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Lionel Poilane, 57; French Baker Renowned for Round Loaves

November 06, 2002|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Lionel Poilane, the French bread baker who shipped his 4-pound sourdough loaves by overnight express to specialty grocers and restaurants around the world, and once baked a set of bread furniture for his artist friend Salvador Dali, has died. He was 57.

Last Thursday, he and his wife, Ibu, were on their way home to the island of Remaine when their helicopter went down in heavy fog off the northern coast of France. They are survived by two children.

His Paris bakery on the Rue Cherche Midi in the artsy St. Germain des Pres district has attracted waiting lines outside the door for three decades. The signature loaf -- a large, round "Pain Poilane" -- sells by weight for about $6 a pound.

From the time Poilane took over the family business in the early 1970s, he worked to restore the handmade French bread baking tradition. His round boule was his alternative to the baguette, the long narrow sticks of bread that he refused to carry in his shop. They are not authentic, he often pointed out; they were introduced to France by an Austrian ambassador in the mid-19th century.

Poilane was born in Paris into a family of bread bakers and left school at 14 to apprentice in his father's shop. It had been the site of a monastery in the 18th century, and the bread ovens were from that era. For the next 10 years, Poilane spent his days in the hot cellar beside the cave-shaped baking alcove.

Years later, his friend Dali, the surrealist artist, commissioned Poilane to bake a bread bird cage. It stirred old memories. "When I started as an apprentice, I was a very bitter boy stuck down in the basement with the bread," Poilane said. "The bird could eat its way out of the cage. That was very real to me. As an apprentice, I too felt like a bird in a cage."

Despite the frustrations of apprenticeship, Poilane was captured by the idea of perfecting a sourdough bread made of stone-ground flour, water, bran and salt in the ancient manner. Since the end of World War II in France, mass produced items were replacing artisanal breads and baked goods. Poilane and his father considered it a point of family pride to preserve the traditional fresh loaf.

Later, when he took over the business, Poilane interviewed thousands of French bakers about historic techniques and tasted close to 100 traditional recipes he had never tried. He also amassed a collection of about 2,000 books on bread and began to describe himself as "the archeologist of my trade."

Los Angeles bread baker Nancy Silverton of the La Brea Bakery first visited Poilane's Paris shop 20 years ago. "Rustic bread sold by weight not by the loaf -- I'd never seen anything like it," she said Tuesday. "Every baker I know who specializes in handmade bread was inspired by Poilane."

Friends who visited the wood-fired ovens below the shop came home from the hot cellar with stories to tell, Silverton recalled. "The bakers worked in their underwear."

At Balducci's specialty grocers in New York City, Claude Mallinger, a longtime friend of Poilane, said some of his customers now request a phone call when a delivery has arrived.

"Lionel was a very reliable person," Mallinger said Tuesday. "He appreciated the people he did business with, and he was the sort of friend who would never forget you."

About 5,000 loaves per week are shipped to U.S. businesses, most of them in New York and California. Bristol Farms is one outlet in Southern California that carries the bread. "People know the name, from their travels in France," said Pete Hejny, a store executive.

By the early 1980s, Poilane was receiving requests to ship his product abroad but could not accommodate additional orders. Eager to expand his business, he built a bread factory south of Paris that avoided assembly lines and mass production. He installed 24 wood-burning brick ovens, identical to the original in the Paris shop.

As his reputation grew, Poilane became a recognized figure in Paris. He was the baker who in-line skated to work, some days wearing a winged silver cap on his head. In his office a bread chandelier lighted the room that was filled with artist's renditions of Poilane's beloved country loaf. His celebrity client list grew, from Catherine Deneuve and Robert De Niro to French President Giscard d'Estaigne.

In recent years, Poilane opened a shop in London, complete with his trademark brick oven, and refused an offer to open in Tokyo because he would not be permitted to install the oven there.

Grudgingly, he added a few popular items to his bakery shelves. Walnut bread, apple tarts and butter cookies are now options for customers who shop via Internet from around the world.

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