Renowned bakery continues to give French their daily bread despite COVID-19 threat

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Updated 01 May 2020

Renowned bakery continues to give French their daily bread despite COVID-19 threat

  • Maison Poilâne, founded in 1932, has remained open to provide French people their daily baguettes or pain de campagne
  • The bakery's famous customers include Frank Sinatra, actor Gerard Depardieu and Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali

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.

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 11 July 2020

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.