Picture this: a twinkling tale that starts some eighty years ago, spanning two generations of visionary bakers before settling on Apollonia Poilâne, our initially-teenaged heroine. It is a tale that weaves itself through a particularly Parisian Paris and a distinctive set of globe-trotting subplots. It is a tale that unites Gerard Depardieu, Robert De Niro and a whole host of other supporting characters through a singular love for one special item. In a suitably surreal turn of events even Salvador Dali plays a part.
It could be played straight - the ultimate Hollywood biopic - or with a touch of the screwball, filtered through a Wes Anderson-esque lens. There is ambition in abundance and heart in equal measure. Ultimately though it is a tale about bread. More specifically it is about the famed bread of Poilâne, and its current custodian.
The recipe at the heart of all of this? ‘Well,’ Apollonia states simply, ‘we mix just four ingredients: the sourdough starter, water, flour and salt.’ Upon these unassuming foundations, three generations of the Poilâne family have cultivated a veritable luxury brand, renowned the world over for its sourdough rounds, or miches. Poilâne was founded by Apollonia’s grandfather Pierre in 1932 and brought to bonafide prominence by her characterful father Lionel. Over the years, the allure of the miche has seen movie stars queuing for fresh bakes if in Paris, and having them shipped around the world if not. In 1971, Salvador Dali even commissioned Lionel to sculpt an entire bedroom from bread. Elaborating on the unique, crucial component of the miche, Apollonia explains, ‘[The starter is] a piece of dough from one batch, which is left to ferment to feed the following batch.’ Hearing her speak about this unbreakable bond to past bakes, you begin to get a sense of her quiet yet intense passion for the bread itself. She acknowledges the parallels between ‘her’ Poilâne and the bread itself: both exist only as a result of their ancestral ties to that which came before them, yet here they stand new, distinct and (of course!) fresh.
Lionel had his own term for it: ‘retro-innovation’. It is an ethos that Apollonia still stands by today. ‘The term he coined, that is very powerful,’ says Apollonia. ‘What he’s trying to say is that in order to go forward you have to examine where you’ve been and why you’ve been doing things the way you have…but also challenge yourself to use the current technologies and ideas of the time.’ These words are so measured, and so softly yet firmly annunciated in her flawless American English, that you almost forget the potential for chaos that existed in Apollonia’s sudden transition from regular teenaged life to head of a globally-renowned bread-baking institution. On October 31st 2002, Lionel and Apollonia’s mother, Iréna were killed in a tragic helicopter accident. Two days later Apollonia assumed the title of CEO of Poilâne at the age of just 18.
The years that immediately followed this pivotal moment featured, understandably, a crash-course of sorts in the business of Poilâne. Crucially however, Apollonia balanced this with a trajectory that focused on her long-term ability to take the company forwards. Perhaps most remarkably of all, a year after assuming the mantle she crossed the Atlantic to take up a place at Harvard, where she studied Economics for four years. Throughout, she remained at the forefront of Poilâne, making regular trips back to Paris between classes, when she was unable to meet the demands of the business remotely. When asking Apollonia about her studies now, some years later, her response is refreshingly free of the expected touchstones: the difficulties of balancing her two roles; the daunting academia that presumably goes hand in hand with an Ivy League degree in Economics. Instead, she says that Harvard gave her ‘a sense of perspective. It was great meeting people from an entirely different background [who challenged] my thought processes. I really feel I learnt a lot from them, and it just opened my mind to other things.’
This expansive, outwards looking point of view (‘curiosity and that sense of openness to new things is something that was forged in my childhood’ she says) is matched by a pronounced tenderness for the long-serving, resolutely loyal employees of Poilâne. ‘I think there are really good parallels to be drawn between the way you bake bread and the way you run a family business,’ says Apollonia, stressing that she believes ‘her role is putting together the right ingredients at the right time… And in my experience the people I work with are the crucial ingredients.’ From other heads of international companies with turnovers that run into the tens of millions, such statements might sound contrived, trite even. Here though they carry a poignancy of sorts - hinting at the gratitude she so clearly feels for those who stood by her and guided her from such a young age to where she is now.
That position is at the helm of a uniquely successful business, from which Apollonia consolidates and expands the model set forth by her father. It is a both a boulangerie and a brand; a love letter to rustic craftsmanship and a slick global operation that sees a ‘concierge’ service Fed-Exing freshly baked products to admirers anywhere in the world. At a time when the finer things in life are increasingly defined by their heritage and artisanal qualities, the ethos of Poilâne - birthed some decades ago - proved to be startlingly prescient. It is impressive to see how Poilâne under Apollonia’s stewardship still embodies this. Expanding the commercial side of the business is one thing - Poilâne products are now available through a carefully curated selection of supermarkets in both France and the UK - but to do so whilst maintaining such dignified control over the rich tapestry of elements that first made the brand special all those years ago? That takes something special.
By James Darton for Semaine.