available through Tasting Places
Tel: 020 7460 0077
Cookery writer Maxine Clark happily admits she loves Sicily more than any other part of Italy and it shows in the enthusiasm and wealth of local knowledge she brings to the courses she teaches in Menfi. Sicilian food is an earthy and exotic mix of European and Arab influences . Staples such as pizza and home-made pasta are also tackled, with Maxine exhorting her students to 'knead the dough from cellulite to a baby's bottom'.The week-long course takes place in the romantic setting of the eighteenth- century Villa Ravidá, the private home of a grand Sicilian family who now produce award-winning extra virgin olive oil. Early evening cocktails are served in the villa's elegant drawing room, which is decorated with faded frescoes and meals are eaten outdoors with unlimited supplies of Sicilian wine.
through Pata Negra cooking schools
Tel: 01732 750 174
Pata Negra are the cooking schools to go to in Spain. They run a whole tranche of courses featuring Sam and Sam of Moro fame to Michelin chef Luis Irizar, who holds his school at the northern Spanish town of San Sebastian.
3. Le Marmiton
through Gourmet on Tour
Tel: 020 7396 5550
Right next to the Pope's palace in Avignon is the hotel La Mirande, an austere building in a quiet cobbled square. Throughout the year the hotel runs intimate cookery classes in their nineteenth-century kitchen, where noted local chefs pass on their tips to beginners and serious food appreciators. Le Marmiton (a chef's assistant) puts on morning, afternoon and evening classes for a maximum of 12 people. I was booked in to a morning class. The smell of the wood-burning stove filled the kitchen and around a table sat 12 local food fanatics salivating at the thought of being trained by Christian Etienne, a Michelin-starred Avignon chef. I was lucky to be in a class with Christian because, although he spoke no English and my French is less than perfect, his charisma communicated everything. Christian's speciality is tomatoes. He loves them, and our starter, main, and even our pudding included tomatoes (green ones, on a tart). Our task was mainly to watch and appreciate a master at work, but we all helped out (there was a lot of de-seeding to do). The meal was accompanied by fine wine and a chorus of 'Ooh la la' from all the particpants. It was one of the best meals of my life.
Tel: 020 7680 1377
This is exactly what you need from a course: a good group of people (the organisers try hard to match age groups, nationalities etc), a charismatic, enthusiastic instructor (the wonderful, dark-haired siren Ursula Ferrigno) and a pair of hosts who should be given their own television show (no one comes as amusing or as informative as John and Berenice Bonnallack). As soon as I got there it was as if I had reached paradise. The sun was shining, the garden was full and plentiful and Ursula could reach parts of you - cooking wise - that you didn't know could be reached. Most students stay in the ancient villa (fully modernised inside) and then gather at the former barn-turned- cookery school for a morning session, then lunch and a siesta, followed by an afternoon session. Ursula, being Ursula, does not stick rigidly to the recipe pack we were given. That is not how she cooks. 'Ooh,' she'll say, 'let's make rosemary and apple cake!' and off you go. I made pasta! I even learnt how to chop properly. But more than that, I learnt how easy it is to love Tuscany and wish to remain in its beautiful sun-dappled hills for the rest of your life armed with a good bottle of oil, some fresh tomatoes and a bottle of Vino Santo.
Tel: 00 39 030 7760 550
Marchesi is a three-star chef so, if you wish to learn from a master, then this is the right course for you. There is no way that you, I, or anybody - apart from Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc, Marcus Wareing, Marco et al - could ever learn to cook to the standard of Marchesi's three-day course.This man produces food I can barely pronounce, let alone emulate. But that is not the point of the course. It is a lesson in which you look and learn but do not necessarily do it yourself. In the meantime, between watching the maestro and feeling depressed at your own incompetence, you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the hotel (a spa is opening soon) and drink copious amounts of their Bellavista 'bubbles'. Gualtiero is the consummate chef and he immerses you in the heart and soul of Italy. Included in the course are two guided tours of local vineyards, three nights, breakfast and lunch and three dinners.
Tel: 00 33 5 56 90 91 92
L'Ecole de Cuisine is run from the bowels of one of France's most historic and celebrated restaurants, Le Chapon Fin. Owned by the Cazes family - proprietors of the Lynch-Bages wine estate - the cookery side is designed and overseen by Michelin two-star chef, Thierry Marx. Run in English and French, it is open to amateurs and professionals alike. A sommelier is on hand to demonstrate wine and food harmony, and the course concentrates on typical south-western cooking, with a bias towards Marx's terre et estuaire (land and estuary) cuisine. It takes place at Le Chapon Fin from Tuesday to Saturday. Lunch or dinner are included.
available through Laskarina
Tel: 01629 822203
Stavros Gogios is chef and owner of Mythos, the best restaurant on the small Greek island of Symi which specialises in traditional medézhes (essentially a Greek version of tapas) with a modern twist. Persuaded to share his recipes by holiday company Laskarina, Stavros now runs week-long cooking demonstrations in his restaurant kitchen.
Tel: 0039 34873 63864
High in the hills of the Casentino valley, 50km south of Florence is Casa Ombuto - an amazing house with a swimming pool and views to die for. Michele, interpreter and frontman, and his wife Carla, one of the most respected chefs in Tuscany run the inspiring seven- day cookery course, held in the cave-like cantina of the villa.
9. Promenades Gourmandes with Paule Caillet
available through Gourmet on Tour
Tel: 020 7396 5550
This is a non-residential cookery course designed to be slotted into a weekend, or long visit to Paris. You could just about do it on Eurostar for the day. It's a terrific way of discovering the food underbelly of the city, as the Cordon Bleu chef and guide, Paule Caillat, leads the class round markets, butchers, the kitchens at the Hotel de Crillo, truffle and herb shops. You then return to Caillat's kitchen in the Marais and cook up your shopping.
Portel, Alentejo, Portugal
Tel: 00351 266619010
'The richness of our food comes from the poverty of our people,' says Miguel Amaral, head chef at the elegant Refúgio da Vila hotel in Portel, in southern Portugal. The Alentejo is one of the most traditional and poorest regions of Portugal, a land of wheat fields and olive groves - two of the ingredients which form the basics of the region's cuisine along with herbs, rabbit, pork and eggs. As Miguel says, local recipes, such as coelho á carvoeiro (rabbit and tomato stew) have been improvised to turn staple foodstuffs into tasty meals.