Food: Worth its weight

Is it possible to eat haute cuisine and shed pounds? Reluctant calorie-counter Simon Hopkinson had to find out
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For slightly more than the month of August I had endured a "regime", of sorts, trying to lose a creditable amount of body weight. I do this at least once a year: sometimes doing extremely well, sometimes not so well, depending on willpower, boredom and a natural gastronomic exuberance, wishing to eat whenever the opportunity arises, often without due care and consideration of the consequences. Greed, in other words. (If you read last week's article on La Tupina, you will realise that this sometimes knows no bounds whatsoever.)

This time around I didn't do too badly, shedding one of our earth stones plus 11/2 lbs which, of course, allowed me to feel much, much better than I had six weeks earlier. Well, get away! (When I have been really fat in the past, and while rolling over in bed, my tummy would sort of "follow through".) So, as a treat, I thought I would pamper myself with an entire week at the hands of Michel and Christine Guerard within their gastronomic spa hotel and restaurant complex at Eugenie-les-Bains in Gascony, hoping to continue the casting off of a further few pounds indulging in monsieur Guerard's original Cuisine Minceur Active.

Over the years I have eaten chez Guerard half-a-dozen times, but never before stayed, eaten minceur or immersed my sad body in the local thermal waters. "Eugenie in her Bath" is a spa village, famous throughout all France for its curative waters, as well as being "Le Premier Village Minceur de France" and, of course, home to the three-star cooking of Guerard. It is a beautiful oasis in the heart of Les Landes, a massive area of endless pine forests and dead straight roads, with hundreds of signs alongside them depicting produce of the region: foie gras, foie gras and more foie gras, and a bit of confit.

I have owned a copy of Guerard's Cuisine Minceur since it was first published in the UK in 1976. Expertly translated into English by Caroline Conran, the book was certainly interesting to read at the time, but, for me, was in no way as exciting as his ground-breaking Cuisine Gourmande that followed (also translated by Caroline Conran).

The talent and flair of the Guerards, and their whole operation, is enough to make you sick, but it should be noted that I did experience a few quirks here and there during my week-long stay. My really huge whinge is over La Ferme aux Grives in the village, the "country-style" restaurant associated with the hotel. Initially, the interior facsimile of a local country inn is most attractive: Spanish serrano hams hanging from the lofty, beamed ceilings, a suckling pig rotating in front of a wood-fired oven and a bank of vegetables and such like displayed for all to see and wonder at. Well, I wondered at it all evening, and was still wondering about it throughout the night and all the next morning. For me, it was nothing more than a pastiche.

The serrano hams hanging up may have been real enough, yet when sliced upon a plate, bore no relation to the hams on view. They might just as well have been extracted from a Sainsbury's vacuum-pack, so waxy-textured and pre-sliced they felt in the mouth. To then see my plate of L'epaule d'agneau de lait longuement rotie au four de boulanger (shoulder of lamb roasted for a very long time and very slowly in a "baker's oven") flashed under the grill and doused with a separate ladleful of hot gravy from another source, its accompanying pommes puree re-heated in the oven and generously slicked through by a sweaty chef's finger, popping it into his mouth to see if it was hot enough (cretinously, it remained barely lukewarm), and all this carry- on quite visible in the open-plan kitchen, it suddenly seemed utterly laughable.

But it was discovering that the gorgeous, crisp and golden pig on the spit was never actually carved in situ - the powers-that-be preferring to portion-control previously roasted Pinkys and Perkys from behind closed doors - which confirmed my worst fears. I did not stay for pudding, in fact I fled into the warm night, cursing and fuming over what had, frankly, been an ordeal. Thank God for the Margaux '83, that's all I can say.

You know, I had a wonderful week chez Guerard. Every single member of staff was a joy, my occasional evening Dry Martini was expertly made, breakfast was superb and coffee the best I have ever drunk. Also, my lovely room in Le Couvent des Herbes was a joy, its adjacent herb garden a mass of smells and neatness, together with the very special touch of the Guerards, so evident throughout the entire village that it felt as if the whole week had been irrevocably spoilt by that final meal. To the hedonistic perfectionist this is maddening. At least I had the memory of La Tupina, which was real indeed.

The week's menus

11/9/99 dinner chilled lobster consomme; whiting fillet with braised lettuce "ribs" and sea urchin juice; fine and thin fig tart.

12/9/99 lunch vegetable lasagne with basil; sliced duck breast with chanterelles; light custard cream with red summer fruits.

12/9/99 dinner cold Spanish omelette; grilled tuna with a braise of cabbage; light chocolate and coffee mousse.

13/9/99 lunch salt cod brandade in the style of an aioli; large ravioli with prawns and ginger; lemon mousse with cherries.

13/9/99 dinner chilled artichoke soup; baked omble-chevalier (char) with aromatic juices: profiteroles with fromage blanc.

14/9/99 lunch vegetable terrine, wild Camargue red-rice risotto with chicken; fresh fruit salad with melon sorbet.

14/9/99 dinner chilled carrot soup with orange; a mixture of fish fillets cooked in the style of a bouillabaisse; gratin of figs.

15/9/99 lunch fine and thin mushroom tart; roast milk-fed suckling pig; strawberries with lemon verbena ice-cream.

15/9/99 dinner clear vegetable soup; royal sea-bream braised with fennel; chocolate "leaves" with a chicory cream

16/9/99 lunch sweet red peppers stuffed with minced tuna; quail wrapped in cabbage and stuffed with pearl barley; fresh fruit brochette with apricot sauce.

16/9/99 dinner grilled leeks vinaigrette with herbs; grilled sturgeon; red wine granita with pears.

17/9/99 lunch and dinner The former led me to gourmandising in a manner that might be associated with having spent a week in the Kalahari. It was the cheese that did it. Having watched that groaning trolley trundle past me for the previous six days, it only seemed right that I might be permitted at least three whole cabecou de Rocamadour. I mean, come on! The latter, however, was not such a happy experience (see above). But I can honestly say that all the minceur meals were inspirational, supremely tasty and the work of rare genius.

Monsieur Guerard at Eugenie-Les-Bains

"Indulge" may be the wrong description for Guerard's cuisine, considering that his minceur menus are planned to the very last calorie, but this in no way detracts from the taste of this specialised cooking and the expertise therein. In fact, to fashion such dishes with the dieter in mind and to make them taste this good is nothing short of a miracle. I still managed - against all odds as it also included occasional Bloody Marys at midday, as well as pre-prandial evening Martinis and some wine - to control my wayward girth.

Recipe for the perfect retreat

In the 18 years since my first visit to Eugenie-les-Bains, the original Guerard hotel, restaurant and spa has filled out in the most dramatic fashion. The thermal treatments now take place in new, truly wonderful premises. Recently constructed from original timbers, tiles, with fenestration and fabrication most sympathetic, La Ferme Thermale d'Eugenie resembles a traditional Landes farmhouse. This is all due to the good taste and talents of Christine Guerard. She is the brains behind the overall look of everything, while her husband orchestrates his culinary magic behind the swing door. As if this wasn't enough, both proprietors also produce two local wines: Le Chateau and Le Baron de Bachen, vin de Tursan, a few miles away. And most delicious they are too.