Pâte fermenté isn’t the be-all and end-all of sponges, you know. The poolish occupies its own special place in the preferment firmament, right next to the Italian biga (but we’ll talk more about that some other time).
You’ll recall in my opening remarks about baguettes that, in addition to various technologies like the deck oven, the pre-industrial French lacked the techniques required to produce fast-rising breads. One of the most important of these techniques was invented by the Poles, themselves no slouches at baking, and who were in fact — at least in matters of bread — at least equal to the Viennese. For they discovered that by adding a small amount of brewer’s yeast to a slurry of flour and water, a very flavorful — yet still relatively fast-rising — goop was created, one that could be added to fluffy fine breads to increase their complexity.
What kind of sponge is this? French bakers asked their Viennese teachers (who’d been employing the Polish preferment for decades by the mid-1800’s).
Ja, right, poolish…whatever.
And that’s how it’s been referred to in France (and pretty much everywhere else) ever since.