The rich and buttery cookies by La Mère Poulard have a beautiful story behind them. Years ago on the historic coast of northwest France, a woman named Annette Poulard had a dilemma with her inn- pilgrims came to stay but seemed to come and go, like the tides sweeping the bay…
How could she make them stay long enough to feel at home? Her solution is a fitting example of the “savoir faire” that went into her cooking and hospitality, and which is now a guiding principle of La Mère Poulard’s business today, and the company is named in her honor.
The fabled Mont Saint-Michel and its surrounding bay paint a picturesque backdrop for the story of Annette Poulard. She came to Normandy in 1872 as Annette Boutiaut, a maid for Edouard Corroyer, the architect that the French government had entrusted with restoring the imposing Abbey.
Mont Saint Michel began as a chapel in the eighth century, when the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared in a dream to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, instructing him to build a church. Benedictine monks came in the 10th century and built an Abbey, which would become the formidable structure that still stands today. During the French Revolution, though, the majestic Abbey was converted into a prison for clerical opponents of the new regime and political prisoners. The Abbey suffered damage during this time, which prompted influential citizens like Victor Hugo to fight for the restoration of La Merveille (or “The Marvel”), its name signifying its divine beginnings.
In comes architect Edouard Corroyer, and with him Annette Boutiaut, a young woman from Burgundy. After her arrival, Annette met Victor Poulard, the son of a baker, and they were married in 1873 and together opened the Hostellerie de la Tête d’Or.
Annette, whose solicitous ways would earn her the affectionate nickname “La Mère Poulard,” was also a savvy business woman. Since she had started working at a young age, she had little formal education. But she made up for that lack by studying spelling and arithmetic with a nun from the Abbey.
She soon began to study another problem: the many pilgrims and visitors who made the arduous journey to Mont Saint-Michel left almost as quickly as they came. How to make her inn a destination in its own right, instead of simple stopping point on the pilgrims’ journey?
One of her most memorable strategies began, appropriately, in her kitchen. She resolved to make an omelette so delicious and comforting that guests would make a point of staying and returning, year after year. The resulting dish was rich and soufflé-like and would soon become legendary. Gourmands throughout France hankered after her secret recipe—some speculated that she stirred in a glass of Bordeaux wine as she beat the eggs. Others thought the light and fluffy texture could only be explained by Madame Poulard removing one out of every three egg whites.
Madame Poulard, for her part, couldn’t believe people thought she would waste so many egg whites. In her correspondence with the librarian of the Academy of Gastronomes, she explained that the key to her omelette was that she and her kitchen staff always used the best and freshest butter from the countryside (and they kept a watchful eye to ensure the omelette didn’t overcook on the fire).
“Voilà tout mon secret,” she exclaimed – that’s my whole secret! Butter is a classic ingredient in nothern French cuisine, for the damp maritime climate is favorable to cultivating dairy and raising cows, and La Mère Poulard bakery continues to master this tradition with their delicious “palet” butter cookies.