Poilâne

pain Poilâne

I don’t think about this so much anymore, but one of the reasons I moved to Paris is that I could, whenever I wanted to, go to Poilâne and buy myself nice chunk of pain Poilâne. Just like that. Although I’m from San Francisco where there are quite a number of excellent bread bakeries, there’s something special about the bread at Poilâne – it has a certain flavor, just the right tang of sourdough, dark and husky but with an agreeable légèreté that makes it the perfect bread for sandwiches, to accompany cheese, or as I prefer it, as morning toast with little puddles of salted butter collecting in the irregular holes and a thin layer of bitter chestnut honey drizzled all over it.

Pain Poilâne

A week after I moved to Paris, a friend and I were invited to lunch with Monsieur Poilâne and his wife. Both were lovely people and Monsieur Poilâne was animated and still excited about the bakery he’d owned seemingly forever, which was (and still is) considered the best bread in the world. (I’ve never met a bread baker who didn’t use Monsieur Poilâne’s pain au levain as a reference point for excellence.) He took out a piece of paper and a pen, and wrote down a list of places that he wanted to take me, which I thought was odd – yet rather generous – since the man had just met me.

Poilâne bread

The following week, he and his wife passed away in an accident, which collectively stunned to food world, but the bakery is now run by his daughter Apollonia, who has done a little modernizing, while keeping the esprit of the bakery perfectly intact. It’s a tough call to try to preserve what makes a business special in Paris while at the same time making some updates. There’s a careful balance in Paris: You don’t want to lose what makes a place special, but on the other hand, things change (whether we want them, or not) and sometimes one needs to breathe a bit of fresh air into a place and nudge it forward.

Poilâne rye bread

One of the reasons Poilâne was – and still is – such a great place is not just because they make terrific bread, but because of the staff. If you go into the busy main shop on the rue du Cherche-Midi, the staff is invariably friendly and accommodating. And when it’s time to go, the woman working behind the payment counter will offer you a little butter cookie from a baker’s basket, called a punition (punishment). Tip: The true fans pick the darkest ones and on the shelf where the bags are sold, there are always a few bags filled with what look to be practically burnt shortbread cookies. I like mine dark, but a few shades lighter.

Poilâne punitionsPoilâne apple tarts
pain Poilânediet tartine at Poilâne

Interestingly, the price for this spectacular bread is still some of the most reasonable anywhere and a quarter of a loaf costs less than two euros and is enough to last me two-to-four days. (I’m always surprised when they weigh it and tell me the price, and I think, “Could that really be all that it costs?”) The bread lasts at least a week and gets better as it sits; the sourdough flavor gets deeper, and while it loses some of its springiness, it’s a perfect foil for a swipe of crunchy peanut butter or a chunk of Comté cheese.

Many cafés in Paris offers two versions of the croque-monsieur, one made on standard white bread, the other, with pain Poilâne. Aside from saving maybe a bits of pocket change, I’m not sure why anyone would choose the white bread, when they could be eating a warm ham and cheese sandwich on wood-fired Poilâne bread.

Poilâne bakeryPoilâne green salads
sardine tartine at PoilânePoilâne apple tarts

But there’s no choice of bread at Cuisine de Bar, they just have the good stuff at the tartine bar just next to the bakery, which is open early for a morning bowl of café au lait with toast…through later in the day, shoppers and regulars who work nearby to mingle on the iron stools, eating the various tartines (open-faced sandwiches) that go in and out of the blazing-hot broilers all afternoon long.

making tartines at Poilâne

When it does get crowded at lunchtime, it’s not uncommon to have the fellow at the door offer you a glass of wine if you’ve been cooling your heels a little too long. It’s one of the few places in Paris I’ve ever been offered such a gesture, and that’s completely indicative of the kind of care they give to guests. In all the years I’ve been going to their shops, I’ve never had anyone wait on me who wasn’t friendly and efficient, and personally proud of what they were serving forth.

buttered Poilâne breadPoilâne bread tartine
PoilânePoilâne with Saint Marcellin

Unlike other places that discourage guests from looking around, perhaps snapping a quick picture, or hiding what they do, at Poilâne it’s possible to go see the enormous wood-fired oven downstairs (although arrangements now need to be made in advance, since the bread bakers were having trouble getting all their daily loaves baked off with us bystanders poking around down there) and you’re welcome to buy one slice of bread, or a whole loaf, sans problème.

