HEAVEN ON A PLATE
Chef Tony Bilson meets his maker in an idyllic spa village in the southwest of France
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.
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
Holy grail: Dining room at l’Auberge de la Ferme aux Grives, above; Michel Guerard, top; and le Couvent des Herbes