Of course there is no such thing as ‘the’ best bread in the world. There’s fantastic bread all over the world however, Poilâne is definitely one of the best breads on this planet (along with Dench Bakery, in Melbourne www.denchbakers.com.au) and a must-visit when you are in Paris. And that’s exactly what the wandering palate did when holidaying in Paris back in July.
Actually, we were more intent on going for lunch at La Cuisine de Bar, the sandwich bar next door serving Poilâne’s bread, with an amazing selection of open-toasted sandwiches. The coffee is good here too, and that’s saying something for Paris.
I haven’t worked out yet if the two establishments are connected, although you would think highly likely as there’s lots of the sandwich selections from Lionel Poilâne’s book on open sandwiches featured.
Enquiries with the staff in both La Cuisine de Bar and Poilâne staff were met with a shrug of the shoulders and the usual forced effort to fake not understanding English. I love the French attitude and always impressed by their acting capabilities, putting on such a mournful and surly display. When we were in the bread shop, the lady serving me refused to speak English, yet a few minutes later she took an overseas phone call and spoke in excellent English!
The staff at La Cuisine de Bar were actually relatively friendly, perhaps because we had the best travelling accessory with us, our seven year-old daughter Hayley, who always manages to summons up good, friendly service. The sandwiches are certainly worth the trek to 8 rue du Cherche Midi, 6ème, which is a rather pretty street (aren’t they all in Paris) and with some quirky, interesting shops.
La Cuisine de Bar is closed Sunday, Monday however, the bread shop is open Monday to Saturday, even throughout the summer holiday, extraordinary as it may seem.
There’s a steady throng of tourists revolving through the doors of Poilâne, which must drive them mad, as not many have the need to buy a seriously large round loaf of sourdough bread, or likely to be repeat customers. Still, they have astutely expanded their repertoire to have croissants and butter cookies called Punitions packed in multiple takeaway options, also raisin scones and smaller buns-size walnut bread along with plenty of bread accessories for the souvenir mad tourist.
We were in fact serious bread customers; that is we came specifically to buy bread to take with us to Burgundy, where we would be staying with friends for four days, and what better offering than bringing some fantastic bread. Indeed, it was perfect for breakfast, lasting for several days and I might add, seemingly getting better with age.
Putting our craving for bread, or more specifically sourdough bread, into perspective, I am sure there a lot of expatriates in Asia who miss great bread, and going to the bakery every morning as a ritual. Even though the technology of par-baking is bringing a lot more textured, wholesome bread into the market, and there are certainly a lot of enthusiastic bakers here, it’s simply no comparison to the real artisan thing.
And Poilâne is the real thing; only stone-ground flour sourced through specialist makers using the very best varieties of wheat, sea salt from Guérande, a piece of the dough from the previous batch of bread – the sourdough – used as a starter for the next batch and wood-fired ovens burning waste wood that cannot be used for any other industry.
There’s also a lot of history to Poilâne, as you would expect, with Lionel Poilâne starting his baking apprenticeship when he was 14, and building up his reputation for sourdough bread (with stiff competition from the more modern baguette) throughout the 1970s to becoming one of the most sort of bread by chefs and restaurateurs in Paris.
They have expanded considerably over the decades to keep up with this demand, which has grown to international proportions, but never departed from artisan handcrafted bread, each loaf still totally hand-made by a baker in their central bakery that has 24 wood-fired ovens.
They now have three shops in Paris with the newly opened premises in the Marias, and also a London bakery, 46 Elizabeth Street, which took some 2 years to get a permit for a wood-fired oven; such are the archaic bylaws as the 1666 Great Fire of London started in a bakery!
The thing is you can have Poilâne delivered to you direct, or purchased through an enormous network of retailers throughout the world, and they have a super-functional website www.poilane.fr where you can organise all this.
Indeed, we buy our Poilâne sourdough in Singapore through Culina at their Dempsey store, www.culina.com.sg and I don’t care if it’s got a slightly high carbon footprint because of the reality is practically everything we eat in Singapore has cloaked up some food miles.
Poilâne sourdough is very dense and moist, requisitely chewy with a salty tanginess that’s I liken to eating Chablis! It is after all ‘sourdough’, and the pungent, earthy, tangy nuance is everything. The crust is dark, quite crisp and solid, so much so you will need a decent, heavy-duty breadknife to get through it.
In Singapore, it comes in quarters, perfectly vacuum-packed, and will keep well for several days in the fridge. Indeed, it’s the sort of bread that gets better as it gets older, which is why they backed it this way in the old days.
Poilâne is now our house staple bread; it’s like waking up for breakfast in Paris every morning!