Can you think of a better way to understand a culture than by learning to cook its dishes? (Other than eating those dishes, of course.) 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 are plenty of cooking vacations in Europe and around the world with courses for an hour, a day or a year.
This article will help you choose the right class for you by guiding you through 12 questions you should ask before taking a course and highlighting my own personal experience learning to cook in Tuscany.
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 maybe the bright freshness of the produce ignites some kind of visual epiphany. Maybe a chef's explanations at the market lead to insight into agriculture and rural life.
Whatever it is, I always walk away from cooking or eating outstanding food with an understanding 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).
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. I speak from experience.
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.
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 cooking lesson?
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. Just make sure you know exactly what you're getting for your money before you choose a class: compare like with like when you're deciding.
3. Who is teaching the cooking 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 de la Tour or Ernie from the suburbs.
While qualifications don't necessarily matter, if your chef has spent time in a Michelin-starred restaurant or written a cookbook, you'll be impressed! Even without these, find out about your chef's background - how many years has s/he been teaching, how many interactions with foreign students... all the things that can make or break a culinary vacation.
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. Read reviews and recommendations from past students to find out more about the atmosphere.
5. What size is the class?
You'll have a much better chance of learning something if your class is small, a dozen at most. This gives the chef an opportunity to interact with every student at every meal.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. What style cuisine will you be taught?
It's well and good to know you're learning about Basque or Sicilian specialties but there's more to this question. What is the cooking style of your class? Will it be home cooking? Regional specialties? Or are you about to learn three-star dishes with which to impress your guests at home?
9. 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.
10. Residential or not?
Some classes take only a few hours while others might last a weekend or a week, turning into a full-fledged culinary trip. 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.
11. What kind of accommodation will you be staying in?
You may be tempted to save money by staying in cheaper accommodations nearby (if this option is indeed available) but consider that you'll be missing out on all the camaraderie and special tips that emerge during evening wind-down sessions, or impromptu gatherings that may take place at a moment's notice. What if there's a last-minute schedule change? You may be the last to know about it. For me, this kind of trip is also about connecting with fellow travelers and sharing the experience, not dashing out to get back to my place before nighttime.
12. Where will the course be held?
If it's in the rolling hills of Tuscany, as was mine, you'll be able to pop out the front door and you'll be in the middle of the countryside. That time off to relax is part of the experience. If you're in the heart of the city, again, the experience will be different. Consider what you want to get from your experience. These days, with Google Earth, you should be able to see your destination clearly.
13. 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.
14. What if I have allergies?
If you're vegetarian or vegan or have other culinary constraints, make sure you ask beforehand if they are able to accommodate them and find out about the teaching menu beforehand. I dislike rhubarb and would be more than a little disappointed to find out I'm making rhubarb pie for the entire gang. If you're lactose intolerant or celiac, you'll want to avoid the foods that can make you sick.
15. 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. (I forgo the wine tastings since I don't drink.) Look at the schedule and make sure you have the time to wander and soak in the atmosphere - and especially to eat and enjoy what you've cooked.
16. 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 organizer 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.
“Good morning. My name is Sunshine.”
These may be the strangest words ever to come out of the mouth of an Italian chef running a Tuscan cooking class.
The name fit like a snug sweater, his smile infectious and every ripple visible.
parents had been “sort of hippies” and named him after the musical Hair. Try carrying that name
growing up in Italy.
And Sunshine he would be, smiling patiently throughout the three days it would take to teach me the intricacies of Tuscan food, of making pasta without massacring the dough and soup without burning it.
I have fancied myself a decent sort in the kitchen, what with my wide travels and Mediterranean parents. Each time I burn a dish or murder a sauce, it almost comes as a surprise.
I can’t really cook very well – and you have no idea how writing those few words pains me. Certainly I can rustle up a dozen or so classics, and have few enough dinner parties for anyone to notice I’m rotating my meals. Still, ineptitude in the kitchen is not something I would normally claim.
So when Flavours of Italy invited me to spend a few days with their Tuscan cooking class, I jumped at the chance. My particular cooking school sits on top of a Tuscan hill, as most villas in Tuscany do. Around it is Arramista, an estate dedicated to making wine.
Upstairs are high-ceilinged bedrooms and on the ground floor is a combination of kitchen, spillover sitting rooms and – most important – the classroom, a long table set neatly with a chopping board, an apron, a knife and a recipe for each of the eight of us.
Later that first evening, we prepare for our basic cooking classes.
“My philosophy is not to do things fast, but to enjoy the process, without stress,” Sunshine explains, simultaneously asking a student to rush outside and pick a few bay leaves.
And that’s how it goes for the next few days. We gather in the kitchen while Sunshine expounds on an aspect of cooking – how to hold the knife, how to chop, or in my case, how to wield a cleaver over unsuspecting lamb ribs.
We learn how to respect and combine the various colors of food, not to stir until we actually smell the onions melt and hear the spices crackle, and to use vegetables to make stock – no meat!
My first meal is perhaps the most memorable, kneading dough into ravioli shapes to the sound of Puccini. “My father always cooked pasta with opera,” Sunshine explains. With meat, it’s Genovese music – Sunshine is from Liguria, Genoa’s province a bit further north. For dessert, something more folksy drifts through the air.
I’m surprised to discover making pasta is fun – how simple, with only flour, eggs, oil, water and salt… and how astoundingly tasty when compared to something bought in a store. The filling is equally simple, a mixture of leafy greens and fresh white ricotta, supreme Tuscan cuisine in all its fresh simplicity.
dough has rested, I learn to roll it thinly, first cutting it into strips and
then into squares. It breaks, of course, but with a bit of perseverance
I’m soon filling it, gently pressing the edges with a fork to make those cute
little ridges around each piece. The trick? Press the sides first to let the
air out the front, then seal
When it comes time to cook we move into the kitchen, the kind you probably have at home, with everyday utensils so yes, there’s a chance I might be able to reproduce that evening’s success.
next few days our Italian cooking school students prepare a phenomenal number
of dishes – succulent guinea fowl with aromatic porcini mushrooms, panna cotta
(my first, but definitely not my last), tiramisú (not usually a dessert I enjoy
but this one… oh this one…), maccheroni with sausage and truffle butter,
braised lamb ribs with black olives and pine nuts, Tuscan apple cake…
The classes break for a quick day trip to Florence but soon we are back in our kitchen, stirring soup.
At night, the sounds of the countryside – howling dogs and a few errant mosquitoes – squeeze in through the windows, along with the fresh scent of crisp cypresses and the comforting odor of burning wood, all gently tickling me, pulling me into a deep sleep.
I can’t say four days of cooking holidays in Tuscany turn me into a cordon bleu chef, but my confidence in the kitchen is tripled. I no longer believe I will have to throw every pan away, nor will I keep a ‘reserve’ dish in the fridge when I have guests, you know, just in case.
Sometimes it’s all in the teaching.
“Some chefs try to make things too perfect so people are frightened of making a mistake,” Sunshine explains. “If there’s stress when the food is being made, that stress will be passed on to the customer. I was like that in my professional kitchen but now, teaching small groups in a home kitchen makes me relaxed. I enjoy sharing the knowledge so much more, it’s so different than the stress I used to have.”
cooking. Truly a ray of sunshine in my plate.