Baker who created the £10 loaf of bread dies in air crash
Saturday 02 November 2002
France's most celebrated and successful baker, Lionel Poilâne, and his wife, Irena, have died in a helicopter crash close to their privately owned island off the Breton coast.
M. Poilâne, 57, had developed a family bakery on the Left Bank in Paris into an internationally renowned business over the past 30 years. He insisted on using traditional, hand-made methods of baking bread in oak-fired ovens.
He shipped his outsize loaves of sourdough bread to a dozen countries each day. In British supermarkets, or in the Poilâne branch in Belgravia, west London, the loaves sell by the thousand, despite the price of almost £10 each.
M. Poilâne, a keen amateur pilot and president of the French helicopter federation, was at the controls of his Augusta 109 eight-seater machine when it crashed into the sea in thick fog, close to his converted fortress on the tiny island of Rimains, near Saint Malo, on Thursday night. His wife and a pet dog were the only other passengers.
Poilâne bread is prized by gourmet restaurants, and ordinary shoppers, all over Paris. Long queues gather each day outside the red-brick bakery on the Rue du Cherche-Midi in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the French capital.
M. Poilâne, who had two children, once attributed his success to the fact that his bread was made by "the most sophisticated equipment, the most extraordinarily complex machines in the world – people." He also boasted that the Poilâne logo, a windmill and a donkey, had become "as famous as a Toulouse-Lautrec painting".
He started in the bakery at the age of 14, eventually succeeding his father, Pierre, who had first prepared the 13in- wide (32cm), 4lb (2kg) loaves of crusty, sourdough bread in the 1930s.
It was the younger Poilâne who developed the business, opening other branches and exporting his loaves in the form of frozen, oven-ready dough to other European countries, Japan and the United States.
He insisted, though, that "intention" was more important than "extension". No matter how many "Poilâne" loaves were ordered, they had to be baked in the same way, using flour, sea salt, water and a piece of the previous batch of dough, called "the starter".
All the Poilâne loaves ever baked could, therefore, trace their genealogy through an unbroken chain of starter doughs to the first batch made in the 1930s. M. Poilâne wrote several books on bread-making and frequently travelled as an ambassador for French cuisine and the French way of life. His favourite phrase was: "Bread is the soul of civilisation." He once baked an entire bedroom suite out of bread for the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. A replica of Dali's bread chandelier hangs in the Poilâne bakery in Belgravia.
The Poilâne business employs 130 people worldwide and produces 15,000 loaves a days.
Its annual turnover is €10.7m (£6.8m). With the success of the business, M. Poilâne was able to buy the Ile de Rimains 15 years ago.
Customers at the original Poilâne bakery were stunned by the news of the baker's death. "I have lived in this area for 20 years," said one middle-aged customer, Anne Valentin, yesterday.
"Nowadays, in other bakeries, there are all kinds of fantasy breads. You don't know what's in them. A Poilâne is always the same. It's something you can rely on."
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