December 2, 1974 | Vintage Insatiable

Eugénie les Bains: I Lost It At The Baths

        A wholesomely voluptuous creature smiles and winks and sometimes stick out her tongue at me from the other side of my looking-glass. She has, I must confess, become addicted to a rather boring upper-class elegance -- the "cure." Last year she decided there was a bit more of me than pleased her, and off I went to purify my digestive system and shed fifteen pounds in a tyranny of Swiss deprivation at the Institut Christian Cambuzat in Crans-sur-Sierre.

        The irony of such excess in this time of famine and drought cannot escape even the fiercest hedonist. Well, I will give up my share of fertilizer to feed any tiny corner of the world. But I'm afraid that among grande bouffe-ists the search for slimming miracles will go on.

        In Switzerland the "cure" was near-starvation, herbal foot baths, mysterious aromatic teas, and disgusting food -- gray cardboard liver, the soggy string bean. That waterlogged bean haunts me. Are such culinary insults essential? From the Landes, that strange pine-forested terrain in the southwest of France, come tantalizing rumors. One of France's greatest young chefs has dedicated himself to the creation of a grande cuisine diététique. Some of us must fiddle while Rome burns. So here it is, a love story for these collapse-of-the-empire times.

         Michel Guérard, brilliant chef of the Pot-au-Feu, where once the world's gastronomic pilgrims laid their livers on the line, falls in love with tall, slim, other-worldly Christine Barthelemy -- daughter of a thermal-spa dynasty. Michel loses five kilos from joy. The waters of Christine's spa at Eugénie-les-Bains trim a bit more flab. The two are married in period dress. In a final farewell gastronomic orgy, the doors of the Pot-au-Feu close forever to make way for a highway. And Michel Guérard retreats to Eugénie-les-Bains, to Christine's stylish inn, Les Prés et les Sources d'Eugénie -- the Meadows and the Springs of the empress who once swam and swizzled the sulfurous waters.

        With scale and measuring vials and a calorie guide from the Institut Scientifique d'Hygiène Alimentaire, Guérard is determined to create an exquisite diet cuisine. The word filters across oceans; he is poaching ascetic fish in seaweed, napping rabbit in sauces of homely vegetables in purée. He has defatted the soufflé. He has defused the mousse.

        A woman can never be too rich nor too thin. Not all the slogans nor wisdoms of the women's movement have diluted that sobering dictum. So off I go by plane to Bordeaux, then by taxi ($60) to Eugénie-les-Bains. There, beyond a permissively tended garden, is the thermal station, and beside it, Les Prés et les Sources, bourgeois as châteaux go, but luxurious where it counts, with an appealing wit to temper all that elegance.

        And here is Christine Guérard herself, pale unpainted oval face and straight black schoolgirl hair, an echo of another decade in her turn-of-the-century lace and antique ruffles. The parlor is Victorian -- rose, filled with flowers and ridiculous bric-a-brac. Handsome bedrooms are wrapped in suede and floral prints, punctuated with Art Nouveau and Napoleon III touches, with fresh flowers and thick towels in the wantonly luxurious bathrooms where, alas, the water is not always as hot as it ought to be.

        We are in the dining room, fresh with painted wicker and fringed Victorian silk shades, no-two-alike candelabra, whimsical flowers, velvet walls, and, in a airy alcove overlooking the meadows, tiger-striped velour and a banquette of kelly green behind a table draped in Indian print.

        The metaphors are mixed. The hostess is German Expressionist, a redhead with full, perfect breasts -- nipples erect in clinging 1939 frock -- and shiny black platform boots from the chorus of Cabaret. Slim, vacant country girls in flowered pinafores serve.

        Everything in the room, except perhaps the subdued curistes, is witty or beautiful or both. If there were a Miss Universe contest for pumpkins, the pumpkin in front of the fire would win. Porcelain shells serve as ashtrays. Artificial sweetener is served in a china heart. The plates are outsize, handsome -- wicker green or a hunting scene in brown; the carafes, exquisite -- Art Nouveau with naked women in silver for handles, a legacy from the late, lamented Pot-au-Few.

