Imagine you are learning to cook and can choose any top chef as teacher and mentor, wherever he or she happens to be in the world. What would it be? Hipster central in London with Ollie Dabbous (at Dabbous), or Tom Sellars at Story? The playful brilliance of Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park in New York? Exploring the enormous larder of the Amazon region with charismatic Alex Atala at D.O.M? Or Zen rigour in the heart of Tokyo with sharp knives and super-fresh seafood?
There’s bags of history too and it goes without saying, superbly delicious food that keeps you thin while indulging in shameless gluttony
Or would you be tempted by a silver fox in the heart of rural France, someone who’s held the highest accolade, three Michelin stars, for 37 years and invented cuisine minceur, the philosophy of lighter food that has influenced chefs for four decades? Yup, I know which I’d choose too. No contest. It has be Michel Guérard at Les Prés d’Eugénie, south west of Bordeaux with the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees glinting in the distance. Not only is the whole estate utterly gorgeous with appealing rooms, terraces and gardens but there’s bags of history too and it goes without saying, superbly delicious food that keeps you thin while indulging in shameless gluttony. (No, I don’t know how he does it either.)
In addition, there’s an unusual spa using the natural hot thermal springs – refreshing and without all that tiresome pampering or whale music, and a spanking new cookery school with lessons in English for the first time. And to top it all, there’s a new cookbook, in English, Eat Well and Stay Slim that captures the philosophy and methods of Michel Guérard with calorie-counting recipes precisely in tune with today’s modish diets.
The new cookery laboratory is set in the grounds of the estate and reached by flower-lined garden paths and tall trees. It is a bright high-ceilinged space with windows on all sides, gleaming with stainless steel appliances and state of the art equipment offset by a warm wooden ceiling and burnished copper lamps.
A handful of student stations are ranged in a semi circle around the teacher, each with its own work space, an ultra modern induction hob, chopping board and a battery of knives. There is plenty of preparation space, deep sinks and running water. Wearing long white aprons and white paper chef’s toques, there’s an air of priestly intensity about the students and – I hate to admit this – a subdued sense of competition.
We spend the morning making a dish of scallops with orange blossom sauce; local Landes chicken stuffed with herby goats’ cheese and foie gras
Our young instructor is one of the restaurant’s most experienced chefs and speaks easy, fluent English. We spend the morning making a dish of scallops with orange blossom sauce; local Landes chicken stuffed with herby goats’ cheese and foie gras; and a citrus soufflé. This is hands-on cooking, not a polite “sit back and watch the experts” approach. The chicken recipe involves beheading and deboning the fowl in a seriously invasive way – something of a culture shock for anyone used to buying meat politely prepared by a supermarket.
The instructor gives close attention to the students and as each dish nears completion, we gather around the master’s table for final details, tasting and appraisal. There’s relief all round and a surprising degree of satisfaction. Learning a new skill makes you feel wonderfully alive.
The cookery school offers a wide range of programmes for amateurs and professional chefs. There are five-day courses for the intricacies of 3-Michelin star cooking and cuisine minceur, as well as seasonal days devoted to mushrooms or game and courses on the classics of French cuisine such as blanquette de veau, salmon with sorrel sauce, sauce Béarnaise and sole meunière. There’s a charming half-day course for parents and children (aged 8-15), and a seven hour intensive introduction to the greatest hits of Michel Guérard himself.
It’s worth explaining Michel Guérard’s philosophy of food and why it chimes with modern tastes and concerns for health, aesthetics and wellbeing. It’s the opposite of puritan self-denial.
“Taste and enjoyment lie at the heart of all French cooking,” he says. “Any sort of cooking or diet is doomed to failure if it doesn’t give people pleasure. For the French, eating is one of the most instant and accessible routes to pleasure. The need for enjoyment must be recognized in any eating plan, even one involved with weight loss. People on an over restricted diet fall by the wayside as such diets neglect people’s need to feel satisfaction and well being from their food. The French don’t want to choose between health and pleasure – they want both at the same time.”
