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The best cookery holidays for 2016

From learning to make your own orecchiette in Italy to mastering slow-cooked mutton curry in Sri Lanka, the best holidays combine relaxation with education. Find out our favourite cookery holidays for 2016

France

Head to the Mayenne countryside, in north-west France, for a five-day primer in classic French cooking led by English-speaking chefs (where necessary, a translator is provided). Based in a converted stone farmhouse where bedrooms come with exposed beams and countryside views, this course, at Walnut Grove cookery school, is for anyone serious about improving their skills. Each day starts with a breakfast of pastries and preserves before guests head across the courtyard to a fully equipped kitchen.

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As well as basic kitchen knowhow (knife skills, how to butcher a chicken and the importance of seasoning), classes include the preparation of a full gourmet meal each evening (think sous-vide tournedos of beef fillet with celeriac purée and garlic snails, and lemon tart with iced lime parfait, plus palate cleansers such as gin and tonic sorbet). As you cook and have dinner together, the course works well if you book as a group of friends: relax together after dinner in the living room, or on the terrace beneath the walnut trees that give the school its name.

What we learnt One afternoon is spent with French pâtissier Anthony Vancilli baking fluffy croissants, pain au chocolat and macarons from scratch – a real highlight of the course.

Don’t miss Nearby Laval has its own dairy museum in a former cheese factory – brilliant for cheese lovers, as is the rest of the town. Head up Laval’s cobbled streets to the food market in the centre of town (Tuesdays and Saturdays) to buy brillat-savarin triple-cream brie, trappe cheese and sarment d’amour goat’s cheese, then pull up a chair at Le Palais bar and enjoy a glass of wine with the locals. If the market is closed, stock up on local produce at roadside farmers’ cooperative L’Ilot Fermier – pommeau de Maine, elderberry syrup and calvados eau de vie make great presents (or digestifs, after all your hard work).

Five-day, full board courses start from £1,200 per person (walnutgrovecookery.com). Return train tickets from London to Laval cost from £99 per person (voyages-sncf.com). More info: tourisme-mayenne.com.


Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of the hottest destinations in Asia this year, with new hotels and restaurants opening with surprising regularity. If you want to delve a little deeper into the island’s rich food heritage, however, we recommend a stay at Ulagalla, in north-central Sri Lanka. One of a small chain of hotels across the island, this one is well located for exploring the region’s busy street markets but also provides a romantic and peaceful retreat to return to, with 19 secluded villas spread-out beside forests, paddy fields, rivers and lily ponds.

The kitchen gardens and restaurant are a big part of the resort’s identity (all the rice and most of the vegetables served in the restaurant are grown on site). And, if you sign up for one of the resort’s cookery classes you can pick up some useful tips between dips in the pool.

Classes start in the gardens, which are entered through an arch of passion fruit to find okra, fresh lemongrass and glossy purple chillies. Pick the produce you’ll be cooking with, then enjoy a relaxed outdoor demonstration as local spices and Ulagalla’s own coconut milk are added to dishes along with those just-picked vegetables – a perfect way to end a day, as you learn how to prepare each dish against the meditative chirrup and chimes of the forest.

What we learnt Slow-cooked, earthy mutton curry spiked with cinnamon, hot and sour aubergine, and fried okra with curry leaves and coconut milk were our favourite dishes that we learnt to cook here. As you pick the vegetables yourself, you see how big a part they play in the resulting flavours, much more so than you might imagine of a dish laced with turmeric and chilli powder. We made the most of the surroundings, enjoying the fruits of our labour plated on lotus leaves picked from the garden, in the resort’s atmospheric restaurant, a 150-year-old mansion.

Don’t miss Ulagalla can also arrange for you to head out on a tour of the food market in nearby Anuradhpura and be guided through stalls selling native herbs (mukunuwenna is one, used in local salads with grated coconut and onion), dried and salted fish, and more varieties of rice than you could imagine.

Seven-night holidays in Sri Lanka, with one night in Colombo and six at Ulagalla Resort cost from £2,059 per person, including flights, transfers and b&b accommodation (kuoni.co.uk). Add-on cookery classes cost £30pp. More info: srilanka.travel


Puglia

Borgo Egnazia, or ‘village Egnazia’, is quite literally that: a Puglian-inspired network of streets and piazzas that lead to villas, restaurants, swimming pools, spas, gardens and golf courses. It’s a self-contained luxury resort, beautifully designed around a palette of white and cream, and built entirely from tactile tuff stone. But what makes Borgo Egnazia really unique is the on-site Nowhere Else Academies – five-day masterclasses in everything from photography to fishing.

The cookery class, led by the enthusiastic Domenico, involves lessons every morning at Mia Cucina, one of six restaurants that pay tribute to Puglia’s timeless, simple, thrifty food. Whether you’re cooking pizzas in wood-fired ovens or peeling prawns, the approach is hands-on and fun; and tasting-as-you-go is pretty much mandatory when Domenico’s in charge. Getting to eat what you make afterwards is one of the pleasures of the experience – and if you can’t finish it all, they’ll keep any leftovers warm and send them up to your room; we feasted on homemade taralli (mini pretzel-shaped breadsticks) and chunky slices of pasticciotto (a rich and creamy sweet custard pie, spiked with blueberries) on our balcony one evening.

What we learnt Who knew how easy it was to make orecchiette? Puglia’s most famous pasta is just water, flour, a little semolina and elbow grease – not a machine in sight. Domenico explained why his family ate orecchiette almost every day when he was growing up in Puglia – ‘it’s all about making the most of what you’ve got’ – and showed us how to make a simple dough; roll it into thin snakes then pinch off bits at a time and mould with your thumb to create that distinctive ear shape. It might not have the yellow shine of fresh egg pastas but orecchiette is the most wonderful base for a fresh, unfussy sauce – raw tomato, basil, olive oil and black olive was our favourite.  

Don’t miss Try a café leccese, an ice-cold Puglian pick-me-up made from local almond milk and espresso. The resort’s bar is romantically lit with log fires and lanterns, and staff are faultless – detecting a sore throat, one barman invented a fiery, medicinal cocktail just for us. And if you can only eat at one of Borgo Egnazia’s restaurants, pick Due Camini, the most sophisticated option, where diners enjoy grilled octopus underneath vaulted ceilings twinkling with illuminated bottles.

Double rooms at Borgo Egnazia start from €137, b&b (borgoegnazia.com). Return flights from Stansted to Bari cost from £282 (alitalia.com). More info: viaggiareinpuglia.it


India

The Tamil Nadu region of India is famous for its rich, elaborately spiced cooking (chillies, coconut, tamarind and curry leaves feature heavily), and its biggest city, Chennai, is sometimes called the capital of southern Indian cooking. If you want to get an overview of the region’s specialities, one way to do it is to sign up for the Leela Palace’s Chennai Culinary Sojourn.

During this three-day experience, guests can make the most of cookery classes and demos, sample the cooking at the hotel’s Jamavar, China XO and Spectra restaurants, and enjoy a specially tailored cocktail class and tasting in the Library Blu bar, while enjoying all the other luxuries of a five-star beach-front hotel. The package includes a guided tour of the hotel’s huge contemporary art collection and sea-view rooms, luxuriously fitted with king-size beds and marble bathrooms, looking out onto the Bay of Bengal.

What we learnt A lesson on how to make parotta (paratha), the light-as-air Indian bread, was fascinating, and instructions in the correct use of spicing, gradually building up layers of flavour, were enlightening. All guests get a file of recipes to take away and practice at home.

Don’t miss Find out how to tell the difference between low and high-grade spices (and which combinations are typical of the region) on a trip to the local spice market with the hotel’s executive chef Dharmen Makawana.

Three-day, two-night culinary soujourns cost from around £710 for two people (theleela.com). Return flights from Heathrow to Chennai cost from around £475 (etihad.com). For longer culinary trips in Tamil Nadu try greavesindia.com.


Devon

On a bucolic 300-acre organic farm, cradled by the rolling hills of Devon, Romy Fraser (who founded holistic beauty range Neals Yard) offers seasonal weekend courses on Living Nutrition: what you should eat when – and why – to boost your immunity and sort out your gut. Learn about the food you can forage, grow, cook and eat at this time of year, then cook and eat it. Bedding down in a stylishly converted stable block in the farmyard, rooms are shared (you can check in for b&b at other times); a mix of shabby chic and contemporary design, ours had retro floral curtains, mini leather directors’ chairs, a funky Granny Smith-green bathroom – and a framed poster on the benefits of barley.

Communal is key here: breakfast at a big table by a wood-burner in the stable block features the farm’s freshly pressed apple juice, honey, jams and eggs. In the farm shop you can stock up on seasonal loose herbal teas and buy delicious handmade soaps and skincare products – and sheepskins from the farm’s Gotland herd.

What we learnt To cook for our bodies, in harmony with nature and the seasons, with award-winning chef and author Daphne Lambert, who ran an organic restaurant in the Welsh borders for 30 years. The Spring course focusses on the connection between soil biodiversity and gut biodiversity. You pick leaves in the veg garden, forage in the hedgerows then cook meals together, from hearty soups to desserts.

Don’t miss At weekly Wednesday lunches you can tuck into a seasonal spread at communal tables, after which you can take a tour to find out more about the herb and veg gardens, woodland, livestock and workshops.

Two-night Living Nutrition courses cost £335 full-board in shared twin rooms; book all four (spring, summer, autumn, winter) and you get a 10% discount (trillfarm.co.uk). More info: visitdevon.co.uk


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