Pierre Poilâne, whose shop at 6 Rue du Cherche-Midi may well be Paris's best-known bakery – his clients run from Madame Pompidou to Brigitte Bardot – has so far made his name and his bread by turning back to the Middle Ages.
But he was not content to produce 15 tons a week of delicious, old-style bread made from stone-ground flour, leavened slowly and naturally (by the sour-dough method by which some of the previous batch of dough is left over to start the next), and baked in wood-fired ovens, if you can imagine that in this day and age.
Now he has taken a step into the future by solving modern industrial baking's most difficult problem: how to make a cheap, mass-produced bread that is white yet tasty, digestible, and will keep without chemical treatment or artificial additives.
It is easy to appreciate the importance of this discovery if you consider that, in the United States, baking is the largest food industry in volume of production.
After 15 years of effort Mr. Poilâne, together with Dr. Etienne Blanchon, a medical researcher, has succeeded in making what has eluded other researchers for years.
By a patented biological and mechanical process – no chemicals are involved – to be announced shortly by their U.S. associate, American Machine and Foundry, they have made a powdered extract of bran, the indigestible but incredibly rich outer shell of wheat grains.
Plans for the commercial application of this discovery are well under way, but thus far remain secret.
Here's how Mr. Poilâne explains it:
"Bran is constructed much like a brick wall. The bricks are the rich cells it is made up of. They are so rich in fact that if you could make use of them, you could forget about all the other additives currently used by bakers.
"Unfortunately, the bricks are sealed in by a nearly indestructible cement, cellulose, which prevents the release of their contents. And yet nature knows how to release them.
"When you sow a grain of wheat, the sprouting begins in the wheat germ, which has branches running into the gluten (the part that makes dough sticky), the starch and the bran. But if you pull up a green shoot of wheat, all that is left of the original grain is the useless cellulose of the bran.
"Obviously, during the sprouting all the other components of bran have been used in assimilating and transforming the gluten and starch. And these two substances are precisely what today's white flour consists of.
"People are difficult. Ever since the Egyptians they have thought that white bread was better. The whiter, the purer. They also expect it to be tasty, and this is a contradiction because the whiter, the blander, not to mention the less nutritious."
Modern flour milling and industrial baking have carried this process to such an extreme that even bread-loving Frenchmen now eat only a quarter as much bread as they did at the turn of the century.
This is not entirely due to the tastelessness of the bread – for one thing, today's diet is more varied – but it is curious that as the general consumption of bread continues falling, Mr. Poilâne's sales keep rising.
The new extract will not make ordinary bread taste as good as the crusty, grayish, old-fashioned kind he makes. That is impossible, and modern mass-baking cannot afford the onerous, time-consuming processes required for it.
But the addition of this extract at the rate of one pound per hundred of flour makes an enormous improvement because it reduces the necessary amount of yeast – the most expensive ingredient in baking – and it fosters a natural fermentation which resembles that produced in sour-dough bread.
The advantage of this is that it completes the fermenting of the dough, which is only partial and artificial with yeast alone. Increased fermentation makes not only for a more natural, tastier and longer-keeping bread, but also for complete digestibility.