Europe's Classic Cooking Schools
No matter your level of culinary skill, Europe has sizzling opportunities for your next cooking-school vacation.Call it the Food Network effect: These days, everyone wants to don an apron and toque. If Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay can make a perfect risotto, so can we. In Europe, the center of the culinary universe, you’ll find a menu of cooking vacations ranging from half-day demonstrations in hotel kitchens to week-long hands-on workshops.
To get cooking on your next European holiday, ask yourself these questions: Do I want a hands-on class, or am I content to watch the chef do all the cooking? Is the class size limited, so everyone gets one-on-one instruction? How much time is spent in class versus touring or free time? Does the curriculum focus on the type of cuisine that I’m most interested in?
Here are five European cooking-school vacations that offer the perfect recipe: a hands-on format, English-speaking instructors, an emphasis on regional cooking and plenty of time away from pots and pans to explore the countryside.
Toscana Saporita Cooking School
Sandra Lotti—the owner, director and head chef of Toscana Saporita Cooking School, believes there’s a cook inside everyone, and all you need to do to discover it is to dig in with both hands. Located in the heart of Tuscany on a 15th-century hilltop estate, Lotti’s school focuses on traditional Tuscan cooking techniques. Willing students can master homemade pasta, ravioli, gnocchi, pizza, focaccia, risotto, bruschetta, vegetable and grain soups, grilled, roasted and fried vegetables, fish and meat, pastries and gelato.
“It’s 100 percent hands-on,” says Stephanie DeMarco, Toscano Saporita’s marketing manager and a former student. Small morning cooking classes are followed by lunch. Lotti and her culinary team always infuse their knowledge with a touch of fun, DeMarco adds, so expect a night of dueling pizza-making or a classmate sporting an octopus moustache.
Besides cooking: Every afternoon, students pile into one of the school’s minibuses to tour nearby cities such as Viareggio, with its open markets, or Torre del Lago, the hometown of celebrated opera composer Giacomo Puccini.
Cost: $2,700 per person, based on double occupancy; includes accommodations, lessons, all meals paired with wines, daily sightseeing tours, taxes, tips and airport or train transfers to and from Pisa airport or Viareggio train station; toscanasaporita.com
Katerina Sakelliou warmly greets students at the Odyssey Centre as if they were guests in her home—which they are. The school is located in Sakelliou’s apartment-style hotel in Askeli, on the island of Poros, a two-hour ferry ride from Athens. She aims to immerse participants not only in traditional culinary favorites like moussaka, baklava and souvlaki, but also in Greek language and history.
“We chop onions, crack eggs, slice eggplant and have even pickled our own hand-picked capers,” says Barbara Cutter, a three-time course veteran, “but the gem is Katerina. Everything is done with a laugh and a smile.” For instance, the time the men in the course said they didn’t want to cook: A wily Sakelliou ordered them to meet her in town, then announced that the evening’s meal would be grilled fish. When the gents arrived in Askeli, Katerina handed them nets, pointed to a small waterside dock and said, “Just catch the fish. Scoop them out.” Befuddled by wine, the men started scooping—and, amazingly, began catching fish. Recalls Cutter with a chuckle, “What they didn’t notice was Katerina behind them, tossing fish she just bought in the water. Every so often, she’d yell, ‘There’s another one!’ ”Needless to say, the “fishermen” proudly cooked that night’s meal.
Besides cooking: Greek language and dancing lessons; Sakelliou leads a bike ride to her family’s farm to pick lemons and olives; sunbathing or kayaking on the beach, just steps away. Cost: $2,200 per person; includes accommodations, meals, guided excursions and language lessons; theinternationalkitchen.com
Cooking with Friends
Maybe you’ll never make bouillabaisse like Julia Child, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cook in her Provence kitchen. Occupying Bramafam, where Child lived when she wrote cookbooks with Simca Beck, Cooking with Friends teaches basic French culinary techniques. Chef-owner Kathie Alex also addresses the needs of American cooks, so you’ll learn how to prepare a simple appetizer of tomatoes and goat cheese in a phyllo tart alongside braised veal Provençal.
