30, 50, or 100 years ago, most bakers had a stable clientele who bought bread once or twice a week. Bread-buyers were on a first-name basis with their baker, and bought the same style of loaf every day. They stopped and spoke with the baker for a few minutes, sometimes hearing how quickly the dough had leavened or how difficult that year’s flour was to work.
50 or 100 years ago most bakers knew the men who milled their flour, and had it ground according to their taste and needs. Milling was an important part of the baking process; the baker discussed how he wanted his flour with the miller, describing how much bran and germ he preferred, and how long he needed it aged.
100 years ago, most grain millers knew the farmers who grew their wheat and spelt. Working with the farmers, they learned all about the quality of the kernels of wheat, rye, spelt, or corn that they were grinding into flour. Millers knew if crop damage had occurred, how cold or hot the growing season had been, and what the yield was like with respects to previous years.
30, 50, or 100 years ago, this chain of personal relationships tied a man buying his bread and sharing a few words with his baker to the miller, and even to the farmer. Today, we rarely know the person who bakes our daily bread, and our bakers, in turn, rarely have seen the mill where their flour is ground. It is even less likely that today’s baker personally knows the farmers who grow the grain that he eventually transforms into bread. The disintegration of the social network of food production is discouraging on a human level, but it is most important to consider the impact that this disintegration has had on the quality and nature of the foods we eat. The less a baker knows about the miller who grinds his flour, and the farmer who grows his grain, the more difficult it is for him to consistently bake high-quality artisan bread.
One man in France is tying the chain together again, weaving a net of social connections between primary and secondary producers. His intuitive understanding of how to synchronize modern aspects of distribution and promotion with bread production has created a small miracle, both from a gastronomic and from a cultural point of view. Lionel Poilâne took over his father’s bakery in the early 1970s (Pierre Poilâne founded the bakery in 1932). Poilâne already had a reputation as an excellent, if slightly anachronistic, baker thanks to Pierre Poilâne’s dedication to quality and his insistent use of brown wheat flours instead of popular white flour. However, when Lionel arrived on the scene Poilâne took a new direction. Lionel Poilâne understood that to try to recreate the past was not feasible. Not everybody wants to return to a time when we know our baker by first name, but they are still interested in eating quality bread that the social network of production is so capable of creating.
The most important thing about Poilâne bread is the most basic. It probably is the best you will ever taste; a mammoth crust protects a tangy-sour center that you can tear into long filaments. Poilâne has 150 collaborators that he refers to as compagnons – an untranslatable term that can refer either to a helpmeet or to a partner. Poilâne’s use of that term is not accidental; his connection to the bakers that produce the bread that bears his name is more significant than the bond that binds most employers to their employees. Every morning, Poilâne receives a loaf of bread produced by each and every one of his compagnons in Paris and the surrounding countryside. Every loaf is a representative sample of at least a hundred loaves turned out by that baker in the space of a morning’s work.
By tasting a few moist crumbs of every one of his compagnon ‘s loaves, Poilâne learns a lot about the quality of the breads that are arriving on Parisian tables every morning. He and his associates smell, taste, observe, and touch over 100 sample loaves of bread, thereby learning about the quality of thousands of loaves of bread that the compagnons have baked. If they notice a loaf that has not developed its full yeasty-sweet flavor, or that is missing the sour tang that characterizes naturally leavened breads, Poilâne can instantly begin damage control by recalling only those loaves that are not up to snuff.
This is Poilâne’s quality control system, and it is a perfect illustration of a founding idea at the bakery, ‘retro-innovation’, a term that in his words means ‘combining the best of tradition with the best of modernity and technology’. The logic behind ‘retro-innovation’ is to use tools of modern distribution and information without corrupting the artisan quality of a product.
The breadth of the concept of ‘retro-innovation’ makes it difficult to apply effectively; ‘retro-innovation’ could easily justify, say, the packaging of fine aged wine in soda cans. If the wine is aged in barrels and bottles, and then transferred to a convenient and easy-to-distribute soda can for drinking – it could be a great example of a ‘retro-innovation’ that makes an artisan product accessible to a wider market, right? Hundreds of food producers have fallen into the trap of modernizing the wrong aspect of their production and sacrificing the territoriality of their product by ‘innovating’ too much and eliminating a few vital ‘retro’ steps. The cheese-maker who switches to microbial rennet or the wine-maker who tosses out the oak in favor of stainless steel – these choices can cut out the important stages of production that give a food its character. In Poilâne’s hands, ‘retro-innovation’ is a valuable tool because he has a knack for identifying the procedures that are important and those that can be streamlined into more modern techniques.
To Poilâne, the ‘best of modernity and technology’ means the best of things like modern transportation networks and large marketplaces. To maintain the ‘best of tradition’, Poilâne’s bakers use natural yeasts to leaven dough made from a mix of spelt and wheat flours grown almost without nitrogenous fertilizer. To ensure this, Poilâne works closely with farmers, encouraging them to use fewer industrial fertilizers and to increase yield by ploughing back stubble very late in the season. Poilâne’s ‘retro’ technique extends to the formation of each of his loaves by hand, and to their leavening in linen-lined wicker baskets (linen is a natural bacteria-inhibitor, it is important both in the physical appearance and the microbial quality of the bread).
Yet, Poilâne could never be confused with a rustic country bakery. The packaging and marketing is beautiful, the product is reliable and standard, store salespeople speak working Japanese and English, and bread is sold at high-class venues in Paris and England, and shipped overnight around the world. Could it be that Poilâne is the best of both worlds? Tastes like it.
Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.
In the Photo: Lionel Poilâne (© M. Alexandre)
Many thanks to Charlotte Paressant, who conducted the interview with Poilâne.