At L'Albereta, ensconced in the well-maintained vineyards of Franciacorta, Italy's champagne country northeast of Milan, I was handed over seamlessly from a doctor to a chef, a wine maker, and even a gardener. To have one's well-being attended to by so many is, oddly, delightful.
The doctor is Henri Chenot, who has closely inspected and metaphorically caressed the digestive tract of many a European celebrity, from politicians to actors to fashion designers (the spa closely guards the names of its illustrious guests, but I do know that Karl Lagerfeld has visited). I met Dr. Chenot on the terrace of the library bar, where he discussed the human digestive tract as though talking about someone to whom life has dealt a sinister blow, such as an indigestible bite of meat or an unchewed vegetable. "Hardly anyone ever speaks of it," he told me, "and yet it ages. There was a time when people used to lose their teeth at age fifty. That is what happens within, too: it becomes harder and harder to process food." Chenot regretted that people have become "beggars," looking to others to solve their problems. The key to health, he says, is for every person to take responsibility for his own well-being.
Chenot trained as a marine biologist but had what he bills as "an intellectual accident" early in his career when he met a Jesuit monk by the name of Teilhard de Chardin, who had spent more than a dozen years studying Confucianism and Taoism in China. "If you don't understand human beings," Chardin told him, "you cannot know how to treat them." Chenot followed the monk's example and studied Chinese medicine for 12 years. In the early seventies, he began to develop a line of natural detoxifying and energizing tisanes and essences.
Chenot declared himself interested in health and prevention rather than disease. These days, said the doctor, people expect to live longer; they want to use their brain and body as long as possible. They don't see aging as inevitable—or at least, they'd like to delay it as long as possible. Chenot opened his first spa in Merano in 1978 to explore a branch of holistic science he termed "biontology." He now implements this in L'Albereta, his new "espace vitalité" outside Brescia.
I wanted to see Chenot practicing what he preaches, so I donned a heavy terry-cloth robe and left my palatial suite, flip-flopping into the elevator down to the new spa wing. Technicians in crisp white uniforms welcomed me to a private room overlooking very green lawns and helped me into a foaming tub filled with detoxifying essential oils. I stepped into its enveloping warm froth, and the foaming increased; no one seemed to mind that it was pouring out of the tub in great bubbling sheets and covering the floor. I stayed there for 20 minutes before being taken to another, smaller room, where I was asked to lie on a narrow bed. Mud was applied to my body, and I was wrapped in plastic, covered in blankets, and left to swelter—and, truth be told, doze off—in the dark. Twenty minutes later, the mud was removed in the shower room by a strong jet of water. The surprise is that this hydrotherapeutic procedure is not just for aesthetic purposes: yes, my skin became smoother, and I began to feel more rested, but my metabolism seemingly slowed down, thanks to the lavender and rosemary essential oils.
"After they've been to the spa, they come to me," said legendary Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, who in the seventies gave Italy its very own nouvelle cuisine and now runs L'Albereta's restaurant. Under Marchesi, a dish is not only prepared but re-prepared and remade. He often asks his cooks to create something while he watches, so he can check when they are adding salt or broth. Diners, too, can supervise the chefs, their tall white hats bobbing up and down, through the large rectangular window. It is a surreal sight, especially since no sound comes from behind the glass—no clanking pots, no falling spoons, no sizzling or spattering.
One maître d' had a prodigious memory for all the components of the amuse-bouches, and there seemed to be a dozen of those. My favorites were a tiny mussel in an orange-flavored cream,and a little iron contraption with steel arms (inspired by an Alexander Calder mobile) proffering a paper-thin slice of fried eggplant. Marchesi is a purist: he takes nothing for granted. Indeed, he once cooked four shapes of pasta and dressed them in almost nothing—a bit of olive oil and grated pecorino—proving that although each had the same seasoning, they tasted different.
Our waiters peppered the solemn procession of dainty dishes—a sharply cut square of cod in coriander, a lamb chop cooked in a lettuce leaf—with wry comments. "You cannot abandon us now," one said, when my friend Aldo Busi, the Italian novelist, protested halfway through the meal that there was too much food.
I surveyed the long, high-ceilinged room and thought of what Dr. Chenot had told me that morning: when he looks over a hall of diners, he sees men and women as different colors—yellow, red, white, green, gray. It's a world of opposites and polarities just like this one, with the finest cuisine in one hall and the ethereal fare of the Chenot spa—with its "biolight" menus designed by Chenot's wife, Dominique—adjacent to it. At the spa there are diet diehards who insist they must lose weight although they are very thin, and people who insist they must eat regularly and do so at Marchesi's restaurant.
Opposites often form a comfortable pair. Take my aunt and uncle: she is Mariuccia Mandelli, the formidable founder and designer of Krizia; he, Aldo Pinto, is the man who runs its business side rather brilliantly, even though he'd prefer to be playing golf. Mariuccia has been a patient of Chenot's for about two decades. She regularly stays at his original spa in Merano and lost no time in trying L'Albereta, which is much closer to Milan, where she lives and works. My uncle boasted that he took one look at the spa food early one morning, got into his car, "and my dear, in forty-eight minutes I was in Milan, having some lovely toast with butter and jam."
Yet I can see that good Dr. Chenot has had a subliminal effect on him. Though he has not made my uncle into one aware of the hazards of alcohol and pork fat, I have observed an unaccountable moderation: my uncle eats what he likes but never overeats and never eats unthinkingly whatever is placed before him. He belongs, I have deduced, to Chenot's secret society for the protection of the digestive tract. How do I know this?I compare him with other members of the family who eat, drink, and bellyache in the tradition of any self-respecting Mediterranean family. We would skip a meal only if our entire metabolismwere threatening to picket.