French Bread In The City: Procuring Poilane’s Famous Miche
As a francophile, I consider it a major character flaw in myself that I have never visited Poilâne, Paris’ famous bakery, or even tasted their bread, at least, that is, until two weeks ago.
You may have seen the New Yorker Magazine story about Apollonia Poilâne, the third generation owner. In a nutshell, Apollonia’s grandfather opened the first bakery in 1932. Her father, Lionel, took over the business in 1973. When Lionel and his wife were killed in a helicopter crash in 2002, their daughter Apollonia took over the business at a tender age of 18. She proceeded to attend and graduate from Harvard, where she managed the business in between her studies. Today, Poilâne sells 200,000 loaves of their formidable sourdough miche in 2500 locations.
According to the story, several loaves of Poilâne’s miche are flown into New York City each week and sold in the venerable gourmet market, Agata and Valentina. Agata and Valentina just opened a second location on University and 10th in the Village, just a few short blocks from our office. So James and I went right away to pick up a loaf and finally sink our teeth in to the bread that essentially saved artisanal French bread from extinction so many decades ago.
However, it was not going to be that easy. In fact, I have a sense that buying government secrets may be just a little less complicated. And so our adventure began.
The first week, we stopped at the bakery counter, and there was no Poilâne bread to be found. It was only delivered twice a week, first to Agata and Valentina’s on 1st and 79th, and then several loaves get trucked down to the Village. We learned that we had to get on The List, a composition book with names scrawled on the first several pages. So we put James’ name and phone number on The List. And we waited for The Call.
We went back the next week to see what the story was. We spoke to a manager to try to decipher the process. And we put our name on The List again. And we waited for The Call.
Finally, the third week came and still no bread. So we went back in and spoke with the person at the bread counter. She told us the bread would arrive from Paris the next day. This time, we put my name on The List. We were not taking any more chances.
We called the next day, and yes, the bread had arrived. But it was still up at 79th Street. It would be on the first truck downtown in the morning. So we called the next day at 10AM, and then at 11AM, and still no truck. However, the person on the other end of the line promised to call me when it arrived.
Finally, at 1:30, my phone rang! I asked them to please put 1/4 of a loaf on hold, like a coveted best seller that just got returned to the library. As soon as I could, I rushed over to the market and straight to the bread counter. The only thing on the top shelf was 1/4 of a miche, presumably with my name on it.
“Did you reserve that piece?” the lady behind the counter asked me. Yes.
“Did a young man call you directly about it?” she continued. Yes, about 45 minutes ago.
“Did you give him your social security number and sing the full first verse of the Marseillaise?” Oui, said I. (That part isn’t quite true, but I definitely hummed a few bars as I was racing over there.)
Her demeanor brightened immediately, and she reached high up to grab the quarter loaf, which weighed in at about 1.2 lbs. She even offered to give me the authentic paper bag from Poilâne, with the lovely images of the grains they use in their breads. Mission accomplished!
We held an impromptu weeknight celebratory dinner with a friend, also named Karen, near Washington Square Park, accompanied by broiled skirt steaks and steamed then seared broccoli with garlic, and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône.
The bread really is wonderful. The crust is thick and chewy, and bread inside is dense and pleasingly flavorful. The sourdough flavor is much more subtle than a typical American sourdough, yet still robust. We ate till we couldn’t eat anymore, and we still had leftovers. I understand the bread will keep for several days. So we left the leftover piece with our friend, who enjoyed it for breakfast for the next two days.
The next time we are in Paris, our first stop will be Poilâne. But until then, we’ll start the procurement process all over with Agata & Valentina. It has been two weeks now, and no Call…
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