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"It's rather like finding a pearl in a barnyard, isn't it?' ventured the tweedy Bostonian woman I'd seen in the bar nightly with a mystery novel, and with whom I was now sharing a pre-dinner drink. It was, in fact, the perfect image for Les Prés d'Eugénie, Michel and Christine Guérard's ultra-luxurious spa/hotel/gourmet restaurant complex. Who would possibly expect such unqualified refinement 440 miles southwest of Paris in the Landes, a countryside of cornfields and pine forests?
Yet it shouldn't have been a surprise at all. For though far from the centers of tastemaking, the Guérards, who married in 1974, have consistently been in the lifestyle vanguard: He developed cuisine minceur, the forerunner of light cooking, in the 1970s; she is responsible for a refined style of French-country interior design that grows more powerful every year. Now the country's most influential couple in matters of domestic taste, they have at Les Prés d'Eugénie combined their talents to recoin the idiom of French luxury, taking it in effect out of the château and into the farmhouse. In its celebration of both feast and fast, Les Prés d'Eugénie is uniquely Gallic—a perfectly mixed cocktail consisting of equal parts spa life and good country life.
"People from big cities often arrive here tense and exhausted," muses Michel. "They seem to be looking for a kind of great sincerity when they travel. So at Les Prés we do everything to offer the chance to vivre à l'ancienne, to live in an old-fashioned way."
The heart of Les Prés d'Eugénie, which occupies a 40-acre landscaped park in the village of Eugénie-les-Bains, is the original hotel of the same name, opened in 1862. No more than a 10-minute walk from any of the other facilities, it contains the reception desk and Michel's three-star restaurant. Adjoining it is the original spa, also opened in 1862. But it has been the additions of the '90s—three hotels, a restaurant, and a leisure spa, all built to resemble the gabled, half-timbered farmhouses that are native to the Landes—that have propelled the Guérards to the lifestyle forefront. (See A Quick Guide to Les Prés d'Eugénie for an overview.)
Spa life is the wellspring of the property—and the inspiration for Michel's distinctive cooking style. "When I first arrived in Eugénie, it was sad to see the curists sitting in front of plates of grated carrots, so I started working on recipes that were low-cal but still delicious," says Michel, a spritely 66 and in a well-cut blazer, cashmere sweater, and white canvas trousers looking more a Riviera yacht captain than a cook. "Basically this involved eliminating fat and sugar." The battery of recipes that he created, which came to be known as cuisine minceur and had an enormous influence on nouvelle cuisine, made his reputation. "Once this was done, I put my effort into my own restaurant." He won his third Michelin star in 1977, and the restaurant has been a part of the French haute-cuisine firmament ever since.
"Recently," he says, "I've revised this regimen, and I now call it la cuisine minceur active. Cheese and charcuterie remain strictly forbidden, but we've reintroduced cereals, vegetables like mushrooms, and fennel and leeks are used as condiments for fish and meat. The essential idea of this cooking remains the same: You can find real pleasure at the table at the same time that you're following a healthy, fat-free diet."
Les Prés d'Eugénie is one of two or three fountainheads of contemporary French-country interior decoration. What is striking about the rooms here is that the perfection isn't pasteboard but flowing, natural. The flawless good taste is Christine's. "She's the soul of this place," said the earnest housekeeper, who showed me around when I arrived. "It all comes from her."
When I meet Christine among the palms in the solarium gallery of Les Prés, I'm struck by her outfit: a raw-linen gown with a bow at the neck, white stockings, and flat navy shoes with neat grosgrain bows. I expected the sophisticate; the schoolgirl comes as a surprise. Her long dark hair is loose, she wears no makeup, and her warm, measured voice and perfect diction retain your attention (while masking her shyness). After two days of board meetings—she is board president of La Chaîne Thermale du Soleil, the group of 22 spa hotels her father founded in 1947—she looks amazingly fresh and rested.
I ask how she develops a decor, and it seems to startle her, as if she never really analyzed it. As it turns out, Christine regards decorating much as she does cooking: You respect certain rules of good taste but become original by reinterpreting, even contradicting, them. "For me it's the charm and the refinement that count. You can use an old board as a tray instead of something in silver, as long as it's beautiful."
Her sense of style, she says, is a legacy of her mother, not a product of a formal design education. She contemplated a career in architecture, but ultimately studied management and received her M.B.A. at the prestigious Sciences Po in Paris. She then worked as a banker before joining the family business, running Les Prés d'Eugénie. "I found I enjoyed decorating, not in the classical sense, she says, but in terms of creating an atmosphere.
