Flour. Water. Salt. Yeast.
A visit to the Poilâne Bakery
While I was in Paris for my youngest brother’s wedding, Sudeep Rangi and Appollonia Poilâne reached out and invited me to the bakery Poilâne. I love baking so I did not hesitate. I took my ten-year-old niece Parker, and off we went to a beautiful little bakery on a narrow Parisian street full of chic shops. At the storefront, customers queue halfway up the block, waiting to enter, select their baked goods, and pay. It’s all very mannered and something of a throwback, a reminder that the bread being baked is being touched by human hands, every step of the way.
Before the tour, we enjoyed a beautiful apple tart and saw a working chandelier made of bread.
We saw how bread and the small butter cookies called Punitions and croissants and other delights are made via wood fire baking, which is a bit different than baking in a gas or electric oven. Poîlane has a 90-year-old wood burning oven in which they make everything. It’s in the basement beneath the storefront, in a small, intensely but not unpleasantly hot kitchen at the foot of a steep, curving stone staircase. The stone floors are covered in a light sheen of flour. The ceiling is low. There are racks and wood for the fire, a work table, baskets for rising and proofing.
The tools they use today are the tools they used ninety years ago. The sourdough starter they use today is a descendant of the sourdough starter they used ninety years ago. Everywhere you look, in everything you taste, there are reminders of the importance of lineage, of history.
The door to the oven is small, but behind it, a vast space of hot bricks twenty feet deep, so hot in fact that if they were to dampen the flames, the oven would stay hot for something like two months. They bake twenty-four hours a day, year-round to keep up with the global demand for their products and everything functions with a hushed, almost reverent competence and care.
Appollonia Poilâne is a third generation baker who took over the family business at eighteen years old, when tragedy struck her family. In talking with her, it is clear she has a deep connection to her craft. Her partner Sudeep was equally interesting. He knows the bakery’s history intimately and is clearly just as invested in the business. There were so many interesting tidbits. For example, artists used to trade art for bread and the walls are lined with some of the paintings. Lionel Poilâne once made a bedroom set out of bread for Salvador Dalí, as one does because Dalí became intrigued with the idea of bread as an artistic medium.
Appollonia made bread making seem like the most interesting thing in the world, even to a ten year old. At one point, she was showing us the salt crystals she uses in her dough. She offered a crystal to my niece to taste, which absolutely delighted Parker who is curious and charming and asked lots of interesting questions.
It was also interesting to me. I love baking and I am known to make bread though it doesn’t always work out. I struggle, in particular, with baguettes. More often than not, they come out rock hard, edible but not pleasantly so. As for croissants, let’s just say they are my nemesis but one day I will succeed in making the perfect, flaky, buttery croissant. But what I love about bread making is, in part the final product, and knowing I am making something useful, but also in part the process.
Flour. Water. Salt. Yeast. That’s really all it takes to make bread. You can certainly complicate things by making a brioche (lots of butter) or milk bread (self-explanatory), but the fundamentals are generally the same. Which is sort of like writing. If you set your mind to it, you can write anything. How you go about it is generally the same. Words into sentences into paragraphs into a short story or an essay or, when you’re lucky, a book or two. Writing can be hard but it isn’t complicated.
Each loaf at Poilâne is made by a single baker. The same hands are responsible for any given baked good from start to finish. While we were visiting, a baker named Jean-Michel was tending to the fire and preparing a fresh batch of breads.
That approach to ownership of craft also reminded me of writing. In general, what we do as writers, we are responsible for, from beginning to end. Yes, we work with an editor at some point. But we are the craftsperson. We develop the ideas and flesh them out and reshape them until they are as close to what we consider perfect as possible. When we are done, we have to take ownership of our work.
After the bakery tour, we went up several flights of stairs to a private kitchen where we got to sample several different kinds of bread with butter and cheese and jam and tea. There was a dog, who desperately wanted to be held. Parker obliged. More than once I thought, “I will never feel more chic and urbane than this.” It was an awesome afternoon. My writing has taken me to the most unexpected places.
I suppose I am thinking about writing and process and ownership of the work because I’ve been dealing with writer’s block for several years now. Clearly I’ve been writing, but the work has been incredibly difficult for a lot of reasons—intense burnout, a hectic schedule, pressure, mostly internal, did I say intense burnout? I have such a hard time saying no which means the work piles up up up and I try to make a dent in the mountain but rarely do. It’s a boring story, really, but it’s also my present reality.
Certainly, I love writing as much as I ever have. I am working on some truly incredible projects but every day I think, “It has been five years since my last book was published. It has been five years. Oh my god, it has been five years.” I have two half-finished books that when finished will, I think, be pretty damn good. One is a book of writing advice and the other is a YA novel. When they finally make it into your hands, I hope you enjoy them.
Most days, I stare into the Word files and try to will the words to come. I know that no one can do this part of the work but me. Sometimes, I’ll write a few paragraphs in a slow trickle. I get a couple hundred words down and think, “That’s all I’ve got for today!” Mostly, they don’t. I stare at the screen until my eyes dry. I worry that soon, too long will have passed and no one will be interested in what I have to say anymore. Everything I’ve worked for will just, poof, disappear. This is not rational, I know. And I don’t need reassurance. I am not fishing for compliments. But I am saying that while I was in the bakery, watching bread be made with such beautiful method, I felt an intense pang of envy, wishing that writing could happen with just the right ingredients and a clearly defined process.
Flour. Water. Salt. Yeast. Knead. Rise. Heat. Wait.