        We are sipping the dieters' apéritif -- an herb-scented tisane, tea brewed from the beard of cornhusks, pine needles, cherry stems, and heather, served in a tall glass magnificently garnished with long curls of orange and lemon peel, a slice of fig, half a strawberry, a half-moon of peach. "It makes you want to sleep," Christine confesses. "And pee pee." Reed-thin Christine must think I need moral support. She announces she will take the diététique lunch too. "Oh no, it's not necessary," I protest.

        Christine insists. "It is not at all a sacrifice," she assures me. Clever Christine, I think. The artful diplomat. But then…perhaps she is right. Lunch is, quite frankly, breathtaking: a perfect poached egg crowned with tomato coulis, snips of chive, and bits of minced chicken, riding a crisp "al dente" artichoke heart in a cool, pale green sea of subtle cucumber purée -- a concerto of texture, color, and taste. What a glorious lunch. But wait. There is more. A second giant plate appears, a serious statement in beige: thinnest slices of duck in a rich pepper-studded sauce (nothing but white cheese -- "zero calorie," as Guérard puts it -- duck stock, and water whirred in a blender) with petals of apples…sautéed but how? Butter? Absolument non. They are cooked in Michel's Teflon pan. Dessert is another still life: a trembling fluted mound of delicate coffee custard capped with a crunch of espresso ice, ribboned with candied orange peel and a punctuation of ripe currants. The menu posted at the head of the stairs is reassuring: all these sense-beguiling delicacies total precisely 445 calories. Well, so it says.

        Still too dazed from transatlantic-jet turnaround to explore, I nap, waking at six to cross the garden for examination by the house physician, handsome, graying, decently functional in English. I am weighed, measured, blood-pressured, stethoscoped. Color of tongue and seriousness of motivation are superficially surveyed. He writes a prescription for mysterious daily soaking and sipping at the thermal station just a few hundred paces away.

        It is too late to bath or steam, but the directress signs me in for next afternoon at three and hands over a small covered rattan basket on a leather strap. Inside is a Eugénie water glass with gram markings. I join the six-o'clock waterers at the flower-banked fountain for my prescribed 100 grams of the sulfurous flow. Instructions are to sip slowly while reclining on the contour day beds that line the glass-wrapped terrace. I feel distinctly antisocial, so I have arranged myself and tumbler at the deserted edge of the terrace. Behind me I hear coughing, and in the corner of my vision, I can see an old man move with studied effort. The brochure for the Barthelemy family's "Chaîne Thermal du Soleil" is very handsome. The waters, I read, are "sulfurées calciques ou sodiques; ferrugineuses arséniacales." One doesn't need French to be impressed by all that. Conditions amenable to Eugénie's restorative springs: maladies of the tube digestif, colibacillose, kidney ills, afflictions of the urinaries and biliares, arthritis, gout, obésité, anémie. Suddenly my heart is pounding. My palms are wet. I am overwhelmed by a sense of the body's fragility. I want to believe in the curative spring. After all, I still believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I close my eyes. It is almost time for dinner. I do believe in dinner.

 

        All spas seem to draw a discomforting miscegenation of penitent gluttons, rich fashionable by slimness obsessed, and the genuinely afflicted. But now, with Michel Guérard in periodic residence, Les Prés et les Sources is a detour on the serious dining circuit, drawing chefs and Parisian chums and gastronomic groupies and the local bourgeoisie for Sunday lunch. The kitchen is poised to deliver the old Pot-au-Feu magic. Les minceurs -- the dieting curistes -- are pampered with the decalorized $8 menu. The dining room is already full. There are the predictable thickening matrons, solo or in conspiracies of two and four; a scattering of young beauties with nondieting husbands in tow; one delicious nymphet with super-thin mother overseeing the child's "cure"; and a few fat men in tandem with very large stomachs.