His new book Eat Well and Stay Slim offers recipes for a whole range of budgets and skillsets whether novice or experienced cooks. The introductory notes on nutrition are clear and sensible with ungimmicky explanations of why concentrating on quality ingredients works. Take salt for example. He compares natural salt such a value packed Maldon or fleur du sel with every day table salt ‘which has been refined in a way that largely rids it of its natural nutritional qualities’. The book suggests an Essential Cuisine Minceur Toolkit which includes flavoured oils, stocks, classic sauces and condiments, and purees of vegetables and fruit that can be used both as sauces and low calorie liaisons or thickening agents. “I hope” he says, “ that readers will use this book to free themselves from some popular misconceptions.”
Throughout Les Prés d’Eugénie there’s what Guérard calls a spirit of hedonistic refinement proving it is possible to eat well while staying slim and healthy. Certainly there is no sense of holding back in the dining room, even if you choose the cuisine minceur menus. You never feel starved or deprived and there’s always a sense of occasion in the comfortable dining room with lots of pictures and antiques, aged columns, proper silver and glassware, and cheerful service. The restaurant’s main kitchen looks a bit like your rustic granny’s with an open range with stacks of wooden logs, a large oven edged with blue and white tiles, copper pans and preserving jars of bottled vegetables.
And while Guérard is the genius and inspiration in the kitchen, the beauty and charm of the property undoubtedly springs from his wife Christine who has immaculate taste with a flair for poetic details and glorious textiles.
The main public spaces on the ground floor are a cluster of interconnecting rooms, opening into the gardens. It’s all light and airy with cane-backed chairs, polished parquet and limed oak floors, rugs and kelims, ceiling fans, crisply carved white marble fireplaces and antique birdcages. There are engaging pictures of somnolent hunting dogs, hares and mallards in a mythical country setting, and a nod to the ancient regime with ladies in pretty dresses and romantic landscapes.
A sunny loggia with exposed beams, comfortable sofas and mirrors with swirling wooden frames looks over the gardens, a rich profusion of flowers: wisteria, peonies, roses, and green lawns scattered with daisies and celandines. There are orange, fig and olive trees, graceful palms and neat clipped box, and wild meadows where nature runs wild. It’s immensely relaxing.
Les Prés d’Eugénie has 25 rooms and 20 suits housed in a variety of characterful buildings throughout the grounds. My bedroom is white and sky blue with fine linen embroidered curtains on the floor to ceiling windows leading out onto a large sunny south-facing terrace. Everything is beautiful but not over stated, not that suffocating luxury that obsesses modern hoteliers. Breakfast is taken on a tray in your room with Limoges china. The slimmer’s breakfast consists of cereal, bread, jam, fruit, a savoury or sweet dish, glass of spa water, coffee, and two different sorts of milk – cows and sheep. Everything is pure, home made, and surprisingly filling.
The latest addition is the Mère Poule café with delicious coffee, snacks such as toasted sourdough slices topped with seeds and anchovies
And there is so much more to the property than simply the hotel. There is a large, heated open-air swimming pool with cream canvas parasols and a sunset walk through the meadows lined with antique wrought iron street lamps. A quirky gingerbread house is home to the garden spa based on the local natural thermal waters, famous for diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties for hundreds of years and properly recognized by the French government.
There is a rustic auberge in a traditional stone barn for hearty country cooking such as shrimps and snails in herb butter, warm sausage pie, suckling pig on the spit, and pure-bred Aquitaine beef grilled over vine cuttings. The latest addition is the Mère Poule café with delicious coffee, snacks such as toasted sourdough slices topped with seeds and anchovies, and luscious home made cakes under glass domes.
The clientele seems to be chiefly French, educated, fashionable and decidedly not overweight. Les Prés d’Eugénie is a popular weekend destination for affluent city dwellers though many come for longer stays and hardcore spa regimes. I loved my cooking lessons but I’d be perfectly happy to chill out here for a few days, confident that I wouldn’t balloon after giving the dining room a good seeing to. C
For the first time this month (23-27 June, 2014), a five day course in English is available with French classic cooking, a pastry workshop, and a wine trip and tasting to the Chateau de Bachen winery, part of the Guerard family estate.
Les Prés d’Eugénie is situated in south west France between Bordeaux and Biarritz, about 100km from the Atlantic coast
easyJet flies from London Gatwick to Bordeaux