Lionel Poilane, France's most celebrated baker, has died in a helicopter accident. Poilane (left) was at the controls of the aircraft when it came down in heavy fog off the coast of Brittany on Thursday 31 October.

Poilane, 57, was travelling on Thursday evening with his wife, Irena, to the couple’s second home on the private Ile des Rimains.

Thick fog obscured the landing site, and it was on Poilane’s second attempt to bring the aircraft down that the accident happened, according to commander Jerome Erulin of the French coast guard. Divers recovered Mr Poilane’s body on Friday morning, but it is understood that of his wife is still missing.

Poilane inherited the family bakery from his father Pierre Poilane in 1970. In the 1980s he set about turning a one-shop Parisian bakery – in rue Cherche-Midi – into a multi-million pound empire famed for its use of age-old techniques and just a few high quality, unadulterated raw ingredients.

The large Poilane bakery on the outskirts of Paris, built in the shape of a doughnut, uses 24 old-fashioned wood-burning ovens fuelled by the best aromatic maple, pine and teak off-cuts.

Poilane will be remembered worldwide for ‘pain Poilane’, a stone-milled 4lb (1.9kg) sourdough ‘boule’ that reputedly stays fresh for 10 days or more. The large crusty round loaf went on sale in Britain for the first time in September 2000, soon after Poilane opened his first foreign bakery – in Elizabeth Street behind London’s Victoria Station. The loaves are sold at Waitrose supermarkets where a hefty price tag does little to deter shoppers.

Poilane bread is shipped to America, the rest of Europe and the Far East.

Poilane had a particular love of pre-war Burgundy and was featured in Decanter magazine’s July 2000 Bin End. There he described both bread and wine as the ‘pure product of human beings’. ‘They have always been chosen – even before Christ – for their religious significance, as symbols of life,’ he told Decanter.

The Poilanes leave their two daughters, Appollonia, 18, and Athene, who is 16.

Written by Liz Hughes4 November 2002