Only six students can squeeze into the tiny kitchen of La Pitchoune (which means “little thing” in the local dialect), which still has the famous large yellow pegboard wall with outlines of each utensil drawn around the hook (built by Paul Child to help Julia stay organized). Onsite classes enable students to practice the skills they’re most interested in improving, while a visit to a professional French restaurant kitchen shows them how a well-oiled machine runs en France. Says student Suzanne Wenz, “It’s a cooking-school vacation with an emphasis on vacation. You don’t have to clean up, there are no grades and if that onion isn’t perfectly diced, no one yells at you.”
Besides cooking: Alex takes participants to an outdoor market, butcher shop and cheese-ripening cave; afternoons are left open for exploring Provence or the French Riviera, 30 minutes away. Cost: $2,450 per person for double occupancy; includes accommodations at Bramafam and all breakfasts and lunches; program runs May–June and September– early November, with a special Truffle Hunt program in February; cookingwithfriends.com
Spanish cuisine has made headlines in recent years for its adherence to tradition, as well as for the innovative gastronomy practiced by leading chefs. Epicurean Ways operates six programs in Spain. Most popular is “Catalan Cooking in the Empordà,” a week-long chance to live the Catalan country lifestyle just inland from the Mediterranean coast in Madremanya.
Vincenç Fajado, the hotel’s chef, pulls double-duty as class instructor. Because Catalan cuisine is tied to both land and sea, dishes incorporate prawns, squid, shrimp, veal, game meats, sausage, wild mushrooms, rice and broad beans. Students like Etsuko Nakajima first learn to make four principal sauces: aioli, sofregit, picada and samfaina. “Everything is done with a mortar and pestle. No food processor,” she says. The sauces then work their way into traditional local dishes like escalivada (roasted-vegetable salad) or a surf-and-turf dish pairing prawns with rabbit. The hotel’s sommelier leads wine-tasting sessions, and dinners range from traditional restaurants to Michelin starred affairs. Nakajima was also impressed by the rare opportunity to visit a fish auction in the port town of Palamós.
Besides cooking: Visits to a winery, open-air market, artisan cheese producer and olive-oil mill. Bicycles are supplied at the hotel for rides in the countryside.
Cost: $2,600 and up per person for double occupancy; includes accommodations, meals and touring; epicureanways.com
Refúgio da Vila Cooking School
The Alentejo Region, which stretches south from Lisbon to the Algarve, is marketed as “undiscovered” Portugal, with its own culture, accent and style. At the Refúgio da Vila Rural Hotel and Cooking School, guests stay in a villa manor house and are taught to cook traditional Portuguese dishes using fresh local ingredients in the hotel’s homey kitchen.
Classes touch on Portuguese influences and seasonings and the importance of fish, olive oil, local produce and herbs. Milagros Cerdeira, who owns a wine store in Nanuet, New York, recalls learning the technique for a simple, traditional cinnamon-butter cookie. “It only had a few ingredients, but the pastry chef talked about the types of flour, why to use a certain butter and ratio of butter to eggs,” she says. “There was a focus on technique, but it was never boring.” Since Refúgio is in the heart of Portugal’s wine country, time is also spent touring and tasting at a wine estate, which blends ancient and modern winemaking techniques.
Besides cooking: Tours to the Arts & Crafts Center of Reguengos and to Évora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; dinner in the shadow of a 13th-century castle built by King Alonso III.
Cost: $2,830 per person for double occupancy; includes accommodations, all meals with wine, tours and land transfers to and from Portel; destinationsbymagellan.com
LAURA DAILY can bake a fine chocolate-chip cookie at 5,000 feet -- a feat not to be underestimated. She writes from Colorado.