He apparently died when the helicopter he was piloting went down in fog.
-- Agence France Presse, November 1, 2002 ("Bread giant Poilane presumed dead in chopper crash"): "Lionel Poilane, head of the internationally renowned French bread-making business, was presumed dead Friday after the helicopter he was piloting crashed off his private island on the Brittany coast. Divers who traced the wreckage of the aircraft in waters near the port of Cancale said it contained a body, though they were unable to confirm if it was that of Poilane or of his wife, who was accompanying him."
This is a piece I just submitted to the Prov. Journal op-ed page about
Lionel Poilane, who was tragically killed recently. Thought you might like
to see it and say a prayer or take a moment of silence.
Lionel Poilane: R.I.P.
By Peter Reinhart
I just tearfully spent the last half hour reading tributes on the Bread
Baker's Guild of America website (www.bbga.org). They were written by
bakers across America for the Parisian bread baker Lionel Poilane, who died
on October 31, along with his wife Irena. He was flying a helicopter to a
small island that he owned, Ile de Rimians, off the coast of Breton where
he often retreated during holidays. Apparently, inclement weather and thick
fog caused the crash as he tried to land. The loss of _Monsieur Poilane_,
who was only 57, is tragic for the culinary community, as he was considered
the single most influential bread baker in the world.
My wife and I had the privilege of meeting Poilane in 1996 while in Paris
where I was researching a bread book. His _boulangerie_, founded by his
grandfather in an old convent on the street known as Rue de Cherche Midi,
in the Latin Quarter, has for many years been a pilgrimage point for food
lovers from all over the world. Unlike most Parisian bakeries that make
dozens of bread and pastry variations, _Boulangerie Poilane_ featured only
a few products, most notably an apple tart and a two kilo sourdough bread
that Lionel referred to as a _miche_ (round country loaf), but that
everyone else called _Pain Poilane_. He was gentlemanly and generous to us
the day we visited, giving us a lengthy tour and interview as well as two
loaves (they sold for about $14 each in American currency - ahh, such
beautiful beautiful bread). He delighted in showing us a chandelier he had
made from bread dough for his friend, Salvadore Dali, thirty years before.
When Dali died it was returned to Poilane where it was wired and outfitted
with bulbs that lit his office, shining on walls covered with dozens of oil
paintings of bread, of _Pain Poilane_. Over a number of years these
paintings had been traded to Poilane for bread by hungry artists, some of
whom are now quite famous. He was a shrewd businessman.
His Paris bakery was far too small to meet the ever-growing demand for his
bread so he opened a larger facility about 20 kilometers outside of Paris
in _Bievre'_. When we arrived I was immediately impressed with the concept
of the place. Poilane has always been known as unbendingly traditional in
his methods and values ("Using old ways is a glorious way to make new
things. The man with the best future is the one with the longest memory.").
This, more even than the bread, is what made him such an iconic figure in
the food world. He believed that the craft of artisan bread depended on the
two most important tools ever devised, the hands. For that reason he called
his facility a _manufactore'_, which literally means "made by hand." He
firmly believed that a loaf of bread, being a work of art, ought to be made
from start to finish by one baker, not a team. Because he believed more in
hand work than on mechanical devises, the only power tool that his
apprentice bakers had was an electric mixer, large enough to mix one big
batch per baker. Everything else was pretty basic: an old fashioned balance
scale, wooden workbench, wood-fired oven, bentwood baskets for raising the
dough before baking, and a razor blade for slashing, or scoring the loaves
just before they went into the oven.
His challenge was to figure out how to replicate the quality and processes
of his 80 year old bakeshop on _Cherche Midi_, with its 300 loaf capacity,
in a new facility that needed to produce up to 15,000 loaves a day. To stay
true to his baking philosophy he had to do this without compromising the
craft values that he held dear and upon which he had built his
reputation. Here was the genius in his concept: he built a round building
that looked like a large doughnut (or bagel). It was open in the center but
with 24 small bakeshop stalls along the inside of the hub. Each stall had
its own wood burning oven just like the one in Paris and each was turned
over to one baker who, during his half day shift, was responsible for
producing 300 loaves per day, just as in Paris. Every day the bakers sent
one of their loaves to Poilane for critique and then he would make regular
site visits to work with them on their technique.
The open center of the building, the "doughnut hole", was a huge warehouse
where trucks drove in to regularly deliver loads of small hardwood logs,
more than I'd ever seen piled in one place. A large metal claw was mounted
on a track above the woodpile, like a big version of one of those amusement
games where you try to grab a prize with a claw to send down a chute. There
were twelve chutes along the curved wall separating logs in the inner
warehouse from the bakeshops on the other side. The claw dropped the wood
through the chute where it tumbled out on the bakeshop side, there to be
gathered by the bakers, stacked, and _voila!_ He had created a replica of
Cherche Midi, 24 times over, twice a day, assuring any consumer of _Pain
Poilane_ a product equal in quality and integrity to the Paris version.
Pain Poilane_ made Lionel Poilane a rich man, but he in turn enriched the
lives not only of his customers but also of the artisan baking community
everywhere, especially in the United States. A few years ago the Bread
Baker's Guild of America brought him to Philadelphia for its annual awards
dinner and honored him for setting the standard to which the entire bread
movement strived. He was both a bread baker and also a writer and bread
philosopher; he had wheat grown to his exacting specifications by
personally chosen farmers; he insisted on using expensive Brittany sea salt
when others insisted that no one could tell the difference; he revitalized
in France the use of natural, wild yeast starters and whole wheat flour
when everyone else in the mainstream had switched to commercial yeast and
white flour. He brought back nobility to a once honored national craft that
had become, over time, simply a national business.
Lionel Poilane taught us many life and baking lessons. One of his most
repeated quotes has served as a kind of spiritual direction for the artisan
bakers in America. He said, "What many bakers don't realize is that good
wheat can make bad bread. The magic of bread baking is in the manipulation
and the fermentation. What has been lost is this method." Rest in peace.