Poilâne flan

Poilâne isn’t necessarily a sweet shop, but they do make a classic flan, a Breton-inspired custard tart which is a local favorite afternoon snack in Paris. And if you have lunch or dinner at their Marais location (where even the lamps are made of sculpted bread!), if you’re lucky, they’ll have a tray of Paris-Brest from Jacques Genin, made just up the street.

paris-brest croissants

Named for a famed bicycle race between Paris and Brest, the ring of pâte à choix is meant to resemble a bike wheel and its interior gets filled with rich hazelnut-praline cream. I dug into one of these a few months back and had to stop eating for just a moment to let it sink in how good it was. I’m going to go out on a limb here – albeit a pretty solid one – and say it’s the best dessert in Paris, and just looking at the picture makes me want to stop writing at this moment and race on over there by bicycle myself.

Not quite as rich, I am also crazy for Poilâne’s apple tartlets and I insist that people who have never tried one do so, no matter how unassuming they might look. You can’t take it home because the minute it hits the paper bag it gets folded up in, the flaky crust starts leaving its buttery mark and will get over anything it touches. So just go outside and eat it right away. (You won’t get scolded for eating on the street in Paris, because everyone understands.) It looks deceptively simple and is pretty compelling evidence of how just a few ingredients – puff pastry, slices of apples, and dark cane sugar – can create a spectacular pastry without all the fuss.

Poilâne bread lamp

Nearly all the women who work in the shop have been there since I’ve been coming to Paris, and when I went to their newest location in the Marais, I recognized a saleswomen who’d been at Poilâne for twenty-six years, from their Left Bank shop where I used to bring them brownies, for some reason. (Which might seem odd considering that they were surrounded by some of the best baked goods on earth. But on the other hand, they remember me well.)

Adjacent to the dépôt de pain (bread counter) is the Marais branch of Cuisine de Bar. And just like their Left Bank address, a lone woman is stationed behind the counter and forms a one-woman assembly line, a vision of efficient organization, feeding an entire restaurant of people without breaking a sweat.

Poilane

When people criticize French service (which can be hit or miss), seeing how one person can feed an entire restaurant, or when two servers take care of a packed dining room, I laugh when I think about the layers of servers elsewhere in the world – busboys, hosts, waiters, and runners, all scrambling around, jumping over each other, to get the food to the tables. Patricia, who was making the sandwiches when I went to Cuisine de Bar, calmly smeared bread with mayonnaise, then draped it with moist chicken breast slices, a few salt capers and curls of anchovies, then cut it into bites, slid it onto the plate, and off it went. Basta.

Cuisine de Bar at Poilâne

I haven’t tried the tartine for le régime (the diet), with fromage blanc, tomatoes, and diced cucumbers, but my previous favorite is the simplest they make: crisp bâtons of pain Poilâne spread with sardine paste, good olive oil drizzled over the top, and a sprinkling of chives. But she offered me a taste of the one which she said was their all-time most popular sandwich.

Poilâne apple tarts Poilâne tartine

Patricia took a small round of soft Saint-Marcellin cheese, cut it in half, and pressed it into the bread, then topped it with lacy Bayonne ham. After it had been under the hot broiler for a few minutes, she pointed to it – “When the sides of the ham curl up and get a little crispy, that’s when it’s ready. It has to be like that. Then it’s so good!” With apologies to the sardines, she was right.

