When you walk the streets in Paris, you'll notice that many of the cafes offer Croques Monsieurs or Madames. Like so many other clichés of French cuisine--French onion soup and the French omelet come to mind--most of these spots advertising their Croques Monsieurs and Madames aren't worth a second glance. However, if you're looking for a honest-to-goodness Croque keep your eyes open for those little signs that read "Pain Poilâne."
Poilâne was started in 1932 by Pierre Poilâne, and what distinguished Poilâne bread was its use of stoneground flour and natural leavener at a time when bread baking in France was rapidly moving away from those traditional methods and towards "modern" baking methods. By the immediate post-World War II Poilâne was already completely anomalous in a country that had fully embraced white breads. Pierrre's son Lionel took over the operation beginning in the 1970s and he began to completely overhaul the way Poilâne baked its bread, introducing an extensive number set of changes that he labeled "retro-innovation." Lionel's program combined a deep respect for the tradition of French bread baking borne out of a profound sense of the history of bread baking with a hard, scientific approach to the technical aspects of making and baking bread. I remember reading a long Smithsonian profile on Lionel Poilâne back in the mid-1990s and being fascinated with the kind of improvements he'd made to the firm's traditional ovens. I also remember spending hours contemplating what Poilâne meant when he said that bread was closer to beer than it was to other foods, including baked goods (or at least it should be).
It's safe to say that Lionel Poilâne's program of "retro-innovation" was one of the principal thrusts behind the international resurgence of artisanal sourdough baking over the last quarter of a century. Sadly, Lionel Poilâne passed away a couple of years ago in a helicopter accident. The Poilâne firm has continued to undergo change since his demise. These days the enterprise includes two stores in Paris and a store in London, as well as a mail order service that ships Poilâne's distinctive sourdough loaves all over the world. The simplicity of the original storefront on Rue Cherche-Midi in St-Germain des Près belies the complexity of the operation, but this storefront is still the perfect setting for Poilâne's rustic loaves sold whole, by the half, or by the quarter.
When our friend Camilla asked us if we wanted anything from Paris just before she hopped on a plane to go on vacation there, we put in an order for a quarter loaf from Poilâne. By the time that loaf got to us it was a little worse for wear, but those traditional sourdoughs are a hearty breed and it was still making for the best breakfast toasts you can imagine. But what we most excited about making with our Poilâne loaf were Croque Madames. We got some Gruyère cheese, some nice ham, and some eggs, cooked up our Croque Madames and served them with a salade composée and a couple of beers. It was a little taste of Paris right in our own kitchen and it was heaven. Thank you, Camilla. Thank you, Lionel.