        In the parlor, friends of the Guérard's' from Paris are toasting each other with champagne; the crunch of their foie-gras-laden croutons echoes across the room. I sip my tisane. But after all, gastronomic envy is minimal. Tonight's dinner begins with a rich cream of fresh garden vegetables served in tall covered cups, herb-marinated rabbit, a bit dry, perhaps, with a zesty tomato purée, and mint-splashed melon, only 391 calories.

        True, Michel Guérard's legerdemain is not always sheer triumph. Sometimes a sauce seems flat or unpleasantly grainy. One day his greengrocer betrays a trust with overage carrots. Beef is invariably too tough. I find the veal of his blanquette de veau dry and bland. And, tasting a tender young chicken ascetically braised, I found myself longing for butter. But then, dinner at the Institut Cambuzat in Switzerland was one braised green pepper. Dinner at Eugénie might be a tasty and imaginative carrot "cake" flecked with mushroom, delicate fillets of fish cloaked in an aromatic "sabayon," and a tall glass of creamy, tart currant sherbet. At Cambuzat I was haunted day and night by tortuous fantasies of food. At Eugénie, the senses are teased with…other fantasies.

        Every day brings a series of new tastes, new still lifes, remarkable innovations: chicken poached in paper, a tiny leg of milk-fed lamb baked in meadow grass, slices of goose quick-sautéed rare and tender in one of Michel's low-calorie miracle sauces, remarkable soups -- tart sorrel, earthy mushroom, all herbed, lightly salted, but peppered with deliberation. The tongue burns faintly. There are creamy vegetable purées: spinach blended with pear, cauliflower so sweet it must be creamed. Absolument non, says Michel. An eggplant appetizer resembles a Cubist still life by Picasso -- the eggplant shaped like a fish, filled with a mincemeat of its own sweet flesh, chopped mushroom, tomato, shallot, and garlic, and wearing a sculpted slice of cucumber framed in a circle of tomato. Fresh sweet tomato spiked with thyme is served on a "tourte" of cabbage leaves. At midday there is a brochette of goose hearts (tasting like rare little kidneys) haloed with petals of Italian tomato slices -- celestial tomato, sweeter than a peach. At lunch one day we speak of the raw fish served by Le Duc in Paris. That night at dinner there are thin slices of raw pike lightly brushed with a peppery oil. Dessert is often fruit in a pool of raspberry purée, or carved into balls filling a hollowed-out apple, perhaps surrounding a custard made of raw almonds and the inner nut of apricot pits, smashed in a vise. There are feathery fruit soufflés, a defused diet version of Guérard's famous bitter chocolate water ice (invented that afternoon from cocoa powder and artificial sweetener), and even a stunning apple tart -- slices of fruit fanned out on the thinnest crackling of puff pastry (just one layer), glazed with melted apricot jam (home-stewed jam, artificially sweetened).

        The days evolve into a languorous pattern. One hundred grams of spring water. Breakfast in bed: supposed to consist of coffee and soft-boiled egg with tiny tips of asparagus to dip into the yolk -- or creamy white cheese, or yogurt, or fruit. But the chambermaids insist on serving everything -- all handsomely mounted with flowers and leaves and antique salt dishes on a tortoise tray. Calorie control is imperiled.

        The rituals of purification at the thermal station move slowly. One must abandon the morning to these drenching devotions. First into a small tiled room with a giant tub of sulfurous water up to my neck. I read until an attendant arrives with towel and pink terry robe. Then down the corridor to join the queue for the jet douche.

        We're all in this together -- men and women, the fat and the thin and the sweetly voluptuous, the hale and the hobbled -- in our shower caps and flopping clogs. I pretend I don't exist, on my white plastic stool, by racing along through novels in paperback. Naked now, against the wall, to be strafed from a distance by a somber attendant aiming a pair of water hoses. Next a massage, either by a slim attendant in a bikini who creams her hands and works under a water spray that keeps you warm, or "sur immersion" in a bathing suit. Into the communal warm swimming pool where there are jets at varying heights -- ankle, knee, thigh, waist -- to bob and rotate, letting the jet force tickle and smooth and play. Next, naked and into the sauna for fifteen minutes, then a cold shower, then another fifteen minutes of sauna; out. Into two robes and a blanket to stew half an hour at room temperature.

