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Daily Bread

Bread is to France what pasta is to Italy. Whether it's a baguette, a ficelle (a really skinny baguette, literally a "string") or a boule (round loaf), le pain (bread) is consumed daily by les Français (French people). And it must be said that some bread is definitely better than others. You can find ho-hum baguettes and bread at many a boulangerie (bakery) in Paris. But you can also find some of the finest bread on the planet if you know where to look.

Poilane BakeryOn a recent culinary tour of Paris, our group went on a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Poilâne bakery in the sixth arrondissement. Poilâne, one of the best artisanal and most renowned Parisian bakeries, has made bread-baking an art since 1932. Its claim to fame is making its bread à l'ancienne, or in the old style. The sourdough loaves are crafted with stone-ground flour, sea salt from Brittany and wood-fired ovens, as well as a deep commitment to quality and authenticity.

As we descended the stone steps to the bakery's cellar, we were met by the aromas of baking goods and rising bread. The wood-burning oven took up an entire wall and gave off a comfortable blanket of heat. A young French man in shorts and a t-shirt (despite the 30 degree December weather outside) was taking a batch of luscious chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers) out of the oven.

chaussons aux pommes

We watched as he then began to prepare the next batch of sourdough bread. After carefully measuring la farine (flour) and le sel de Guérande (Brittany sea salt), he placed them in the mixer with its bowl as large as a washtub. He flipped it on and left the mixer to do its thing while he checked the tower of loaves rising in baskets lined with linen. The process was fascinating to watch. I was floored to realize that even though Poilâne makes bread in copious quantities (they have 24 additional wood-burning ovens outside Paris), every loaf is still formed and cared for by hand.

From this original boulangerie on the rue du Cherche-Midi, Poilâne today has another Paris boutique as well as a shop in London. The company also supplies multiple Paris restaurants with its pain de campagne (country loaves). When you see "Pain Poilâne" on a menu, you are in for the real bread deal.

Since the French still require their pain quotidien (daily bread), I often see lines of customers flowing out the door of the main shop. The efficient and courteous sales staff makes quick work of the crowds, however, so having to faire la queue (wait in line) never becomes too embêtant (annoying). You can try one of the sample punitions (round, short-bread cookies) while waiting or just browsing the shelves of fabulous breads is a treat in itself.**

So I can keep the pleasure of Poilâne breads going even when I am not in Paris, I have developed a habit of making a quick bread stop on my way to Charles de Gaulle airport when headed back to the U.S. All of the breads travel and freeze incredibly well.*** Musts on my take-out list are:

  • 1 pain de campagne, otherwise known as la miche Poilâne, with its signature "P"
  • 2 pains aux noix (walnut loaves-to die for when served with ripe camembert or brie, preferably the raw milk kind)
  • 2 pavés aux raisins (raisin loaves-a breakfast favorite when toasted and spread with butter)
  • 1 tarte aux pommes (Note this item does not travel well--I enjoy the rustic pâtisserie with un café crème, or coffee with milk, at the airport before boarding the plane)
While the loaves are a little bulky in my carry-on, I am always thankful to have some wonderful and real tastes of France when in the U.S. Vive le pain français (long live French bread)!

* Poilâne is located at 8, rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondissement. It is open Monday through Saturday from 7:15am to 8:15pm.

les punitions** Les punitions, or punishments, were given by the founder's grandmother to her grandchildren. She would call the children to come get their punishment and when she opened her hands, she had a fistful of shortbread cookies instead!

*** Another trick is to order Poilâne breads to be delivered Stateside via Fedex. The "Sampler" pack includes a large rye loaf, two walnut loaves and a raisin loaf for approximately 41 euros.

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