Her grandfather created the legendary “miche” sourdough loaf, while her father sealed its legendary status around the world. Both men passed on their love of good bread. Apollonia Poilâne is making sure the magic of this iconic company lives on. She tells us of her passion and her personal view of generosity.
According to an old French saying, a generous man “never eats his bread in his pocket”. What does generosity mean to you?
Generosity is about sharing, chasing dreams and growing up together. As a baker, it’s all about passing on traditional craftsmanship, but also the time invested in dreaming up and creating a loaf of bread destined for sharing. Being a baker is intrinsically generous, since their role is to provide nourishment. Sustenance is a primary need and bread is a staple element of our diet. My father loved describing it this way as he believed bread should feed the body and spirit. To draw a parallel with Champagne, when we eat bread or drink Champagne, we acknowledge this simple act. We exchange, share, and we celebrate a special moment.
Generosity is this idea of sharing, and is exactly the same for the baker and his customers. The former shares his nutritious, delicious bread, and in turn, his customers share it with those around them. It’s a virtuous circle. In the shop, there is always a basket of shortbread biscuits – our famous “Punitions” – on the counter for customers. When I was younger, I used to get pocket money for bagging up the biscuits in the shop. Each packet had to weigh 300g and my grandfather always told me to put an extra one in!
How would you define generous bread?
Bread that is full of goodness, made for sharing and that keeps well. When my grandfather created the Poilâne “miche” that keeps for up to 5 days, he wanted to recreate the generous bread of his childhood. Unfortunately, I have realised that in a number of hotels and restaurants, there is a move towards serving individual bread rolls. I think it’s quite mean as it is impossible to share these rolls since they are meant as an individual portion. Also, the size doesn’t allow the full palette of aromas to develop as it does with a large loaf. Deep down it’s just a ploy to cut costs and avoid waste. But at the end of the day, the rolls won’t keep and have to be thrown away anyway. It seems paradoxical and in every way at odds with the way we see bread.
Transmission is a notion that must strike a chord with your company. Can you tell us briefly how important a part this has played in your history, in relation to your profession, but also within the company?
My parents were true connoisseurs. They gave me a skill, but essentially the desire to share, exchange and grow up with others. I thrived in this generous environment. We were surrounded by people from all walks of life and all very different. It was a real melting pot! The Poilâne legacy is also about passing on this know-how through the years and taking the best of the past and the best of the present, which my father called retro-innovation. Our passions, values and traditions are expressed through the bread we make. Our companions, and by that I mean our bakers, are custodians and will pass on their craft to their successor when the time comes.
With the principal of sharing and transmission, your father created a library devoted entirely to bread… My father believed that bread was much more than just the staff of life, and that it was linked to every aspect of our being. For him, as well as the bread we eat, there is political bread, monetary bread and even artistic bread. Entirely self-taught, he carried out extensive research on bread and built quite a collection, including engravings, illustrations, sculptures and ancient books in various languages. His legacy still exists today and available to all on request, always with the same notion of sharing that means so much to us.
Being a baker is intrinsically generous.
At the age of 32, Apollonia Poilâne assumes the role of baker rather than company CEO. From a very early age, she was determined to have a slice of the action, steeped in the strong values upon which Poilâne was founded. In 2002, following the sudden death of her parents in a tragic accident, she took over the family business at the age of just 18. After studying management at Harvard University, on her return to France she continued to write the history of Poilâne, with the opening of new shops in Paris, England and Belgium and introducing new products to the range and writing books…