        And then the ultimate torture. The dreaded douche filiforme. Piercing needles of water aimed by the doctor himself, in apron and high leather boots, pricking one's venerable nakedness in all areas of real or imagined excess. Do I imagine the good doctor is creeping closer behind me to intensify the spray? I stand there caught in a sadomasochistic fantasy. I'm not sure if it is his or mine. One morning the needles seem more terrible than usual and a squeal comes out of my mouth.

        "You sound like a cat," he scolds.

        "If you wish, I can sound like a wounded elephant."

        "Ho ho."

      "I suppose you invented this machine," I venture.

      "No, it was invented by a Chinese. It's rather like acupuncture, don't you think?"

      Well, the scale says something is working. I'm losing a pound a day.

        Afternoons are for reading, walking through Eugénie (that takes seven minutes), Ping-Pong, sunning at the pool, tennis, exploring nearby towns with not much to explore. There are stables nearby, hunting and fishing, bullfights; next year the Guérards want to have a miniature golf course, bicycles built for two, and diet picnic lunches. Every evening precisely at six, a thousand birds began to sing in a kind of communal joy, or madness.

        In the kitchen, Michel demonstrates how to whisk a diet "sabayon" sauce that will make a meager ration of fish taste wantonly rich later that evening. "I hate the word régime," he says.  Régime is French for diet. "It sounds so military." I leaf through his calorie guide, pleased to discover that 100 grams of snails are only 67 calories; fresh Russian caviar is 51; wild boar, 110; camel's milk, 65; goat's milk, 72; mother's milk, 76. I wonder if Proust had any idea that 100 grams of madeleines are 490 calories. Even seaweed is listed, 240. Michel is high on his research, convinced he is scoring great taste breakthroughs he can adapt to his nondiet cooking. He dreams of a machine that will purée raw vegetables to mix with boiling water for a soup "that will taste of the garden."

        But he has an almost fatal flaw. He is too tender. "Give her one sip of this beautiful wine," he cries. "Give her just a tiny piece of goat cheese."

        A dozen of us are invited to dine one night with the son of the restaurateur Darroze in Roquefort behind the son's pharmacy. Michel carries a giant basket with our diet dinner. Everyone marvels at the beauty of our delicate watercress timbale filled with snails and ringed with Teflon-sautéed frogs' legs, and our braised calf's liver sauced with a clear juice full of minced carrots, onion, celery, and mushroom, scented with tarragon. But Michel benignly averts his gaze as our host urges les curistes to taste a bit of foie gras, a cèpe, a morsel of dove, an ortolan, a sip of the '47 Talbot and the '29 Cos-d'Estournel, just a taste of a miraculous Roquefort with a few drops of a lovely sweet Sauternes, and at least one swallow of an ancient Armagnac, an exquisite relic of 1900. Michel, help!

        Well, the scale has halted its gentle descent.

        I am sentenced to sip bouillon for the next day. Of course, the difference between nasty diet bouillon and Michel Guérard's ambrosial broth laden with julienne of vegetables is comforting.

        In ten days (two on bouillon and salad tossed with mineral oil) I have lost nine pounds. Four days later I have regained five. I want to have faith in measured indulgence. Surely it is sweeter to be pampered and fed in Eugénie than to have one's palate insulted and deprived in Switzerland. I left the Institut Cambuzat one year ago with stern instructions to maintain discipline at all costs for eighteen days, if not forever. And I did. I left Michel and Christine with a kiss on each cheek and a lemon-herb-scented pillow. And no discipline at all. The moral of all this is simply too terrible to consider.

Les Prés et Les Source d'Eugénie. Eugénie-les-Bains, Landes, France 33 5 58 05 06 07

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