Les Prés d'Eugénie: A French cookery lesson with a culinary legend

Andy Lynes dons his apron and gets chopping

Until 1972, the tiny commune of Eugénie-les-Bains in the Landes department of Aquitaine, south-western France, was best known for its spa waters. Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III and empress of France, gave her patronage in 1861 to the sulphurous thermal spring that had been known as Las Aygos de Saint Loubouer since Henry IV of France's reign in the 16th century.

But that was before chef Michel Guérard came to town. Now, the first thing you see as you arrive in Eugénie-les-Bains (a 90-minute drive from Bordeaux airport) is Guérard's name on the metres-high sign at the entrance to Les Prés d'Eugénie, the grand 19th-century colonial-style hotel, restaurant and health spa that he owns and runs with wife Christine and daughters Adeline and Éléonore.

Guérard was one of the architects of Nouvelle Cuisine, the 20th-century movement that lightened traditional French cooking and replaced food served from silver salvers with dishes artfully plated by the chef, thereby providing the template for all modern haute cuisine. It's no exaggeration to say that the 81-year-old is a living legend of gastronomy; he has held three Michelin stars at the hotel for a jaw-dropping 37 years.

So I was a little nervous when the great chef appeared in the hotel's new state-of-the-art cookery school. I'd been taking part in a taster morning of the first English-language lessons ever to be offered in the 42 years Guérard has been here.

The 19th-century colonial-style hotel, restaurant and health spa The 19th-century colonial-style hotel, restaurant and health spa Dressed in the provided aprons and toques (hats), four of us had spent the morning in the conservatory-style building that looks out over the manicured grounds, attempting to replicate dishes from the hotel's menus under the watchful eye of Lieven Van Aken (the only English-speaking chef in the hotel's brigade) and his assistant.

Van Aken first demonstrated a dish, then monitored our every move as we worked at our individual stations. It's serious stuff: shallots and ginger finely chopped; carrots sliced into thin julienne sticks. (Anything that didn't meet the chef's high standards was rejected and the chopping and slicing began again.) Then it was all added to a curry-scented orange-blossom sauce served with seared scallops which the chef ensured we cooked to perfection. We'd de-boned a whole maize-fed Landes chicken (the region is renowned for its poultry), removing the legs but taking care to keep the breasts and the skin intact so we could stuff them with cream cheese, fresh herbs and a log of foie gras.

Then Guérard arrived. Standing no taller than my shoulder, wearing pristine chef's whites, he peered at the chicken supreme on my chopping board. It was a tense moment – after all, this is the man who has trained countless world-famous chefs, including Alain Ducasse, who currently holds a total of 21 Michelin stars.

"Très bien!" he said with an impish smile. I mumbled an awed "Merci" and held back a fist pump.

Our lesson ended with a demonstration of how to make apple and lime soufflé, a dish from Guérard's repertoire of low-calorie cuisine minceur spa dishes that he first created back in the 1970s. It's a simple yet ingenious recipe; instead of the usual soufflé base made with a heavy butter and flour roux, Van Aken deftly mixed apple purée, flavoured with lime juice and zest and sweetened with fructose, first with egg yolks and then whipped egg whites. Baked for eight minutes, the result is packed with flavour but light as a feather.

This is a good thing, as during our three-night stay we gave the hotel's food and beverage offering a thorough going over. We started with a relatively modest selection of tartine (open-topped sandwiches) and champagne at the newly opened Mère Poule et Cie Café Culinaire, a cosy and informal place that's attached to the cookery school. Our first-night dinner was held in the opulent three-Michelin-star restaurant, with views over the front courtyard, planted with banana plants and the spa in its meadow-like grounds to the rear. It was a run-through of some of Guérard's signature dishes, including "Tsarina Egg" – an eggshell filled with a jellied mackerel and white-wine consommé topped with potato, celeriac and cauliflower mousse and a generous layer of caviar. Two three-course lunches from the minceur menu both weighed in at less than 650 calories each (assuming you skip the alcohol and irresistible sourdough bread and superb creamy butter) and included a bright and refreshing dish of spiced crab on pink grapefruit jelly.

Les Prés d’Eugénie is undeniably grand and luxurious Les Prés d’Eugénie is undeniably grand and luxurious I tried a number of dishes cooked over an open fire (another signature of the hotel) including local pigeon and lamb from the nearby Pyrenees. But perhaps the most memorable meal was served at La Ferme aux Grives, a rustic stone- and pebble-walled auberge a short walk from the main house. Here diners sit in front of a well-worn kitchen table where a chef works behind a display piled high with cabbages, peppers, leeks and courgettes. Behind him, a whole suckling pig is roasted slowly on a spit. It was impossible not to order a portion, which came with spoon-ably tender meat beneath a shiny carapace of crispy skin and a sausagemeat, apple and ginger stuffing. The side dish of smooth and buttery mash was almost worth making the trip to Landes for by itself.

Les Prés d'Eugénie is undeniably grand and luxurious; my large suite, complete with working open fireplace, marble bath and antique furniture, was in the L'Impératrice wing where Empress Eugénie stayed when she was in town. Yet there is also a genuine family feel to the place. Various members of the Guérard clan are always in and around the hotel.

During an after-dinner tour of the kitchens, I stumbled on proof-positive that the octogenarian chef is still a hands-on presence. As the chefs assiduously cleaned around me, I spotted a handwritten menu clipped above the pass. Neatly formed block letters were punctuated with looping Fs and long tailed Ps. "Who wrote this?" I asked a passing waiter. "That is M Guérard's own handwriting," he told me. I waited until no one was looking then quietly removed the document: my own small piece of French culinary history.

Travel essentials

The Les Prés d'Eugénie (00 33 5 58 05 06 07; michelguerard.com). The English cookery course runs from 23-27 June and costs £720pp. Double rooms start at €250 per night. easyjet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Bordeaux from £82 return.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions