As the pleasure of the Baker’s company had already begun its slow, steady decline, the town of Eugénie-les-Bains, in France’s southwest corner, just outside the French Basque region, came just in the nick of time.
This town has long been celebrated for its healing spring waters and tranquil valley setting, and as we coasted into town on a winding road lit golden by the late afternoon sun, I could see why thousands of people have been relaxing, easing their pains, and “taking the water” here for years.
Acclaimed chef Michel Guerard gives folks another reason to make the trek here to improve their health: cuisine minceur, a form of healthy cooking Guerard invented. It’s basically cooking in a traditional French method, but with lower-calorie or higher-nutrition substitutions. Think fish steamed in a concentrated, fragrant spring vegetable broth instead of pan-fried in bread crumbs with butter. Fresh, light, satisfying and French are the defining words for Guerard’s speical, form-enhancing cuisine.
The town was simply beautiful, with one small road leading through the small valley floor. Small rock and sandy paths led off each side of the road into gardens and trees and old stone churches and houses. Water fountains, flowers, lawns of grass and pastel-painted shutters on the windows surrounded us as we pulled into La Maison Rose, the most affordable of Michel’s three lodgings in town, Les Pres d’Eugenie (which, with his two restaurants, seemed to take up one entire side of town).
I felt such relaxation and peace here that I began to drink in long, slow, deep breaths of the fresh spring air, and to feel better about us. And we would dine well tonight!
The main house held the gourmet restaurant, while a simple restored farmhouse held his rustic restaurant, La Ferme aux Grives — built to look like his childhood home, everything cooked over a fire in a big hearth in the main room like his mother used to cook. We chose the gourmet menu in the white and beige-colored dining room. It was the most beautiful and peaceful dinner setting I had ever seen! I could barely see any other diners for the nooks of tables and gorgeous flowers everywhere, and the waiters excelled in hushed voices and silent steps. Michel himself was also here, with a smile and a warm handshake.
The sun was setting and a warm breeze wafted in. I felt positively serene and agreeable to any story to come from the Baker’s mouth tonight. The wine certainly helped. And the first course was a mushroom soup, with a “cloud” and truffles on top. Sigh.
Then steamed lobster with butter and herbs, plus duck breast and foie gras with a trio of citrus sauces.
And, of course, his signature local fish with fresh spring vegetables and a hearty consommé.
Cheese course: gooey French cheeses are the best antidote to anything that ails you, including affairs of the heart.
The desserts were the best: this was a lemon soufflé with a brûlée top. Gorgeous on the plate and in the mouth.
I love rhubarb (reminds me of grandmothers) and our menu happened to have a Festival of Rhubarb listed. A small plate of rhubarb tarts and pastries along with a baked bread pudding with rich, creamy rhubarb ice cream. It was a dream.
I was thankful and full and resigned. This elegant dinner would be our last real pleasure — our last act of kindness and love — and I would always remember it with a smile and a long, deep breath.