Family-run Chiesa del Carmine is a recently (and elegantly) restored former church and country house in a gorgeous hillside setting near Perugia. Unless you prefer to lie by the pool for hours, your time among the vines, cypresses and umbrella pines can be crammed with hands-on gourmet activities before sampling truffle-strewed taglierini and a few glasses of fruity grechetto by night.
Book ahead for a session with local chef Gianpaolo Cipiciani, who will demonstrate the deft flopping and decisive chopping required to make your own tagliatelle and gnocchi. This is incredibly good fun, with plenty of hands-on involvement, fuelled by prosecco and prosciutto. Gianpaolo has serious lessons in technique to impart to cooks of all abilities, but gives them with an upbeat attitude.
Between October and March, don’t miss your chance to see a well trained hound dig up a precious white truffle. Hunts like this are sometimes rigged for tourists, but an outing to the beech and oak woods near Montone with Giancarlo, Beppe and their truffling dogs is the real thing. Afterwards you can move on to Beppe’s restaurant to see his son Alessandro preparing bruschetta, scrambled eggs, and pasta, scattered with fresh truffle shavings.
Hard-working hosts Chrissie and David live just up the hill from the Chiesa with their two daughters, and regularly invite guests for wonderful alfresco pizza-making nights, using the ancient bread oven built into the side of their old stone property. You can even cook for yourself, with estate olive oil, fresh pecorino, wild mushrooms and wild boar sausages, in the big, well-equipped kitchen in the converted 11th-century church. There’s also a dining room, a terrace with lovely views, and a drawing room with a grand piano.
HOW TO DO IT: Seven night stays at Chiesa del Carmine cost from £3,433 for two people, room only. Activities by arrangement. Return flights from Stansted to Perugia cost from £150 (ryanair.co.uk).
After picking one of 20 varieties of apple, uprooting some beetroot, snipping tender lettuce leaves and chard, and gathering heritage fruit or vegetables in the 1.5-acre garden at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, we return to the kitchen explore further the connection between earth and plate.
The stunning vegetable plots, orchards and herb gardens here are Blanc’s pride and joy, created from what was a rambling garden in the grounds of the property in the Oxfordshire village of Great Milton. A major force behind the resurgence of Britain’s grow-your-own movement, the Michelin-starred chef has now created a hands-on course that connects the garden with the kitchen. The Maman Blanc cookery course, named after the chef’s mother and muse, focusses on simple, rustic food and is taught in a kitchen modelled on Blanc’s family’s own.
Coached by cook-school head Mark Peregrine, we are shown how to sear the perfect steak, how to cook vegetables while preserving their vitamin C, and how to make Maman Blanc’s watercress soup. Classics such as a complicated-sounding but easy-to-master comté cheese soufflé are taught alongside tarte aux cerise (if English cherries are season) or apple tarte tatin.
The course demonstrates how food ‘is above all about taste, taste, taste’. Once we’ve watched the chefs demos, and tucked into lunch and afternoon tea, we are not only in agreement with Blanc’s philosophy but have a new-found respect for the graft that goes into following it.
HOW TO DO IT: One-day Maman Blanc courses cost from £365pp.
Picking your own ingredients is the culinary pursuit of the moment. But while, for most of us, that means plucking the odd blackberry from a patch of brambles, on Skiathos it means hiking for three hours up to a Greek mountain monastery, trekking down to a seaside taverna and being rewarded with a swim in the ocean, a beer and a serenade, all in the name of picking a few herbs.
The trips are led by an idiosyncratic (and appropriately named) German, Ortwin Wildmann. A long-term Skiathos resident, his love of this verdant Aegean island has led him to clear and signpost more than 200km of walking paths from what had been old donkey trails. Stop for a second along one of these routes and you smell fennel, next you pick up the scent of thyme, or sage. You can pick handfuls of camomile for a late night tea, or find a dozen other herbs, depending on the season. When you reach the peak point of the walk, almost all of Skiathos sprawls out below you, astonishingly green because of the island’s mineral-loaded underground river.
At cute Little Kechria Taverna, on the largely undiscovered Kechria beach, we’re joined by Ortwin’s wife Ursula (she sings, he plays folkloric songs). Then, with foraged foliage, flowers and a few berries in hand, we return to the kitchen of the beachside Skiathos Princess Hotel (sleek, chi-chi and calm) to be shown by the chef how to use them. As dishes like spinach and cheese pies, tzatziki, and oven-baked octopus are expertly prepared, you can either lend a hand or just sit and watch, sipping a glass of wine from the hotel’s own vineyard and toasting the fruits of your labour.
HOW TO DO IT: Seven-night holidays at the Skiathos Princess Hotel cost from £709pp, b&b. Herb hikes cost from €15pp and can be booked though the hotel.
Ballyvolane House is in the middle of glorious nowhere, a Georgian country house that designer Orla Kiely described as her ‘most beautiful place on earth’. It has been in charismatic owner Justin Green’s family for generations – he runs it with his wife, Jenny, and they’re always around to pour a drink or give invaluable advice. But it’s Justin’s background with the Soho House group that informs the hospitality here; it’s as much about hipness as history: sharp, potent rhubarb martinis, own home-smoked salmon sandwiches by the roaring open fire, homemade blackcurrant cordial in the handsome bedrooms.
Evening meals are dinner-party style – you might find yourself sitting beside a fisherman or an aristocrat. Or in our case, acclaimed Cork-based food-writer Tom Doorley and wife Johann, whose daughter works at Ballyvolane. The food, served family style, is as local as it gets – much of it from the family’s own grounds: we have Union Hall crabmeat salad, with lemongrass, ginger and coriander dressing, and roast Ballyvolane saddleback pork with crackling, creamy cider sauce and vegetables from the walled garden. Chocolate and hazelnut tart with homemade vanilla ice cream and Irish artisan cheeses mean we’re on the point of reeling straight up to bed. But then we’re let in on a secret: the hidden bar in Ballyvolane’s lush, green grounds. Any subsequent, er, indulgence is seen off next morning by a princely full Irish breakfast, served with real charm and featuring as many local pig products as you could hope for.
HOW TO DO IT: Double rooms cost from €198 b&b. Return flights from various UK airports to Cork cost from £60 return (aerlingus.com).
Three things make a perfect pub weekend: food, drink and walks. The Beckford Arms, tucked away in the Wiltshire countryside just 20 minutes from Stonehenge, nails the lot, right down to having gone to the trouble of printing a guided walk that takes ramblers past a giant lake, across hilly woodland, over cornfields and through the imposing Fonthill Estate stone arch. It takes two hours to complete and is a showcase of Wiltshire’s beauty – one of the best pub walks we’ve ever been on.
The food is just as thoughtful. Seasonal menus change daily and depend on availability within the local area. A whole suckling pig spit-roasted on the open fire is a Sunday treat, but staples of the main menu include Wiltshire rump steak with buttery mushrooms and chips, and crisp shoulder of nearby Boyton Farm’s mutton with smoky lamb sausage and pungent, fried wild garlic. Wild salmon is also home-smoked at the pub – try it with crème fraîche in a sandwich served with fries, one of many bar snacks chalked on blackboards above the fireplace. Eat in the cosy bar, or on squashy sofas in the lounge, with a Beckford Arms bloody mary on the side, made with homegrown horseradish.
Weary travellers can make use of the comfortable bedrooms upstairs. Continuing the hand-picked theme, these are all equipped with Bramley bath products designed by Beckford Arms owner Charlie Luxton’s wife, Chloë, and hand-made using purely natural ingredients such as sage, lemongrass and lavender.
HOW TO DO IT: Double rooms cost from £95, b&b.
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