"I'm asked if I have a crystal ball to create trends, but it's really just a matter of respecting the architecture of a house," she says with great concentration. "You must study a room or a place before you can start to decorate it. When friends buy a house or an apartment and ask me for advice, I tell them to spend a lot of time in their new place, completely empty. Study the light, see where the shadows fall, let its personality speak."
La Ferme aux Grives The plump chickens turning slowly on a mechanical rotisserie dripped fat onto the glowing coals, making the fire crackle. The two chic Parisian ladies seated next to me at dinner the first night were trilling over the table setting of checked raw linen, serving plates with a butterscotch-color glaze, and knife rests made from neatly trimmed bundles of grapevine cuttings. My gaze was firmly fixed on the large wooden trencher table at hearthside, where cabbages, leeks, pumpkins, and other fall vegetables created a stunning still life. In what had been a hay loft, wrought-iron chandeliers were hung with amber-colored country hams, and over the massive stone fireplace, tended by two young chefs in tall white toques, a large oil painting of a beery-looking farmer driving an oxcart needlessly emphasized the scrupulous rusticity of the dining room.
The Guérards call La Ferme aux Grives, created in 1993 from the stone barn of a farmhouse of the same name, "our country auberge." (The farmhouse was renovated in 1995 to make four spacious suites, a breakfast room, and a lounge.) "La Ferme aux Grives is my laboratory for new recipes that respond to a modern desire to eat old-fashioned, wholesome food," Michel told me. "The future of French food is simple cooking with superb, fresh products. Of course, there's nothing more difficult than cooking that seems simple but that actually is highlighting the primary produce."
That's true, but the first course, a slice of dense, flavorful ham paté folded around a lump of silky foie gras, was neither simple nor farmhouse nor even wholesome in any sense of the word I know, but rather a revealing reminder of the powerful hold classic French haute cuisine still exerts—even on Michel Guérard.
The next course—a baked potato hollowed out to create a tiny tub stuffed with duck and a soft-boiled egg slathered with herbed cream sauce and flanked by a thick slice of coarse sausage and a long fat strip of bacon grilled golden—was a better example of Michel's version of haute campagne. After dessert, a giant macaroon stuffed with vanilla ice cream in a red-fruit coulis, I took a sated stroll in the park before retiring to my room, Bleu Palombe.
It may be the most perfect hotel room I've ever had—a profusion of inspired details: Single old-fashioned red roses in antique bottles in the bath and on the handsome gray marble sideboard; a soft woolen blanket draped on a daybed piled high with pillows; plump grapes in a grapevine basket on the writing table in front of a deep fireplace—fire burning—and fat beeswax candles on the mantle; large, terra-cotta tiled bath with an Oriental carpet, and woven grass slippers wrapped in brown kraft paper. The triumph of this room was its intimacy, as if someone who knew me extremely well had seen to every detail. I could have moved in, which is exactly the point: "We want our guests to feel they've come to stay," Christine had told me. Next morning, as I was calling to order room service, two pretty young women appeared bearing trays laden with jabugo ham, boiled eggs, farm yogurt, homemade preserves, cheese, apple compote, and copper thermoses of hot milk and superb coffee. This was utter contentment, to be wrapped up in a terry Olivier Desforges bathrobe in front of the fire, with the papers and a flaky croissant dripping with raspberry jam.
Le Couvent des Herbes Stylish Parisians belong to one of two tribes: those who insist on La Ferme aux Grives, and those who wouldn't dream of staying anywhere but at the former convent Le Couvent des Herbes. While the four suites at La Ferme aux Grives are larger and airier than the eight rooms at Le Couvent, the latter, hidden away in the woods, is more romantic.
"Le Couvent has a special feeling of intimacy," says Christine. "Part of this surely comes from the memories stored in the old stone, and the rest from my idea that this would be a place that people would want to retreat to for some time alone."
The most delectable room at Le Couvent is Le Temps des Cerises (The Time of the Cherries; in colloquial French, The Good Times). It's on the ground floor overlooking the original Parson's Garden, a mixture of roses, herbs, vegetables, and trees, and has a private graveled terrace reached through French doors. Tile floors and limed beams complement the overstuffed raspberry-and-cream-plaid loveseat facing a homey brick fireplace. President Jacques Chirac stayed here when he spent Christmas at Eugénie. Like my room at La Ferme aux Grives, it brims with solicitous details—nosegays of fresh herbs tied with ribbon in the closets and bathroom, dimmers on the brass wall lamps next to a canopy bed adorned with linen sheets and off-white canvas curtains, vases of roses and lilies, bundles of grape trimmings (perfect kindling) in the basket of logs by the fireplace. The large bath—with double sinks, oversize white tile tub, terra-cotta tile floors, and tile-framed mirrors—also overlooks the garden.
