Did you ever dream of learning to cook authentic Italian lasagna or risotto? In Italy, no less? With perhaps some time out to see the Trevi fountain, and maybe the leaning tower of Pisa?
Well, If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to cook real Italian food, then you’re in luck: a cooking holiday fits the bills just nicely. You can go at any time of year, savor the products of your labors AND see the sights, all in one holiday.
What Exactly Do You Do On A Cooking Holiday?
OK, obviously you’ll be cooking at least some of the time (insert ‘duh’ here if you wish) but a real cooking holiday is about more than wielding a knife and saucepan. In everything but the most basic courses, you’ll also be involved in trips to the local market to gather fresh ingredients first-hand, as well as meeting the actual cheese makers, vintners, olive oil pressers and pasta-makers responsible for all these delicious foods, to learn more about the crafts.
If cooking all day doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry – you won’t shackled to a kitchen all day, either. You’ll also be able to to visit restaurants and wineries to sample the wares; take a break from the cooking to admire the offerings in local museums and galleries; and generally enjoy all the good things in life — really living la dolce vita — for which Italy is so famous.
One of the best things about a cooking holiday in Italy is that it can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. There are a profusion of cooking schools, travel companies and websites dedicated to those who want to mix a little lasagna making with a trip to see the Michelangelo’s David, so there’s something for every budget and itinerary!
Isn’t Italian Cuisine Just Pasta and Tomatoes Anyway?
No! No! And No! Despite what school canteens try to make tell you, Italian food isn’t all about spaghetti and meatballs. Take the north for instance, where the local cuisine are as far as you can get from ‘typical Italian food.’ Up in Piedmont in the northwest, Italy shares not only a border but also a lot of history with its Gallic neighbour, the end result of which is that the cuisine is an interesting mix of white truffles and herbed butter, risotto and wine. To the northeast, where centuries of warring have left an intriguing Austro-Hungarian heritage in the region, the locals inject their polenta with sauerkraut and vinegar, and serve up chunky sausages with thick beef stew to keep away the winter blues.
A little further south is the region famed as the ‘gastronomic heart of Italy’, the Emilia-Romagna, where the big towns — Bologna, Parma and Modena to name a few — bequeathed on the world the cuisine most people today think of as typically Italian: dishes of pasta laden with cheeses, tomatoes and pork, not to mention the famous Modena balsamic vinegar. Then there is the deliciously rustic cuisine of Tuscany, where lamb, beef, kid and game are all heavily featured, sometimes spit-roasted or grilled, but just as often in a thick hearty stew. Equally prominent in the Tuscan cuisine is the humble bean, cooked in practically every dish and serving almost as a substitute for pasta on leaner days.
Last but not least, there is the cuisine of the toe of Italy, where the land is harsher and hotter and more people live close to the sea; in Apulia and other points south, you’re more likely to dine on fresh seafood — mussels, oysters, octopus, red mullet and swordfish, to name a few — often grilled or fried in green olive oil. The mountainous landscape makes raising livestock more difficult, so here you’ll find a cuisine heavy in creative and surprisingly delicious vegetable dishes, often drizzled with olive oil and cheese.
There are other differences as well, between the north and the south, the coast and the inlands. For instance, in the north, most people make their pasta fresh, while in the south it is usually bought dry. You’d cook with butter in the north, olive oil in the south; eat foccacia in the north, pizza in the south; and of course, more seafood on the coast and more meats in the inlands. For the prospective cook, what this all means is that when choosing what you want to cook — and eat — be sure you know which regional style you’d prefer, or you may be in for an interesting surprise!
What Else To Look For On A Cooking Holiday
When you’re considering which cooking school to go to, there are a number of things to decide. The first is most important: Which regional cuisine? What sort of dishes do you want to cook — pizza, risotto, or fish stew? Then it’s time to think of where you want to stay. Do you want to spend time in a quiet farmhouse in the country, where you can enjoy slow strolls among the vineyards and olive groves? Or would you prefer a historic hotel in the centre of town, where you can step out for an expresso or a quick jaunt through the museum?
Also, would you rather learn from one chef at your home base, or study under as many as six chefs in different places? With just one chef, you can really get to know each other and don’t have to deal with traveling to other locales; with the more mobile option, you get the chance to learn many styles of cooking, see a variety of kitchens and restaurants and best of all, meet many cuisine-passionate Italians delighted to show you the best of their cuisine!
Then there’s the budget and duration: you can find everything from a three-day, self-organized work-eat-play experience in a country inn deep in Piedmont, to an elaborate two week guided tour throughout Tuscany, complete with winery visits, restaurant tasting and museum stops. A rough guide would be about USD600 for the less elaborate end of the scale all the way up to about USD4000 for the really grand tours (not including airfare, but often including meals and ground transportation), but there’s sure to be something to suit almost all pocketbooks and itineraries.
When To Go On A Cooking Holiday
Timing your cooking holiday is a matter of deciding whether you want to combine cooking with sightseeing. During the spring, especially from March to May during the countrywide Carnival festivals, you’d get a chance to cook and party with the locals without too much hassle. In the warm summer months from July to end August, Italy is filled with holidaymakers crowding the beaches, the mountains and the tourist sights; good time to go if you like to be social, but not if you want peace and quiet. Later in the year in December, you can combine a more general cooking course with the Christmas celebrations. The shoulder seasons — late spring or autumn — are a good compromise, when the hotel and airfare rates are still reasonable and most crowds still manageable.
If you’re more interested in the food, then you can time your visits to September or October, when most tourists have gone home and many sights go on shortened opening hours. This time of year, the grapes are just being picked and in many small towns, the harvest is celebrated with an exuberant festival, an excellent way to start your cooking holiday. In November, olives are beaten off the trees in the south while truffles are hunted up in Piedmont, Tuscany and Le Marche, so it’s also a good month for a visit, whether you head north or south. If you want to combine both food and festivities, then you can try coming in June or May, when much of the north holds Rice festivals, or in the case of Cantello, an Asparagus festival.
Of course, there are countless other events you may want to visit, so don’t forget to do your homework. A cooking holiday may strike you as a little bit unusual, but for those who want more than just a whirlwind tour of the sights and a little more insight into the Italian way of life, this is a great way to go!