Poilâne tartines

If you hit one of the two restaurants for lunch, you can order the formule, which includes a small green salad, a tartine, a bottle of water or a glass of wine, and a coffee and little cookie. It’s one of the best deals in town (currently around €14), especially considering the top-notch quality of the food. And, of course, the accommodating people, who make it happen at Poilâne.



Poilâne and Cuisine de Bar
8, rue du Cherche-Midi (6th)
Tél: 01 45 48 45 69

and

38, rue Debelleyme (3rd)
Tél: 01 44 61 83 39

(Two other Poilâne shops include 49, boulevard de Grenelle in Paris [15th], and in London, at 46 Elizabeth Street.)

Poilâne


Related Posts and Recipes

The Grainy Breads of Paris

Apollonia Poilâne Builds on Her Family’s Legacy (New York Times)

Behind the Scenes at Poilâne Bakery (Ann Mah)

Du Pain et des Idées

Punitions (Dorie Greenspan)

Bazin Bakery

A French Bread Obsession (Business Week)

Give Us This Day Our Global Bread (Fast Company)

118 comments

  • I love the bakery on rue du Cherche-Midi. In London we are lucky enough to have had a Poilane bakery on Elizabeth Street SW1 (Belgravia) for several years where they bake the bread in wood-fired ovens. They also bake small quantities of the best brioche in London, if not the world. A few weeks ago they opened a Cuisine de Bar nearby at 39 Cadogan Gardens SW3 (Chelsea) which I plan to visit next time I’m in the area.

  • Lovely, simple, appetizing… You are so lucky to be able to taste these beauties…It is sad about the owner and his wife. Life definitely changes in a second.

  • I had the privilege of being good friends with Lionel Poilâne, and visited twice the “manufacture” in Bièvres, 30 minutes south west of Paris, where an average of 6000 “miches” daily are made in 24 wood ovens identical to the original, but newer, by three shifts of specially trained bakers. Lionel insisted that this was not a factory, no shorcuts allowed to shorten the hand made five hour process.

    As for the “front national” suspicion, it concerns the half brother Max. Visitors to Paris, make sure to buy Lionel’s bread, either at his bakeries, good cheese stores or Monoprix. Max Poilâne is distributed by Franprix, not to be confused, though the recipe is similar.

  • Try their pain aux noir – superb

  • When I visited Paris last spring (it was my first time) and went to Poilâne twice during my week-long stay. First time, I just scouted what they had to offer and picked up a few delectable butter cookies and the second time, it was the day before my departure back to NYC.

    I actually brought back with me the entire hefty, round loaf on the plane (just like the one you’ve photographed – the first photo). My best friend looked at me like I really lost my mind when I dragged it through airport security in my carry-on. When I ate it when at home, it’s so different and unique than all the other breads in NYC, especially that thick, craggy crust.

  • This spring was my second trip to Paris. I love the food, the bread the pastries and the whole experience of being in this iconic city. My fave experience beside food was a free concert at the Notre Dame Cathedral. As we say in Hawaii, ‘chicken skin” aloha

  • How delicious!
    This is the wrong post to read when you’ve skimped on breakfast and it’s time for lunch and yr in New York not Paris…
    Really the bread here is nothing to write home about in most cases..
    Now to go forage for something even remotely similar to wolf down!

  • What a beautiful post on Poilâne. (Have your posts made others cry, too?) I am also amazed that I see the same women behind the counters that I saw on my first visit to Paris in the 90′s. I was able to visit Paris again this past September, and every morning I went to Cuisine de Bar for a massive (!) bol of café au lait. I bought several slices of bread my last day, and my first morning back home in St. Paul, I briefly felt like I was still in France with buttered Poilâne toast and my killer flat-white cappuccino. Oh… I also bake my rolled or sliced cookies to the point where they are nearly burnt. As you know, they taste best that way!

  • Excellent tip for lunch and I just fell off my stool when I took my first bite in my St Marcellin-Bayonne Tartine…Thank you

  • Very nice photos :-).

  • Dear David, This post made me want to move to Paris immediately…