La Ferme Thermale d'Eugénie This, Les Prés d'Eugénie's most recent addition, is the most beautiful spa in France. Located in the park behind the original spa building, it was fashioned in the style of a traditional Landaise farmhouse right down to the entrance, which faces east to avoid summer heat and the prevailing west wind.
For La Ferme Thermale, Christine reinvented the treatments, turning them into a sensual pleasure offered in individual treatment rooms, as opposed to the group setting of the original spa. She also researched ancient spa traditions and treatments and incorporated them into La Ferme Thermale. Thus herbal bouquets in the baths allude to Celtic customs; marble tubs recall Greco-Roman spas; steam baths perfumed with spices are borrowed from the Middle East. There's no chrome, not a white tile in sight.
Upon arriving, you slip into a mandarin's robe of honeycomb cotton, designed by Christine and made by Edith Màzard—one of France's top makers of intimate apparel. You can lie on a heated marble table while overhead shower jets massage you with mineral water, or take a long heated herbal soak in the Cabine Imperiale's marble whirlpool bath, sited so you can watch the fire burning on the hearth or gaze at the outdoor gardens. The signature treatment is the kaolin (white clay) bath, invented by Michel in 1976. Clay is renowned for its ability to remove impurities from the skin, and kaolin is one of the finest grains of clay—it's used to make porcelain. Intrigued by the possibilities of kaolin baths for physical reeducation, Michel cooked up the original saucelike batch of kaolin in an enormous casserole. After achieving the right density, a thickness that in the baths creates a pleasant buoyancy of the body, he turned to Nestlé, with whom he has collaborated since 1976, for help in devising a pasteurization process to keep the bath hygienic from curist to curist.
In between spa sessions you can sip linden-flower tea while lolling on striped-canvas Regency sofas in front of a wood-burning fire in the cathedral-ceilinged lounge. But the coup de grâce is the salle de repos, or resting room, the after-treatment sanctuary. It's one of the high points of Christine's touch: six curved chestnut Louis XV daybeds with thick mattresses covered in soft cotton; 18th-century etchings of country life lining the walls and 18th-century terra-cotta tiles from a convent near Toulouse underfoot; a window wall overlooking the gardens. "Who knows if this works, but it sure is nice," said the man lying next to me, a banker from New York. "Of course it works," replied his supine wife, also a banker. "We come here twice a year, and between the long walks, spa, and cuisine minceur, it's easy to peel off ten pounds."
Michel works constantly to create new dishes for the curists, collaborating with the resident dietician, Cécile Guionnet. "The total daily caloric intake, including a glass of wine at lunch and dinner, is tabled at about 1,200 calories," says Guionnet. "The kitchen sends me recipes and we work back and forth to respect caloric limits without sacrificing taste. We reintroduced cereals because they're the best source of slow sugar and they leave people feeling sated. Lunch is larger than dinner to curb the impulse to snack during the afternoon."
The proof of Michel's talent was in the two low-calorie meals I had at La Maison Rose, the residence and dining room for long-term curists. (Cuisine minceur active is served only at La Maison Rose and on a special menu, separate from the gastronomic choices, at the three-star restaurant, but is not offered at La Ferme aux Grives.) Lunch consisted of a tartare of scallops and salmon marinated with ginger; chunks of veal served on a bed of spelt with baby artichokes, potatoes, celery root, and asparagus in a tangy orange-tomato sauce; and a fresh fruit salad. For dinner, a soup of baby leeks; choice of steamed fish (sole, salmon, red mullet) with a light saffron sauce; and clafoutis (baked custard) with sour cherries.
"The idea of these menus was to stimulate the palate with different tones of bitterness, acidity, and natural sugar," Michel explained to me. "This is the compensation for the fact that there is almost no fat or added sugar and very little salt in these preparations. Creating a recipe is a bit like writing music; the notes for the musician, like the ingredients for the chef, are always the same. Ultimately it's the sensibility of how these ingredients are combined that determines the final product. Of course all of the recipes here are evaluated for their caloric content, tested, and retested."
Les Prés d'Eugénie Restaurant I saved the three-star restaurant for last. Done in ivory and ecru, its four dining salons convey relaxed formality through woven cane Régence armchairs and bay trees with their crowns trimmed into neat balls. (The only discordant note was the carpeted central room, through which the waiters continually race. Ask to be seated in one of the two terra-cotta-tiled side rooms.)
