I can't think of a much better way of spending time than learning to cook a culture's favorite dishes - other than eating those dishes, of course.
There are plenty of cooking schools in Europe with courses for an hour, a day or a year. Learning to cook is one pathway to cultural immersion, not to mention a great way for solo women to engage with a facet of local life.
There's something about a culture's soul that comes through its culinary traditions better than from any amount of reading a dry history book. Perhaps the smells provide a key to understanding, or the bright freshness of the produce ignites some kind of visual epiphany. Maybe a chef's explanations at the market provide insight into agriculture and rural life.
Whatever it is, I always walk away from cooking or eating outstanding food with insight I didn't have.
It took a recent Tuscan cooking class near Pisa for me to acknowledge it was best to knead pasta dough to the sound of opera (concentration), that rosemary is so popular it is sometimes deep-fried and crunched (snacking habits), and that vegetable stock is preferable to meat stock because it keeps much longer (conservation and budgeting).
And now, down to the nitty gritty.
If you search online you'll find pages upon pages of cooking schools promoting their courses - the best, the shortest, the cheapest, the easiest to get to, the most rated on Tripadvisor... I certainly can't choose the best but what I can do is raise a few questions, seed a bit of doubt, tempt you with a few queries so that when you do choose, you'll have a far better chance of making the right decision for yourself.
1. How long is the course?
This will probably be your first decision because most others flow from this one. If you're in town for a day or two, you won't want to spend more than a couple of hours in a class but if you're there for several weeks a long weekend might be just the thing.
2. How much does it cost?
Of course - you have a budget and you're sticking to it. End of story.
3. Who is teaching the class?
Now it gets interesting. Is the chef native? Local even? Or someone from head office flown in for the occasion? Nothing wrong with that - but you should be told whether you'll be working under Chef Réglisse or Ernie from the East End. Does the chef have actual restaurant experience? What about teaching experience and even more critical, what about teaching foreigners? We can be a difficult bunch, right?
4. What is the class style?
If you're the formal type, you'll expect a neatly organized binder with schedules and every list under the sun. If you're more of a take-it-as-it-comes person you'll like the informality of going with the flow. Either way make sure the class matches your spirit or you might be in for a few hours - or days - of hell.
5. What kind of kitchen will you be using?
Your kitchen can range from a fully professional institute to a home kitchen. Both have advantages. A professional kitchen will stretch you beyond what you're accustomed to, but a home kitchen will show you how to make do with what you have at home. There are advantages to both.
6. Level: beginner or advanced?
The class level is crucial. If you're an omelet-level cook and you join a specialized patisserie class, you may be pulling your hair out at the first tarte tatin. The opposite will happen if you're a soufflé queen and your first class is about making your first pizza.
7. How much cooking is there?
Classes can vary in pace. You might cook all courses in a meal, all meals in a day, cook one course while the chef shows you how to cook another, or the chef might cook them all. Decide on the level of involvement you prefer and make sure the class matches your expectations or you might be slaving over a hot stove when you'd rather be sipping wine under the cypresses.
8. Residential or not?
Some classes take only a few hours while others might last a weekend or a week. If I have little time I'm happy to spend half a day in a cooking class but my preference is a residential several-day course, with a bit of time off for sightseeing in-between.
9. What kind of people take this class?
If you're planning on a residential class make sure you're somewhat compatible with the other students. If you're in bed by nine you might not appreciate a bevvy of springbreakers whose idea of cooking class is to sample the cooking wine - all of it. Conversely if you're planning on the samba or tango in the evenings, don't take classes that have you hiking to a distant market when the cocks are still crowing with the keep-fit crowd. It's all about affinity. At least a bit.
10. What if I have allergies?
Find out about the teaching menu beforehand. If you're lactose intolerant or celiac, you'll want to avoid the foods that can make you sick. I dislike rhubarb and will be more than a little disappointed when I find out I'm making rhubarb pie for the entire gang.
11. What is the rest of the schedule like?
Many cooking schools like to include extra activities, like walking tours or wine tastings or going to the market with the chef. These are all part of my education. I want to know why the chef chooses that yellow tomato over that crimson one, or this handful of shrimp rather than that one.
