It's one thing to seek good food on vacation. Increasingly, though, cookbooks are replacing guidebooks as travelers take to the stove.
Instead of merely spending a few nights at a farmhouse inn in Tuscany, or ensconced in a charming village in Provence and dining in the local cafes, travelers are signing up for cooking classes in these places. In the 1998 edition of "The Guide to Cooking Schools," published by Shaw Guides of New York ($19.95), there were 270 vacation cooking courses listed, triple the number in 1989, when the guide was first published. (Although the guide does not evaluate the schools, it is an excellent source of information; it is also available, regularly updated, on the Web at (www.shawguides.com).Options now range from a few demonstrations by chefs on a cruise ship to intensive experiences, including the opportunity to do some heavy lifting in a Michelin three-star kitchen in France. There are courses given by celebrity cooks and serious technical courses in established schools like the Cordon Bleu in Paris. The cost of most programs is in the $2,000 range for five to seven days, not including transportation.
There are more programs in the cities and countryside of France and Italy than elsewhere, but you can often choose your destination first, then find a course. Cooking vacations can now be arranged in more than two dozen countries, several as far-flung as Brazil, Oman, Thailand and Japan, where Elizabeth Andoh teaches one- to four-session courses in home-style cooking in Tokyo. Visits to many American vacation spots like New England, Hawaii and the California wine country can also be combined with cooking classes.
Vacation is the critical term. A basic requirement is a well-equipped kitchen with an overhead mirror, but the setting and locale are significant factors. Some courses are held in particularly alluring settings in the midst of historical and cultural attractions. Provence, where Patricia Wells teaches in her beautifully restored 18th-century farmhouse, is one such example. Another is Lorenza de'Medici's school at Badia a Coltibuono, a beautiful residence and winery in a former monastery near Siena.
Regardless of where you visit, selecting a program featuring the local cuisine will enhance the experience. Larraine Stroman of Dallas, who took the course at the Domaine de la Fontaine in the lovely small Provencal town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, said, "It was a great way to learn about regional foods," even though she admitted that she began to tire of eggplant recipes after a week. Jane Butel's course in Albuquerque takes students through the vast range of chilies, from tame to inflammatory.
Taking cooking classes is also a good way to meet people who share interests, making them ideal for single travelers. Of course, many couples take them together.
The best courses are hands on, not merely demonstrations, and they vary in intensity. Some involve cooking all day, while others offer side trips, visits to markets and free time.
Ask about the level of instruction, class size and whether each student has a work station. Request sample recipes. If the instructor has written a cookbook, buy it for a better idea of the teacher's approach. Though the idea of taking classes given by well-known chefs may sound exciting, bear in mind that professional chefs are often not the best teachers, nor are their recipes always easy to replicate at home. Ask for names of students to contact for recommendations.
Another consideration is the time of year a course is offered. Many courses are excuses to fill hotels and inns during the off-season. Do you really want to go on a cooking vacation in Hawaii in August or one near Yosemite National Park in March? On the other hand, fall - white truffle season - would be an added enticement for northern Italy.
Though some courses can be reserved on fairly short notice, those with well-known cooks and authors, like Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli, tend to be booked months, even years, in advance. But they have waiting lists. And people cancel.
Before signing up, determine what kind of lodging is available and whether it's included in the price. Are all meals and any side trips part of the program? Does the school accommodate non-cooking companions, or if not, what kind of lodging can be arranged nearby? Will you be met at an airport or train station? Do you need a car? Are credit cards accepted?
And if you plan to take your own knives to the school - some prefer it - check them in your luggage or give them, well-wrapped, to airline personnel so they won't be confiscated. You'll get them back when the flight lands.