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Bread Maker to the Upper Crust : Centuries-Old Recipes Are French Master Baker's Secret

December 18, 1987|VANORA BENNETT | Reuters

PARIS — Master baker Lionel Poilane's bread loaves are jetted from Paris to the rich around the world but there is not a French baguette among them.

The long, crusty sticks of white bread carried under countless French arms in countless French films are shunned by Poilane as a culinary Johnny-come-lately.

"The so-called French loaf is a relatively modern product, dating from the middle of the 19th Century," Poilane said. "I am a traditionalist. There are none of these loaves in my shop."

Instead, Poilane has built an international reputation as a craftsman in traditional country breads baked for centuries in village ovens across France.

His family business, which he took over some 15 years ago, is in the heart of the French capital and now exports more than a ton of bread every week to the United States, Britain, West Germany and Japan.

Poilane's specialty is a round brown loaf, decorated by hand with a distinctive pattern of grapes and a wheat sheaf.

Greek shipping magnate Aristot le Onassis loved it so much he once ordered loaves to be dispatched across the Atlantic by the supersonic Concorde.

Poilane gleaned his vast knowledge of French country baking from an exhaustive survey carried out over several years with the help of two anthropologists.

The team collected more than 70 old recipes from forgotten corners of France, only 20 of which were still widely used in country bakeries. Poilane added the other 50 to his repertoire.

His shop in the Rue du Cherche-Midi is a sweet-smelling mecca for bread lovers and a place to be seen shopping. A photograph of a jostling 30-yard line of eager customers outside his shop was even published by a Soviet news agency, the overall-clad master craftsman said. "Bread queues in Paris," was the caption, claiming the line was caused by "acute grain shortages across Europe."

Poilane, who began work in his father's bakery at 14, said his 15-year friendship with surrealist painter Salvador Dali first led him to start experimenting with bread. "We got on very well from the start. Dali said I was not a baker but an artist. He asked me to make several objects for him out of dough--frames for his paintings, sculptures."

But Poilane never wanted to abandon the 200-year-old family bakery to follow in the footsteps of his surrealist friend. "I like business too much."

Instead, he moved from the ultra-modern to the ultra-traditional when he began experimenting to find a way to shape bread to best express its nature. He chose the grape-and-grain design as the perfect symbol of the country life he wanted to honor through his bread.

"Bread is so much part of our lives that we never stop to think about it," he said. "And yet it is the most important thing man has ever made.

"Man cannot live by bread alone, but ever since he stood up on two legs he has been unable to live without it," he said.

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