One of my favorite boulangeries to walk past in Paris' 15th arrondissement is Poilane on Boulevard de Grenelle (pronounced: Pwa-lan). Usually with a line of Parisians gathered to pick up their daily bread or pastry, it is one of two storefront locations of the late Lionel Poilane's dedicated attempt to carry on the family tradition, started by his father, Pierre, in 1932. The front and corner windows are lavishly decorated with ornate furnishings made of, what else? Bread crust.
Over the years, I've witnessed an array of astonishing ensembles looking like ice sculptures of golden dough. Giant flower arrangements, the petals, stems and vase all crafted and baked into varying shades of crusted-honey hues, call to bees and bread patrons alike. Chandeliers, books and dishware are just a few samples of the edible decor that pleasantly shock passersby with what is possible when a little flour yields itself to an artisan's hands. Poilane's alchemists spin yeasty gold out of pixie dust and tap water. During Paris' Fete de la Musique, a music festival held every June 21st when Paris holds its street music festival on the day of the Solstice, Poilane's window displays sing with their own musical instruments.
Unlike many other boulangeries in Paris who flout their patisserie pretties and chocolate delectables in perfectly-lined rows along street-front windows, Lionel opted to keep his daily output to a small assortment of traditional breads, tarts, gateau and punitions (small, thin, butter cookies known as "The Punishment"~the recipe of which can be found in Dorie Greenspan's book Paris Sweets).
My favorite is the simple and plain-looking Gateau Basque (almost like a custard pie with a densely-thick, not-too-sweet center) which I am compelled to buy every time I see it in the window. Ed's favorite is the early morning, tender-yet-flaky brioche to go with his coffee. While their pastry shelves are not lined with the busy colors and shapes of other windows, they always have something you want.
According to Ron Lieber (fastcompany.com), Lionel's motto was, "Do things with intention, not with extension." Lionel's intent, after taking over the business from his father in 1970, apparently became a treasure hunt for THE best traditional French bread (Lieber states that according to Poilane, France's popular baguette actually came out of Austria). Poilane, with some help, interviewed over 10,000 bakers for their 2 francs worth and then created and revitalized what was once the most common bread in France: the dark, round, peasant bread of the region made in the traditional fashion using wood-fired ovens. The original boulangerie started by Pierre is still located on Rue du Cherche-Midi in the Latin Quarter where Lionel kept an office.
While those dark, fat, rounds nearly lost out to the flashier, skinnier, fair-skinned models (who are most often spotted tooling along French sidewalks canoodling in the arms of Parisians busily chewing the baguette's missing tip), Poilane saved the dark, regional manna from heaven. And he found his own patronage. In an interview, Lieber quotes Poilane as stating that one of his most dedicated followers paid him a large sum to keep his children and grandchildren in weekly shipments of bread for the rest of their days.
Next time you are in Paris visiting the Eiffel Tower, walk down to Blvd de Grenelle (3 blocks from the Champs de Mars) and on your way to the Metro (directly between stops Dupleix and Bir Hakeim), stop and marvel on the latest creations gracing the windows. And have a gateau for me!
If you have any trouble finding it, mention one word to any Parisian on the street: Poilane. They will point you in the right direction.
(Sadly, Lionel Poilane died in a helicopter crash in Oct. 2002 in Brittany)
Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen
Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen