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A week of feasting (and losing weight)

Sublime three-course meals complete with dessert that are actually healthy and slimming? That’s Vir Sanghvi's experience at the Eugenie spa in France, where three star Michelin chef Michel Guerard is the man in charge.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2010 18:01 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Michel Guerard is one of the world’s greatest chefs. In 1965, when the movement to free French cuisine from the shackles of the old heavy, classical cuisine was launched (later to be known as nouvelle cuisine or the new cuisine), Guerard was its pope. He was the first serious chef to add foie gras to a salad, the first, in fact, to put a salad on a fancy menu and the man who showed the world that salads could be light and easy combinations of flavours that did not have to be doused in heavy dressings.

Guerard got two stars at his restaurant in Paris and then just as Michelin told him that his place would be the first bistro to get three stars, the French government compulsorily purchased the building where his restaurant was located. Forced to close down, Guerard considered options: chef at such venerable places as Maxim’s or Ledoyen, a new restaurant of his own, etc.

MichelIt was at this stage that his wife Christine whose father ran a chain of spas came up with an idea. Why didn’t Michel come with her to one of the family spas, in a place called Eugenie, 800 km south of Paris, to do some thinking? He did. And the rest is history.

The Guerards decided to make Eugenie their new base. Michel would open a restaurant at the spa and see if he could win back his stars. As he was functioning in a spa and because his cuisine was light anyway, Michel had another idea. Why not introduce a new kind of spa cuisine, one that preserved the tastes but eliminated most of the calories?

It sounded good in theory and certainly, there was no shortage of places that served low-cal food. The problem was that none of the dishes tasted any good. Guerard wanted to create a cuisine that was so good that you would feel that you were eating in a Michelin star restaurant and yet, would never have to worry about putting on weight.

Against the odds, he pulled it off. His restaurant served two menus. One was his normal nouvelle cuisine menu. But the other was cuisine minceur, a menu comprised of dishes that were so low in calories that it would be possible to eat a filling three course non-vegetarian meal including dessert for around 500 calories. (That’s about the same number of calories as a large bar of milk chocolate).

A couple of years after he opened his restaurant, Michelin gave him three stars and for nearly 25 years, he has retained those three stars, a record that is only topped by Paul Bocuse. But while Bocuse has become a brand trading on past glory (the food is disappointing) Guerard is the chef's chef, a modest, humble man who turns out excellent food day after day and has won the admiration of whole generations of chefs.

When I interviewed Ferran Adria, the celebrated Spanish chef a few months ago, he cited Guerard as one of his principal influences. Alain Ducasse, the world’s most successful French chef, would agree. He was discovered by Christine Guerard, trained by Michel and then sent off to work in other restaurants.

But while Guerard’s own reputation is now sealed, the renown of the Eugenie spa has also spread far and wide. It is widely regarded as one of Europe’s finest spa hotels with wonderful food, great treatments and tasteful luxury accommodation.

Which is where I enter the story. I had never eaten Guerard’s food largely because you have to trek to Eugenie to eat it – he has no outposts in Singapore, Shanghai or Las Vegas, as other famous French chefs do. But I had always admired him for the revolution he had brought to global cuisine. When Adria raved about him, my mind was made up.
I would make the journey to Eugenie. I called the spa, having found the number on the internet. It was not cheap. If I came for a seven-day Cuisine Minceur break, then the cost would be around 5,800 euro for two persons.

On the plus side, this figure would include nearly everything: three meals a day, two hours of treatments in the spa etc. There would be no hidden extras. I would eat great food. I would benefit from the healing waters that Eugenie has been famous for through the centuries. And who knows, I might even lose weight?

Taking my courage in my hands, I wrote to Christine and Michel Guerard. I had already booked into the spa, I said. But while I was there could I interview Michel Guerard and find out a little about his attitude to food? I would like, I said, to also write a diary of my stay to capture what it was like to eat Michelin three star food day and night for a full week.

The Guerards took a while to reply but when they did, they were warm and gracious. They would be glad to meet me, they said. M Guerard would be happy to discuss his cuisine. And they thought it was an excellent idea to write a diary of my stay for “as popular a publication as the Hindustan Times..” (Somebody had been using Google, clearly). I was delighted. I replied thanking them but added – lest they thought I was angling for a freebie – that of course, I would pay. So here’s what it was like.

Day One
I fly into Pau from Paris, a journey of one hour, made to seem longer by a last-minute flight delay. You can get to Eugenie from many airports (Bordeaux, Toulouse etc.) but Pau is the nearest, only a 45-minute drive away from the spa.

The hotel has sent a taxi (which is just as well because the area is not exactly bursting with transport options) and the drive is quiet and scenic. When we get to the spa, I am a little startled. It is a 40-acre garden complex with many beautiful buildings, nearly all of which are at least a century old.

Christine Guerard comes out to greet us warmly and effusively along with two pretty young girls from reception. She has chosen our room, she says. It will not be in the 19th century main building but in another, even older building on the grounds. This is Le Couvent des Herbes, a former convent built in 1761 with only eight rooms.

Christine has chosen a room on the ground floor called Le Temp des Cerises (Cherry Blossom Time). It is huge with a cream-coloured canopy bed and a sofa with red and white checked upholstery in front of a warm fire. I do not know enough about furniture to be sure but I guess that the chest of drawers, the large writing table, the marble-topped commode, the comfortable easy chairs etc. are antiques. (I later discover that Christine travels around Europe picking up antiques and paintings that catch her eye – and luckily, she has an excellent eye).

In front of the fireplace is a plate of small, sweet fresh strawberries and another of delicious madelines. Sabine, the lady who looks after the Couvent, makes some strong, French-style coffee and I wolf down the madelines.

My room is not just large and tasteful, it is also extremely comfortable with a massive bathroom (two sinks and an oversized bathtub) and opens out into the Guerards’ herb garden. Sabine suggests that breakfast (served en-suite) is best enjoyed in the garden.

Dinner is my first minceur meal. It comprises a thick, flavourful eggplant soup with toasted sesame seeds. Then come Basque-style sweet red peppers stuffed with salt cod (blended, I think, with a little potato). The contrast between the sweet firm skin of the peppers and the rich salty taste of the fish is amazing.

Dessert is a ‘gazpacho’ of red berries. The local red wine (Tursan from the Guerards’ own vineyard) and Laurent- Perrier champagne are offered. All three courses and a glass of wine come to only 495 calories.

Can this be for real?

Day Two
The treatment start at 10 am in the morning. I was supposed to see the doctor first but obstinately refused to get up at 9.15 for my appointment. So I will meet him now in the late afternoon leaving the spa staff to guess what treatments to give me.

First I am led to a marble table and my body (excluding the face) is painted with what I am told is a cypress extract. Then I am wrapped in what look like plastic sheets for ten minutes. This is supposed to detox my body.

The point of Eugenie is the ‘source.’ The local spring water is supposed to have medicinal benefits and for years, Europeans have flocked to this village to bathe in the water. What the Guerards have done is to open two separate spas that use this beneficial water.

The first, located near the main hotel, is open to anyone who wants to take the ‘cure’ – and in France, this is recognised as a reimbursable medical expense – and treats 700 people a day (many of whom have their treatments paid for by the government).

The second is the more exclusive one located in a half-timbered farmhouse style building behind the main hotel and surrounded by gardens. It is meant for guests at the main Eugenie resort and takes about 50 people a day. But when I went, there were never more than ten people at any given time.

The treatments use the spring water in a variety of imaginative – and often, quite luxurious – ways. After my wrap, I am led into a sort of shower stall and am sprayed with hot lavender-scented water. The lavender steam from the water mists up the stall and the effect is to make me feel relaxed and sleepy.

Then comes a not so nice treatment in which very fine jets of water are directed at high pressure on my legs to melt the cellulite. It stings and I doubt if I have enough cellulite to justify the pain. Finally I am led into a large chateau-style room with Napoleon III chairs and a wood-burning fireplace. A large marble bathtub has been filled with warm spring water scented with flowers. Two underwater jets suggest an upmarket jacuzzi but I guess it would be vulgar to use the term in these surroundings.

Between treatments, guests wait in a white-walled elegant living room with sky-lights and yet another crackling fire sipping tisanes (herbal infusions). The whole process takes two hours. All treatments are in individual rooms and are masterminded by a team of pretty French (and largely, French-speaking) girls.

I’m not that hungry, having had breakfast in my room (more about that tomorrow) but lunch is a delight. Wild mushrooms picked in the forests around the village are sliced and cooked on a thin pastry base. Then there is delicious local beef with green peppers. And finally caramelised pink grapefruit segments with almond ice-cream. The full meal (with a glass of red wine) is 580 calories!

In the late afternoon I go and see the doctor who takes my height, weight and blood pressure, checks if I have any allergies and suggests treatments. He is soft-spoken, very French and struggles a tiny bit with English. I tell him that I don’t think that I have a cellulite problem so can we do without the stinging jets? He agrees and suggests other treatments. He is especially keen that I get into a pool “where you will float because the whole pool is filled with thick blood.”

I look worried. He thinks about it.
“Ah, not blood. Mud,” he finally says.
I heave a sign of relief.
The star of dinner is a carrot terrine with orange. The carrots are great but what elevates the dish is the judicious use of cumin. I will never look at jeera in quite the same way again!
The main course of John Dory fish ‘a la plancha’ is okay but I am more taken with the flavourful asparagus tips Guerard serves on the side. You are meant to dip them into a minceur Hollandaise sauce. Hollandaise? In low-cal cuisine? It turns out that Gueard has rejigged the recipe to take out the calories. But the Hollandaise is so good that it overshadows everything else on the plate.
Dessert is Peach Melba. A sweet and luscious white peach is poached and served on a bed of what tastes like cream and red fruits and topped with lemon verbena ice-cream. Is this really cuisine minceur? Apparently, it is. The whole meal with a glass of white wine is 490 calories!

Day Three
By now, my routine is set. At 8.15 am, a lady from the main hotel knocks on my door. She has a copy of the Herald Tribune and my breakfast tray. Breakfast comprises a large jug of coffee (enough for two and half big cups), fruit mousse (you can order fresh fruit if you like but I prefer the mousse), yogurt, boiled Morvan ham, two small wholewheat rolls, a saucer of home-made fruit jam or marmalade and several sachets of Canderel.

I eat the fruit mousse first, tip a spoon of the jam and a sachet of Canderel into the yogurt and make my own fruit dahi and then polish off the ham. I eat the rolls on their own (no butter) while sipping my coffee and reading the Tribune. I have the option of swapping my ham for a soft boiled free range egg but each day I choose the ham over the egg.

At 10 or 10.15 am each day, I go to the spa. Today, the treatment includes standing in a swimming pool while a jet of Eugenie water is sprayed at my stomach (either so that it penetrates and helps the digestion or in the hope that the water cannon will discipline my paunch – I’m never quite sure which one it is!)

Then, I do the pool-of-blood (oh all right, mud) treatment. This is actually the highlight of my time in the spa. It is not mud as we know it but is a small swimming pool full of celadon kaolin in Eugenie water. The bath is white, thick and creamy. I learn later that it uses the clay used for making porcelain (which is why it is white and not muddy, let alone bloody!) which is said to leach toxins from your body and help strengthen your joints.

Maybe. But for me, the thrill of the bath lies in thickness of the water. It keeps you weightless and afloat (rather like the Dead Sea is supposed to) and each time you go down, you find yourself bobbing up again. Eventually I practice sitting in the water, an eerie feeling because you can sit quite still and not sink.

Lunch is between 12.30 and 1 pm each day. Today it begins with a Guerard classic, his famous Salade Gourmande. This consists of asparagus tips, string beans, finely shopped shallots and thin slices of lightly smoked foie gras. Foie gras? Cuisine minceur? The main course is a confit of delicious pork loin surrounded by tiny dices of apple and mango. Because it is a sunny day, and we are all in our shirt-sleeves and sitting on the lawn, the light summery cuisine works well.

Dessert is another triumph. Chunks of baked apple mixed with smaller chunks of crumble pastry. All this, with a glass of red wine, is 625 calories! I spend the afternoon writing and so am a little hungry by 7.30 pm when it is time for dinner. This is just as well because the menu begins with another Guerard classic. A floating island (illes flottante) is a classic French dessert consisting of sweetened egg whites whipped into peaks served on a crème anglaise or a custard. Guerard does a savoury version. His egg whites are unsweetened and instead of the custard, he uses a cold soup of asparagus and peas with truffles. Astonishingly good!

No main course can follow that but the high point of his lemon sole lies in its bed: brussels sprouts cut open and chopped to bring out their cabbage roots so that they form an upmarket chourcoute (sauerkraut) in acidulous caper juice.

I do not see how dessert can possibly be low-cal. It is a coffee salumbo which is to say, a kind of hot dog with the buns made of delicious choux pastry and the sausage replaced by a coffee mousse. But the whole meal (with wine) clocks in at only 535 calories!

Day Four
Once breakfast and the treatments are out of the way, I opt for an early lunch. It is a nice day so I enjoy the light first course of steamed vegetables with coriander (dhania) leaves and seeds, followed by the famous free range chicken of Landes (the region where Eugenie is located) and then finally, a warm strawberry tart with the lightest possible lemon mousse (only 560 calories with wine).
My idea is to explore the grounds. I start with the herb garden which perfumes the air around my room. Nobody has told me not to so I pluck the herbs and rub the leaves to release the essential oils. Soon, the scents of basil, lemon verbena, rosemary and lemon grass fill the surroundings.

Next I look at the fruit trees. What strikes me is the air of abundance. There are huge beefsteak tomatoes on the vine waiting to be picked. Pears lie all over the grass, having fallen, unpicked and over-ripe from their trees. Big lemons glow from little trees. Lavender bushes perfume their surroundings.

Even if you don’t come here for the treatments (and frankly, as far as I am concerned, they are no more than a welcome bonus) or the food (though how can anyone not go crazy eating the food of one of the world’s greatest chefs?), this is such a beautiful hotel with such extensive grounds and such lovely rooms that I can think of very few like it anywhere else in the world.
Dinner is fine but not great. There is a carpaccio of sea bass. Then there is a sadly limp salmon escalope. The meal is elevated by an intense chocolate fondant served inside a thin filo pastry cover (with wine: 550 calories).

Day Five
Over the last few days, I have been conscious of the presence of the Guerards. Michel wears the chef’s whites and rushes in and out of the kitchen, stopping at tables to say a few sentences in English or to conduct longer conversations in French. These days celebrity chefs (and most three star chefs generally) don’t actually spend a lot of time in the kitchen, preferring to travel the world.

Paul Bocuse once physically attacked the New York Times’ Mimi Sheraton for suggesting that they should hoist a flag above his Lyons restaurant to mark the rare occasions when he was actually present. Since then, the global chefs treat their physical presence as an irrelevance. As Gordon Ramsay puts it, when you wear an Armani jacket do you expect Giorgio to personally stitch the buttons? (Which of course begs the question of whether haute cuisine is like haute couture or like prêt a porter).

But Guerard seems an exception to the trend. He is actually in the kitchen and discusses his food with diners. When you eat in an Alain Ducasse restaurant, for instance, the presence of Ducasse's reputation (if not the man himself) is hard to ignore. At Bocuse’s restaurant, there are more photos of the chef than there are of Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. But Guerard does nothing to put his name on the
experience. He is content to let his food speak for itself.

I am told that he will meet me this evening. The lunch is a good omen. The main course is described as ‘beef salad, cooked as a Pot-au-Feu’ which is slightly mystifying because what emerges resembles a delicious beef puree with a tangy mustard sauce. Then there is a wondrous paella made with quinoa (a trendy, protein-filled seed) rather than rice and full of little mussels, squid and a refreshingly fresh prawn. Dessert is a delicate, trembling pannacotta flavoured with lemon verbena, picked from outside my room. (At 705 calories, this is heavier than usual perhaps because the quinoa though full of protein is not exactly low-cal.)

We meet in a corner of the restaurant with a very nice girl from reception acting as interpreter. It turns out that Guerard admires Adria (unlike most French chefs who are disdainful of the Spanish school) and I tell him how Adria praised him in my interview. He seems genuinely surprised (and pleased) to hear that but modestly insists that much of the credit for the nouvelle cuisine revolution should go to the Troisgros brothers (“their Salmon in Sorrel was the first true nouvelle cuisine dish”) and to Alain Chapel (“he died too young so people today do not remember his huge contribution”).

He thinks that nouvelle cuisine quickly became a caricature of its original principles with its surfeit of large black plates, tiny portions and kiwi fruit garnishes. But he reckons that the freedom the nouvelle revolution gave chefs to use their own imagination and to create dishes that reflected the flavour of ingredients transformed French cuisine forever.

He thinks that the tendency of Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robuchon and the others to open in foreign countries has actually helped French food. “People elsewhere now know great French food and French cuisine has benefited because, as the chefs have travelled, they have learnt new things and come across unusual ingredients.”

So why has he stuck to Eugenie? Why not open in Paris again, at the very least? Why are there no Guerard restaurants in other cities?

“It is not for me,” he says. “I like a family restaurant. I cook in the kitchen. My wife looks after the guests. And that is how I like it.”

He asks if I am enjoying the food. When I say yes, he says that he will take charge of my dinner himself. It will not be the minceur menu but he will make it light. In fact, I get two Guerard classics. The first is his ravioli (made with dim sum-type rice-flour) of mushrooms, created after a visit to China in 1978. The pasta pillow is filled with chopped mushrooms: morels, mousserons, wild chestnut mushrooms etc. It is served in a very light cream sauce with asparagus tips, more mushrooms and slices of black truffle.

Then comes half a lobster, roasted and lightly smoked in the fireplace in his kitchen (a menu highlight since 1979). Dessert is a hot soufflé of apple and lemon that manages the technically astonishing feat of being ethereally light and still retaining its texture even when you carve slices out of it. (Guerard started out as a pastry chef.)

It is one of the most memorable meals I have ever had.

Day Six
Can today live up to yesterday’s gastronomic highs? Lunch certainly can. The first course is a crab salad on aspic topped with an airy grapefruit foam. Then comes the minceur version of that hearty dish, the cassoulet. It is so light that I rub my eyes as I eat it. The familiar cassoulet ingredients are all there: haricot beans, sausage (boudin blanc, perhaps), goose, a piece of pork etc. What’s missing is the greasy goose-fat (and sometimes, duck confit) taste that characterises most ordinary cassoulets. This one has a light broth and soars with flavour without being dragged back to earth by bird fat. Dessert is semolina with red fruits and is okay (Total: 605 calories with a glass of red wine.)

The city of Pau (where the airport is located) has recently launched an initiative to attract more tourists from India. This is news to me because I had never even heard of Pau till I planned to come to Eugenie. But at the urging of the hotel’s manager, I drive off to meet Xavier Bourg, the passionate director of the tourist office for the region, his witty Spanish wife and Rishiraj Singh, an Indian who is working with them on various India related products.

We visit the chateau, go to Europe’s oldest golf club, see the Villa Navarre, a wonderful local hotel and drive around the region. It is a very pretty part of France with strong gastronomic possibilities (ham, foie gras, chicken, wine etc.) but my guess is that they will have to work hard to insert Pau into the consciousness of Indians. In the evening, I meet Christine Guerard. It is Saturday night and the hotel and restaurant are full but she manages to take time out for a glass of champagne.

Christine inherited her father’s spa company and now runs 19 spas but Eugenie is the most special (and upmarket) and is clearly her favourite. Nearly every corner of the property has been decorated by her personally and she manages to blend the odd Oriental touch (the pillars in the bar are of Indian origin) with an entirely French ethos.

We talk about the beauty of the hotel and she is categorical. You cannot have a spa without great natural beauty, she says. Beauty is itself a therapy. Christine was born rich. Now, with this spa empire, she is a millionairess many times over. Michel is one of the two or three greatest chefs of the last fifty years. And yet when you come to Eugenie, the Guerards behave a little like an innkeeper and his wife. She greets guests personally. He still cooks in the kitchen and comes out and asks people how they like his food.

“That’s how I always wanted it to be,” she says. “When you come here, you have complete privacy. But you are not in an impersonal hotel. You have our warmth to make you feel at home.”

Dinner begins with more wild mushrooms. The main course is red mullet and there is a deliciously rich pear charlotte with chocolate sauce. At one stage I would have been surprised by how Guerard could pull off a meal like this in only 495 calories. But now, I am used to his magic.

Day Seven
My last day of treatments. I linger in the kaolin bath, floating in the pool for as long as is possible because it is the one treatment that I will miss the most. At lunch, I am blown away all over again. The first course is a Caesar salad (with slices of parmesan cheese!) with a grilled egg. I do not know how the egg is made but it tastes like a poached egg that is then grilled to give flavour to the white while leaving the liquid orange of the yolk unaffected.

The main course is sauteed lamb with tiny carrot dices, beans, courgettes, tomatoes and what I think are a few grains of bulgar wheat. Dessert is a lip-smackingly good coffee mousse. It is a heavier than usual meal (695 calories) but I guess that’s because it is Sunday lunch. At dinner, a special treat. Christine Guerard has suggested that I try the Auberge, a country inn run by the Guerards. This is a five minute walk from the main spa complex but I am told that it is a centuries old hotel that has been lovingly restored so it seems worth trying even though the food is not cuisine minceur.

When I get there, I am glad I came. The Auberge is truly special with wooden beams and a spit roasting fireplace on which a pig is already cooking. The menu is heavy but I choose carefully.
I start with coco beans (a rajma relative) with black pudding (a kind of sausage). The main course is a bit of the pig which, I gather, has been roasting for sixteen hours. It is great food and I reflect that the Auberge is the kind of little country inn that you are supposed to find all over the French countryside. But such inns are rarer and rarer these days and when you do find them, the food is frequently mediocre. To get the real thing – a historic building, great atmosphere and brilliant food – you have to fall back on a Michelin three star chef like Guerard. It’s kind of sad, really.

Before I go to the airport the next morning for my flight I weigh myself. I am sure the Auberge meal has unbalanced things. But even so, I’ve lost two kilos. Considering that I’ve had two three-course meals a day (plus breakfast), this is not bad at all. As doctors warn, if you lose more than two kilos a week it’ll either make you ill or you’ll just put it all back on. It’s been a dream week. A great holiday. Great food. A great hotel. Great treatments. And weight loss too! Who could ask for more?

First Published: Nov 12, 2010 16:34 IST