Easy Escapes: Cookery in Tuscany

Eirwen Oxley Green brushes up her culinary skills on a short break to Italy

Eirwen Oxley Green brushes up her culinary skills on a short break to Italy

Why go? Love Italian food? Partial to prosecco? Like the idea of mooching around Florence with a local expert? If you answer yes, yes and oooh yes, then a cookery holiday to Tuscany could be just the (meal) ticket. From the right way to hold a knife to creating perfect homemade pasta, this is a trip where you’ll return home with practical kitchen tips and a stack of recipes (we’ll draw a veil over the extra pounds that will likely accompany you, too).

Food for thought: a visit to the San Lorenzo market in Florence is a must

When? Flavours Holidays’ three-night Tuscan short breaks run during March, April, May, September and October, or choose a week-long course (which run throughout the summer as well) to really immerse yourself in the country and its cuisine. Spring and autumn dates are quieter in Italy, tourist-wise, but if it’s heat you’re after, June through to August rarely disappoint.

Stay at: La Frasca, about 40 minutes’ drive east from Pisa, is a ten-bedroom villa overlooking picture-perfect vineyards. This traditional Italian farmhouse has been lovingly restored, creating a comfortable home away from home – it’s the kind of place where you can squish the sofa cushions just the way you like them and put your feet up with a glass of something cold. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for ‘me-time’ if you want to get away, and if you’re here during the warmer months, the outdoor pool provides a welcome place to lounge and dip. 

Dine at: Aside from a couple of meals prepared exclusively by Sunshine, our Italian chef (his real name, would you believe?), our cookery lessons are hands-on cook-ups: everyone gets stuck in to prepare the evening meal. And what meals they are! From branzino all’isolana (a heavenly concoction of sea bass, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and herbs) to risotto with sea bream and asparagus, each dish focuses on seasonal, local produce – either grown on the estate or bought that day from the local market. As for dolce, if your experience of panna cotta and tiramisu is the shop-bought variety, prepare to set your gastronomic bar significantly higher. Wine and soft drinks are included in the package, naturally.

“Oh, you just get a fork and…” On this course you’ll learn the secrets of making pasta

The course: Some cookery courses are very hands on, others more like demonstrations by the chef. This one is a mixture of the two, and we have three lessons each lasting 1.5 to two hours. We are taught how to make pasta, then at other times presented with recipes that Sunshine then cooks – we become his sous-chefs, essentially. This means I spend a lot of time chopping veg, stirring, frying and so on, when I would prefer to be learning a particular technique, or be put in charge of a dedicated aspect of the finished dish. What you do get, though, is a lovely shared feeling of ‘I made that’ when everything is finally served in the dining room. At the end of the course we are given print-outs of each recipe, and a Flavours apron to take home.

It’s worth bearing in mind that your fellow students are all part of the adventure, giving you an opportunity to meet like-minded foodies and wannabe gastronomes. This is important, as much of the success of these breaks depends on who is in your group. I’m here on my own – singles are welcome with no additional supplement – but on reflection it would be more fun if I’d come with a friend. Although the maximum class size here is nine, on this weekend there are only three others, a couple in their sixties (very sweet, but we don’t have much in common), and a shy thirty-something, with everyone heading up for bed much earlier than I would have hoped.

Look what I’ve made: the perfect ribolita (Tuscan soup)

You really must… Although cooking is king on this type of holiday, it isn’t solely kitchen-based. We spend some time in the Tuscan capital with our gorgeous Italian Flavours hostess Anna, including a couple of hours wandering round Florence’s famous San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale, an Aladdin’s cave of food treasures. Trust me, you’ll want to bring it all home with you!

The city is also renown for its perfumeries, where you can either sniff and buy, or, if you have a bit more time, take the opportunity to create your own personalised fragrance. One of the world’s oldest places to do this is the mind-blowing Officina Profumo Farmaceutica de Santa Maria Novella (smnovella.it), which recently celebrated 400 years of uninterrupted business, a stunning frescoed shop and workshop dedicated to the art of perfume-making.

You could, of course, tag a couple of days on to your holiday and explore at leisure, and if you do, there are plenty of traditional Tuscan festivities to get your teeth into. June sees Florence paying its respects to St John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint, a celebration that concludes on 24 June with a fabulous firework display. September, meanwhile, is the city’s La Rificolona (Festival of Lanterns), a torch-lit procession dating back to the days of religious pilgrimage to celebrate the Virgin Mary’s nativity, with people carrying lanterns all over the city. Food is still very much at the heart of the celebrations, with a huge fair of organic produce in the city’s main square to feed festival-goers.

Tuscan treasure: a visit to Florence is all part of the fun

Bring home: Extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cantuccini (cookies) are winners every time, but the local food markets will introduce you to a whole range of traditional foodstuffs you didn’t realise you absolutely had to bring home, from finocchiona (a large pork salami spiced with wild fennel) to fragrant, locally sourced truffles. Our trip also includes a private winetasting – which begins with a fascinating tour of the vineyard and its inner workings – at Cosimo Maria Masini (from £6; cosimomariamasini.it), an estate producing fully organic and biodynamic wines. Swill and taste the difference a wet summer, say, can make to a humble bottle of wine, then stock up in the shop with whatever tickles your viticultural fancy. The area produces some gorgeous handmade soaps, too – fill up with pleasingly chunky, rustic, vegetable-based blocks enriched with precious oils, essences and floral extracts.

Book now: Flavours Holidays (0131 343 2500; flavoursholidays.co.uk) offers three-night cookery breaks to Tuscany from £899 per person including three cookery lessons, all meals and wine, an afternoon excursion, a private wine tasting and transfers. This price includes a £100 allocation for flights, or you can deduct this and book your own. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted to Pisa from around £70 return in June. Week-long holidays are also available to Venice, Amalfi, Puglia and Sicily.

Info: Florence & Tuscany (£11.19; DK Eyewitness Travel) covers the region. Useful websites are turismo.intoscana.it and discovertuscany.com.

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