics, arts, language etc. Over time, he started a collection of over 2,500 books and iconography revealing the extent of those links used as a reference library for bakers.

First opening another Paris bakery in 1970, then building another set of ovens at his family farm and not able to keep up with the daily demands, in 1983 Lionel and his wife designed a circular 24-oven bread works facility, known as the “manufacture” rather than a factory, nine miles south of Paris in Bièves.  The multiple ovens are exact replicas of the original oven.  No industrial buttons are pushed here.  No radios blare.  Bread is made in what Poilâne describes as a medieval system–in thousands of linen-lined wicker rising baskets and shoveled in and out of the blistering-hot wood-fired brick ovens with long-handled wooden paddles.  The hidden underground universe of the baker is now visible and even has windows that look out into an orchard and forest for the bakers to meditate on while they work.

poilane's original wood burning oven in the old convent basement

As a result, hundreds of restaurants and French grocery stores carry the hearty pain poilâne, and it is even served at presidential dinners at the Elysée Palace.  The traditional peasant bread of France was flown daily to King Faisal in Saudi Arabia, sold at Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City, and is in demand in Japan.  Loaves are still sold as they have been for decades: wrapped in white paper bags decorated with an original poem written for Poilâne and simple drawings of bakers at work.

pensive photo of poilane in his nehru style jacket/ever so French

On Friday, November 1, 2002, Lionel Poilâne, 57, owner and president of his Socitéte Anonyme Poilâne bread realm, and his wife Irena Ibu, an architect, were traveling to their weekend home on the small off-shore island Ile des Rimains off the coast of Brittany.  Piloting his own helicopter, the Poilânes crashed in the fog and did not survive.

Wonderful photograph of Poilane with his wife Irena and their two dogs, Miche and Galette, in the garden of the bakery in Rue du Cherche Midi/Photo courtesy of © Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/Corbis

The name of Poilâne the man, as well as the beloved loaf of bread created anew each day, will continue to nourish and inspire bakers for decades to come. His daughter Appolonia runs the business today. His brother, Max, whom I met in the 1980s at a San Francisco World Bread Competition, runs his own bakeries in Paris as well.

At Home Pain de Poilâne

This loaf is my home-style version of the famous two-kilo Poilâne miche. Obviously without the soft organic wheat from the Poilâne private fields in the Marne Valley, spring water, grey crystals of French sea salt, and the everlasting nob of levain dough saved from the previous batch that goes into each batch, the loaf will be different than its august bucolic model, but close enough.  Note that it takes 3 full days to prepare.  The baked loaf will stay moist for 2 to 3 days at room temperature.  This recipe also makes 2 medium boules or a dozen rolls for individual servings.


  • Starter
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast or 2 teaspoons instant dry yeast (SAF)
  • 1 cup dark spelt flour
  • 1 tablespoon dry buttermilk powder
  • 1 cup warm water (90º to 100º)
  • Sponge
  • 2 cups warm water (90º to 100º)
  • Starter, above
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1  cup whole wheat flour
  • Dough
  • Sponge, above
  • 3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 teaspoons fine French sea salt


Day one: Make the starter.  Place the yeast, spelt flour, and dry buttermilk in a deep bowl or a plastic 4-quart bucket with a lid.  Add the water and whisk hard until a smooth, thick batter is formed.  Cover loosely and let stand at room temperature for about 24 hours.  The starter will bubble and begin to ferment. (I do this in the bread machine and let it stand in the machine as well. Then I remove the starter to a deep plastic bucket to make the sponge.)

Day two: Make the sponge by adding the water to the starter.  Whisk to combine.  Add the unbleached and whole wheat flours alternately, changing to a wooden spoon when necessary, until a smooth batter is formed.  The sponge will be very wet and thick.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap and a clean tea towel, and let rest at room temperature for about 24 hours.

Day three: Make the dough.  Stir down the sponge with a wooden spoon, switching to a rubber scraper as it thickens.  Add 1 cup of the unbleached flour and the salt.  Gradually add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time to make a shaggy, sticky dough.  This can be done with a Kitchen Aid mixer with the paddle attachment, switching to the dough hook for the kneading. Leave the dough as moist as possible. If you do by hand, be prepared to use some muscle and spend 10 minutes mixing.

On a lightly floured work surface, knead until smooth, slightly tacky, and springy, 5 to 8 minutes, adding 1 tablespoon of flour at a time as necessary to prevent sticking.  The dough will form little blisters under the surface when ready to rise. Place the dough in a deep greased container, cover tightly, and let rise at room temperature until fully doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.

Parchment-line a baking sheet. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Reserve 1 cup of the dough to use as decoration or 1/4 cup as levain for your next batch of bread, if desired.  Shape the remaining dough into 1 tight round ball and dust liberally with flour all over.  Place the loaf on the baking sheet.  (Or shape to fit a long or round cloth-lined basket lightly dusted with flour.)   Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap and let rise 1 to 2 hours at room temperature.

Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425º, with a baking stone placed on the lowest rack.  (To form a crisp crust:  Fifteen minutes before baking, pour hot water into a broiler pan and place the pan on the bottom rack to steam the oven for the initial baking period. This is an optional step.)

If you have reserved dough for decoration, form it into a pile of round grapes and a leaf and tendril strips, and place on a plate covered with plastic wrap.  It is important that any decoration made from reserved dough be applied after the loaf has had its final rise and glazing for it to keep its shape during baking.

Uncover the loaf and position decoration.  If no decoration, gently slash the loaf decoratively with a sharp knife, no deeper than 1/4 inch, to make a square diamond pattern.  Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the loaf is browned, crisp, and hollow sounding when tapped.  Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool completely before slicing. Makes 1 large loaf.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

Your Comments

6 comments Comments Feed
  1. MIchael Jubinsky 05/11/2012 at 6:40 pm

    Really nice piece. You certainly captured a spirit that makes me want to get out a bowl and start mixing dough.
    I have a nice mellow french style sourdough starter the I’ll try instead of the yeast in your step 1. King Arthur Flour now makes a high extraction flour (called Hi-X) that might come close to Poilane’s for flavor and crumb structure.
    I have several of your books and love your style.
    Thank you.

  2. Beth 13/11/2012 at 5:09 am

    hi michael. yes that king arthur flour should work perfectly cup for cup in an artisan bread. you can always adjust the
    texture of the dough with more or less water. you are going for the moist dough feel rather than a smooth consistency like
    for sandwich loaves. its all about experimenting until you get exactly what you want. baking is a satisfying pastime in the
    kitchen. keep me posted how it turns out. BH

  3. teri christman 18/10/2015 at 1:23 pm

    loved the article Beth. Still enjoying baking but now I’m gluten free and some of the “crunchy” pleasures of this kind of bread I’ve yet to find! Enjoyed the writing regardless!

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