In 1789 when the French stormed Versailles, causing Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI to seek “haven” in the Tuileries, it is said that the rioters sought to return with the royal family’s “baker, the baker’s wife, and the apprentice” — such was the importance of bread to the ancien regime. Indeed, the events that led up to the overthrow primarily grew out of frustration from the high price of bread — unhappy Parisians wanted a baguette, not cake.
If only Poilâne had been in business in 1789, he might have saved Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI from a more awful fate. Poilâne is, indeed, synonymous with the word bread (pain) in Paris, and is consistently viewed as offering the finest bread in Paris, if not France. Today in Paris there are over 1,300 traditional boulangerie-pâtisseries, and they are truly a staple of the community. For one thing, bread is bought daily and most always within four hours of consumption. But everyone has their favorites and and when you see a large line at a bakery it means one thing — the neighborhood knows where to go.
Paris is a walking city and the local baker plays an important source of everyday life. That’s why there’s an abundance of boulangeries and you will rarely have to travel farther than five or six blocks to retrieve a loaf of bread, croissant or pastry.
Some bakers are best known for their baguettes, others for flaky croissants, for clafoutis, sablé (a buttery cookie), or quiches. Some of the best boulangeries have a fantastic baguette or croissant but fall completely flat with dessert. Others have brilliant pastries, but the baguette may be barely edible. So if you are a real stickler, you may end up heading to one boulangerie for a baguette, another patisserie for an eclair, and a third for a tarte citron meringue (a lemon meringue tarte). Of course, that doesn’t even include daily trips to the boucherie for your meat, the fruit and vegetable stand, and the fromagerie to buy your cheese and butter.
One habit I simply love is watching Parisians tuck a baguette under their arm and walk home, tearing off pieces of the end and nibbling away. Children learn this at an early age, and almost always hand over a mangled loaf by the time they get home — not exactly what you would place on the table with guests, but then again, everyone understands a good baguette is just too irresistible when warm out of the oven.
Poilâne’s signature round loafs are world famous, and I have even seen them in the trademarked Poilâne bag at my local grocery store in Seattle (not knowing at the time what this funny $7.00 quarter-loaf cut of bread was all about). Poilâne’s bread remains a favorite among restaurants in Paris, as many serve sandwiches or tartines using the crusty slices Poilâne produces.
The original Poilâne bakery on the chic rue du Cherche Midi is worth a visit, at least to check out the staff in their smart linen smocks, and the Poilâne loafs with their signature monogram arranged on the window sills and shelves. What is surprising is how small the store is. It gets crowded with just six people are inside (which instantly occurs the minute a crowd of Japanese tourists comes by).
Address: 8 rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006 Paris
Hours: Monday-Saturday (7:15 am-8:15 p.m.)