HEAVEN ON A PLATE

Chef Tony Bil­son meets his maker in an idyllic spa vil­lage in the south­west of France

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

HEAVEN awaits the trav­eller two hours’ drive from Bordeaux, in Eu­ge­nie les Bains, a pretty lit­tle French Basque vil­lage nes­tled in the foothills of the Pyre­nees. When I ar­rive I no­tice more cafes, bak­eries and food shops than seem to be war­ranted by the pop­u­la­tion of this small, out of the way place, but this vil­lage is the Holy Grail of gas­tronomes the world over.

Once a re­mote ham­let, Eu­ge­nie les Bains is the site of Les Pres d’Eu­ge­nie, the spa ho­tel and cel­e­brated restau­rants of Michel and Chris­tine Guer­ard.

Chef Michel Guer­ard is the god­fa­ther of mod­ern cook­ing and his wife Chris­tine Guer­ard cre­ates an en­vi­ron­ment of unique beauty for those who come to eat or stay.

Guer­ard changed the way food ap­pears on our plates when he pub­lished his first book, Cui­sine Minceur (Thin Cui­sine), in 1976, fol­lowed two years later by his sec­ond and great­est book, Cui­sine Gour­mande.

His fresh vi­sion un­masked the es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ents of his dishes. The main el­e­ment, a piece of duck, for ex­am­ple, ap­peared sep­a­rately on the plate, and its gar­nish — which in­cluded baby veg­eta­bles — be­came an in­te­gral part of the dish rather than ar­riv­ing as veg­eta­bles on the side. Sauces had no flour. And he brought back the use of sor­bets be­tween cour­ses, but now lower in sugar and freshly churned.

Guer­ard ap­peared on the cover of Time mag­a­zine in the mid-1970s and be­came the world’s first mod­ern chef su­per­star.

When the Guer­ards mar­ried, Chris­tine’s fam­ily owned a chain of spa ho­tels and the young cou­ple were given the one at Eu­ge­nie les Bains, one of the most ob­scure ho­tels in the group to man­age.

In those days the Basque coun­try barely had elec­tric­ity or roads, let alone the in­fra­struc­ture nec­es­sary for to­day’s tourism in­dus­try. The re­gional cen­tre, Mont de Marsan, how­ever, did sup­port a so­phis­ti­cated lo­cal cul­ture, be­ing an im­por­tant home to France’s air de­fences.

The cui­sine of the south­west has in­flu­enced us to the ex­tent that, to­day, con­fit de ca­nard is a ubiq­ui­tous dish across the world, but in those early days it was re­garded as crude peas­ant fare, to be ac­com­pa­nied by even cruder wines.

It is amus­ing to look at the early pho­tos of Guer­ard and his team, with their dated uni­forms and hair­styles — girls in bee­hives, boys with long hair and droopy mous­taches — but I’m im­pressed to see how the ho­tel, a mem­ber of the Re­lais & Chateaux group and long owned by the Guer­ards, has grown into the es­tab­lish­ment it is to­day, with its el­e­gant build­ings and lux­u­ri­ant gar­dens and ponds. Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand was of­ten a guest in the re­stored res­i­dence, le Cou­vent des Herbes, dur­ing his pres­i­dency of France.

The Guer­ards em­ploy a group of her­itage builders and ar­chi­tects to pre­serve and de­velop what has be­come a cel­e­bra­tion of the cul­ture of the re­gion. For me, a visit here is a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Guer­ard is im­bued with a mod­esty that en­dears him to his guests and his staff. Orig­i­nally a pas­try cook at the Ho­tel de Cril­lon in Paris, his chef, Jean Delaveyne, en­cour­aged him to fol­low his own ideas, to be­come an artist.

When I visit, we talk about the chef’s art and de­cide that good chefs use their knowl­edge of tech­niques and pro­duce to re­veal the in­trin­sic beauty of the food. It is an in­ti­mate thing, an act of love, that is only ex­pe­ri­enced in situ, in the mo­ment.

Guer­ard main­tains his orig­i­nal vi­sion but the hi-tech kitchen he is presently in­stalling may trig­ger new de­vel­op­ments.

