The children are now off school and I ring the Poilâne bakery in Elizabeth Street, between Sloane Square and Victoria tube stations, for a guided tour of the premises. On the said day, we turn up in this lovely shopping street and get down to the basement where resides the enormous bread oven: all 5 metres of furnace beyond the studded metal doors!
Two lovely French bakers explain to us in Moliere’s tongue why Poilâne bread is so unique. All the flour comes from France where it is milled using the old mill-stone technique and still contains wheatgerm and bran so the final dough is very tasty and healthy. The bread is always started from the “chef”, a little quantity of dough reserved from the last batch: no other raising agent. The dough is mixed in a gigantic trough with huge kneading hooks that can work up to 500 kg of flour. All of us could easily fit around a tea-tray in there! But the most impressive is the wood-burning oven, that is left on all day and night, 6 and a half days a week. It is only turned off on Saturday afternoon because no bread will be made for the sunday.
There are huge wooden spatulas hanging in rafters on the ceiling to put the breads in the furnace. It takes 6 hours for a batch, from start to shop. Alain talk us through the process and my children are mesmerised. Bread comes alive under the strong kneading hands of the younger of the two bakers while he shapes the raisin loaves and then lay them to rest in their pans. For the round bread, the dough is laid inside straw “banetons” to raise for 1 and a half hour. Then they are baked for a whole hour at 280°.
The oven has a special bucket for water so the bread takes on a lovely golden colour. I try to remember that next time I bake my own… The shifts are very long and the heat down there is quite oppressing but our bakers are passionate about what they do.
Once back in the shop, we taste their delicious cookies and go home with half a kilo of the sourdough bread. For dinner, I offer a Poilane tartine party and each of us spread long slices of bread with anything they like: tuna mayo, salad, ham, cheese, onion chutney etc…. Great day out and in!