PARIS: Despite the strict lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the people of France have not been deprived of their daily baguettes or much-loved pain de campagne (country bread).
As in other countries, bakeries are considered an essential service and many remain open. However, not even one of the most famous has been able to completely escape the effects of the pandemic.
Apollonia Poilâne is the 33-year-old chief executive of the world-renowned, family-owned bakery Maison Poilâne. It was founded in 1932 by her grandfather, Pierre. Her father, Lionel, took over in the early 1970s and remained in charge until 2002, when he and Poilâne’s mother, Irena, died in a helicopter crash off the coast of Brittany.
Their daughter immediately took over the business. She was only 18, had just graduated from high school and was working in the bakery while she waited to begin studying for a degree in economics at Harvard the following year. She ran Maison Poilâne from Boston while completing her degree.
Work continues at the bakery during the pandemic but some changes have been unavoidable.
“In our business, we were always very careful and followed the highest standards of hygiene,” said Poilâne. “In the present situation, we have tried to do more, adapt to the specifics and strengthen our normal hygienic practices.
“In Paris, we have four shops, with the oldest being in Rue du Cherche-Midi. That one was founded by my grandfather, Pierre. We also have two shops in London. The bakers normally worked day and night shifts but we have had to reduce working hours. Our bakeries now open at 8 a.m. and close at 3 p.m., and we have one team that works that shift. We change the shift every week so each of the employees has a good, solid rest. At the same time we are trying to serve our clients according to what they want, and to cater as far as possible to their needs and desires.”
One of Maison Poilâne’s branches is normally devoted to producing bread for retailers and restaurants.
“Of course now, with the crisis, we have zero restaurant business but we do have our other business and we are trying to serve the small businesses and supermarkets who buy our bread,” said Poilâne.
Even though her business is still open and generating income, leaving it better placed than many others to survive the lockdown, it has not been immune to the adverse financial effects of the pandemic.
“It has certainly been affected but we are still selling bread,” she said. “We are in a privileged position but let us not fool ourselves — the situation is far from what it was before.”
Apollonia said that the London shops welcome many clients from the Gulf and all over the Arab world. Maison Poilâne is best known for its rustic sourdough bread, which is commonly called “miche” or “pain Poilâne” and shipped to more than 40 countries. The dough is made from stone-ground flour and sea salt, with no artificial additives, and baked over a wood fire.
Famous customers include Frank Sinatra, actor Gerard Depardieu and Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali. In 1971, the artist enlisted Lionel Poilâne to make an entire bedroom out of bread for him at Le Meurice hotel in Paris.