Guer­ard’s haute cui­sine restau­rant at Les Pres d’Eu­ge­nie glitters with sil­ver and glass. Din­ers wait at their ta­bles with an an­tic­i­pa­tion that is ful­filled when the dishes ar­rive and the sil­ver bells, les cloches , are lifted from the plates, re­leas­ing the per­fect aro­mas of the food.

In the past, dishes in for­mal ser­vice might have been cov­ered be­fore be­ing brought to the ta­ble, but Guer­ard in­tro­duced the idea of re­mov­ing the bells, with a flour­ish, at the ta­ble, un­cov­er­ing the full ex­pe­ri­ence un­der the diner’s nose.

This new use of bells has of­ten been im­i­tated by lesser chefs, but what may seem pre­ten­tious else­where serves a mag­i­cal pur­pose here.

One of Guer­ard’s new dishes is a drunken lob­ster: the live lob­ster is im­bued with ar­magnac and is lightly cooked in the shell. If the dish were brought to the ta­ble un­cov­ered, the har­mony of its ap­pear­ance and aroma would be lost. In­stead, as the bell is lifted, din­ers are trans­ported by its del­i­cacy, an im­por­tant pre­lude to en­joy­ing the dish.

The high gas­tron­omy of the main restau­rant is not the only ex­pe­ri­ence at Eu­ge­nie les Bains. The Guer­ards have also cre­ated a small restau­rant de­voted to re­gional cook­ing. They have re­built an old farm­house in the gar­dens of Les Pres d’Eu­ge­nie to cre­ate the rus­tic inn l’Au­berge de la Ferme aux Grives.

At Ferme aux Grives the din­ing room is dom­i­nated by a large open fire­place where ducks and suck­ling pigs slowly roast on a large open spit next to the ta­ble. The art of the chef here is to cel­e­brate the lo­cal cook­ing and cul­ture.

The ho­tel at Eu­ge­nie les Bains is not just a re­mote hideaway for ar­magnac-sip­ping dilet­tantes (al­though it is that too, thank heav­ens). As a spa it of­fers respite, a place to re­lax, be bathed, mas­saged and looked af­ter be­fore re­turn­ing to the ham­burger-eat­ing world of mod­ern com­merce.

Lux­ury ho­tels around the world have their spas and spa cuisines, but this is an orig­i­nal, the prod­uct of the Guer­ards’ dream and not of mar­ket re­search.

There is less talk of chakra-tun­ing here than in the Asian-in­flu­enced spas, and more talk about the med­i­cal ben­e­fits of the lo­cal wa­ters and mud. The wa­ters of Eu­ge­nie come nat­u­rally heated and sul­phurous from darker, nether worlds.

Spa guests come to stay for a week or two. They are first eval­u­ated by doc­tors and a regime is pre­scribed to help cure their ail­ments. An­gel­i­cally clad in white gowns, the curistes wan­der the grounds as if in some fu­tur­is­tic vi­sion, sep­a­rated by their dress from the gas­tro­nomic temp­ta­tions of the restau­rant and inn. But the temp­ta­tions are al­ways re­newed and can be ir­re­sistible.

In the new state-of-the-art kitchen at Les Pres, Guer­ard con­tin­ues his in­ven­tive and con­tem­po­rary cui­sine. At la Ferme aux Grives he cel­e­brates re­gional cook­ing, and for the curistes he has cre­ated an im­proved bio-ac­tive ver­sion of his cui­sine minceur , which he calls minceur ac­tif .

On my pre­vi­ous visit a friend re­placed my mod­est re­quests on the break­fast menu with a tick on ev­ery dish. I can rec­om­mend it. Tony Bil­son was a guest of Air France and Re­lais & Chateaux.

Check­list

Air France flies reg­u­larly from Paris to Bordeaux. By car from the air­port, take the N10 toll­way to Mont de Marsan, then the N124 to Eu­ge­nie les Bains. The drive takes you through the pine forests of Les Lan­des and the flat sandy land­scape of the Gironde es­tu­ary that leads to the Pyre­nees and the Span­ish border. www.re­lais­chateaux.com www.michelguer­ard.com www.airfrance.com www.re­naul­teu­ro­drive.com.au

Pic­tures: Oliver Strewe

Holy grail: Din­ing room at l’Au­berge de la Ferme aux Grives, above; Michel Guer­ard, top; and le Cou­vent des Herbes

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