There are dishes that are both excellent and low in calories, like a starter salad of grilled shrimp garnished with crumbs of crab. But the showstoppers are the traditional French luxury dishes—a large ravioli filled with duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms) with a slice of truffle and girolles and asparagus in cream sauce—and the hearty local food dressed up by a three-star chef, such as a tourte (pie with a pastry case) of duckling. For France the menu is revolutionary: Luxury and low calories are both present—an instance of culinary democracy in a country where three-star menus are displays of absolute monarchism.
But I advise you to throw calories to the wind, as I did in ordering the grilled breast of free-range chicken, which sounds low-cal but is not. It was presented on a copper grill pan with a sprig of smoldering thyme. A minute later it was served in succulent slices in a sauce of lemon and its own cooking juices. The bird had been smoked, grilled, and stuffed with foie gras and herbed cheese, producing a wonderfully nuanced weave of smoky, salty, and sour tastes. It reminded me of something Michel had said during our first conversation: "I want to cook it in a way that enhances its natural taste and textures. The era of baroque cooking is over, of food that obviously demonstrates a huge effort." (The emphasis is on "obviously" because this dish obviously required a huge effort.) Richer by far than cuisine minceur active and more elaborate than the food at La Ferme aux Grives, the dish was a perfect summing up of Michel's cooking now: simultaneously rustic and sophisticated, deceptively simple yet glorious in its detail. The same could be said of the idyll that the Guérards have created at Les Prés d'Eugénie.
A Quick Guide to Les Prés d' Eugénie
LES PRES D'EUGENIE HOTEL The original hotel, opened in 1862 and named for the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III and patroness of the baths. Although the rooms here are comfortable and attractively decorated, they can't compete with those in La Ferme aux Grives and Le Couvent des Herbes.
LES PRES D'EUGENIE Also the name of Michel Guérard's three-star restaurant in the original hotel.
LES PRES D'EUGENIE SPA The original spa, next to the hotel. The baths date back to 1750. Today the spa is medicinal in orientation, offering the classic European cure.
LA FERME THERMALE D'EUGENIE Leisure spa opened in 1996.
LA FERME AUX GRIVES The farmhouse restaurant that Michel uses as a laboratory for contemporary French country cooking. There are four suites in an adjacent building, the most beautiful in the entire complex.
LA MAISON ROSE The simplest and least expensive hotel in the complex—"a country inn," says Christine. Most long-term curists—the average cure lasts two weeks—stay here. The residents-only dining room serves table d'hôte-style cuisine-minceur meals. Rooms here are also available to those not taking the cure.
LE COUVENT DES HERBES Eight-room hotel opened in 1991 and a showcase for Christine's French-country style. Offers some of the most romantic lodgings in France.
Le Beach House
Last December the Guérards opened their latest hotel, Les Maisons Marines d'Huchet, a four-room "guesthouse." It stands atop a sand dune between the Atlantic Ocean and a vast, private pine forest, 50 miles north of Biarritz, and is available exclusively to Les Prés d'Eugénie guests who want to spend a few days at the beach. The 1851 house, the former hunting lodge of a baron, has been widely featured in French decorating and lifestyle magazines. "I decorated the house around the theme of the French colonial expansion during the reign of Napoleon III," says Christine. "I'd describe the style as Anglo-Indian-Chinese. Ultimately, I wanted it to feel like an old-fashioned beach house that had been in the same family for many generations." Breakfast is served table d'hôte-style, and guests either fend for themselves at noon, or head off with a picnic ordered from the hotel before returning for dinner in the evening. "The menus will have the title Cuisine Marine Nature," explains Michel. "The idea is to prepare the best of the season and the catch of the day simply to enhance the natural tastes." Reservations obtained through Les Prés d'Eugénie.
Slimming Down Escoffier
Michel Guérard's cuisine minceur is widely considered to have greatly influenced nouvelle cuisine, which, though now discredited, completely altered the French culinary landscape. He not only changed how French chefs conceive of a sauce—using meat, fish, vegetable, and herb juices instead of flour and butter—he also popularized the use of fresh herbs, reintroduced vegetables to haute cuisine, and created a battery of fruit-based desserts. Chefs of vastly different stripes have cited Guérard as a mentor. Martín Berasategui, who has a two-star restaurant of his own in San Sebastián, Spain, calls Michel Guérard the father of modern cooking. "Guérard was the first to show that haute cuisine could be healthy," he says. "His sauces, in particular, were revolutionary."
Alexander Lobrano is Departures' contributing editor for Europe.