12. Reviews and referrals: have others liked it?
Word of mouth and social proof are much more important than advertising and what a school says about itself. Search for reviews online, post on forums and ask like-minded friends if they've heard of the organization you've chosen. You can ask to contact a satisfied customer with more incisive questions if you wish. Many positive or negative reviews online should at least give you a strong indication of whether this is going to be a joy or a gigantic mess. Few reviews doesn't necessarily mean bad - the school might just be new and unknown.
If you love to cook you'll find a class anywhere and everywhere, but let's face it, some countries have made teaching you an art. Here are the ones I think would make my top list.
France may well have the greatest number of cooking schools in Europe. Not only is it renowned for its gourmet cuisine, but its regional cooking has made mouths drool for centuries (including mine but perhaps not for centuries). French cuisine is world-renowned, of course, but cooking from the regions of Provence, Lyon, Alsace and many others are also superlative.
Every corner of the country has a specialty, and these can range from the way a chicken is trussed or raised - France's Bresse chicken is protected by law! - to the number of veins on a cheese.
Let's not forget that France is the country that birthed food literature, and which some of the biggest names in food come from - Brillat-Savarin, Escoffier, Bocuse... French specialties you might like to get your hands on include cheese, cream, wines, charcuterie, truffles, seafood, herbs - the list is much longer.
Like France, Italy has a range of regional cuisines - Tuscan, Sicilian, Genoese - and entire cities are known for a single product, like Parma ham or Neapolitan sauce. Produce in Italy is so fresh it bursts with energy and color and crunch. Italian cuisine influenced France's during the Middle Ages and that impact is still heavily felt in the country's South.
Italian cookery traces its roots to Roman times and beyond. Despite its venerable history, it is relatively simple to prepare - even I managed to make acceptable ravioli. Compare standard Italian and French recipes and you'll see what I mean: olive oil, tomatoes, pasta, cheese, a meat, herbs, lemon, garlic... these are some of the typical ingredients you'll work with but you'll be amazed at how wildly different they can taste in the hands of a master chef.
And you'll rarely have to line up more than a dozen ingredients to make your meal, rarely.
Now I'm being really partial. I lived in Spain throughout my late childhood and my teens, so this is where my taste buds were trained. That means I love olive oil, garlic, eggs, peppers, jamón, beans... and these days Spanish chefs, especially from the North, are considered among the best in the world. (Just look at these tapas from Santiago!)
Who hasn't swooned over a paella cooked while overlooking the Mediterranean, or done some tapas-hopping from bar to bar Seville or hung around markets like Madrid's San Miguel?
Spain doesn't have Italy's teaching tradition and while there are culinary classes, they are still a relative novelty - but becoming more common as demand grows. I learned to make the perfect tortilla at a cooking class in Barcelona and yes - it was PERFECT.
Thailand is heaven for anyone looking to learn to cook. There are schools and institutes in many towns, hotels and restaurants give classes, and you can learn in people's homes.
Thai cooking is complex and while some recipes are easy to master, there are layers upon layers of cuisine that are difficult to unpack. To me though, that complexity is part of what makes Thai food so enticing.
Imagine pounding your own green curry paste, mixing it to prepare your own geng keaow wan, shaping your own mound of mango and sticky rice. I learned how to make som tam tai (papaya salad) in a tiny restaurant. The woman in the open kitchen pointed to a huge mortar and asked if I would like to pound the tomatoes. I did. And the peanuts. And cut the green mango (though I used a tame knife as opposed to the whacking machete she wielded). And then, blissfully, I sat and ate it.
Anywhere there's good cuisine and travelers, someone is bound to find a way to teach how it's done.
There are many reasons to see the world and food tourism is just one of them. From where I stand it's among my top five, because food is such an important part of every voyage for me.
Whether I eat or cook or learn about culinary culture, I come away with a strong sense of the place I've been eating my way through.
In the mood for cooking classes while you travel? Click here for some great choices from around the world.