A Little lesson in patience

TRAVEL Alastair Little's cookery course in Umbria seemed just what Rosie Millard wanted. The students were keen, but was Alastair?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LAST night I had a dinner party at home. I cooked chicken stuffed with potato and fennel; I char-grilled peppers directly on the hob until they were completely black on the outside and deliciously sweet on the inside. My guests had marinaded olives to nibble for starters, and olive tapenade on garlicky bruschetta if they were really greedy. For pudding we had a pie filled with almond paste and ripe cherries.

Everyone was deeply appreciative and proclaimed me a first-class cook; praise indeed, since I'm not. The key to my success was that I'd just come back from a week in Umbria on a cookery course run by chef Alastair Little, one of the names on the Lon-don restaurant scene; my menu was simply one of the things we had prepared in a morning.

The ingredients of the course, listed in the brochure, seem like heaven: a week staying near the cathedral city of Orvieto, on the La Cacciata estate - which has a swimming pool and all amenities; cooking with Alastair every day; exciting culinary visits to local markets; riding, if you want, at the equestrian centre next door. The idea is to leave with a sheaf of menus and a wealth of culinary experience willingly passed on by the maestro himself.

The reality isn't quite like that. for a start, the maestro has other things on his mind - mainly his eponymous restaurant in Soho, a spartan establishment serving simple, perfectly cooked food made with the best ingredients and no frills. There was a time, in the heady eating-out days of the Eighties, when the place appeared to run itself. Alastair was too busy writing columns and presenting TV programmes to be there. Now, a number of challengers have appeared on the notoriously competitive London foodie scene, making Alastair Little's famous white interior look somewhat dated.

Consequently Mr Little is not at La Cacciata for more than half the week. He spends the other half in Soho, coping with the demands of creating pounds 60-a-head business lunches. When you've coughed up pounds 800 to learn at the apron strings of the master - and when the brochure says: "Little will be teaching ... in Orvieto for the 1995 summer season" - his absenteeism for 50 per cent of the week is an unexpected disappointment.

We were all there to learn how to cook better. Though the blurb claims the Orvieto experience is more or less a holiday with food thrown in, and some participants have signed up not knowing how to boil an egg, you have to be a serious foodie to enjoy the week. You not only have to know the difference between balsamic and malt vinegar, you have to care.

As soon as we had all arrived, our 18-strong group (an extraordinary mixture of single men, university chums, graphic designers, disgrunt-led special-school teachers and glamorous Americans) were discussing pumpkin ravioli and sun-dried tomatoes as if their lives depended on it. Everyone appeared to have life-long shares in Le Creuset and to own a fish kettle, a pasta machine or an ice-cream maker - or indeed all three. Sunbathe? I don't think so. Let's get into the kitchen, please.

Apart from the kitchen, it has to be said, La Cacciata is somewhat limited in terms of facilities. Students stay in the many little farmhouses on the estate, which is owned by the Bel Capo family - who also run a line in home-made olive oil and Orvieto Classico wine. The farmhouses are essentially dormitories, providing a number of bedrooms which are spartan, shared and somewhat smelly due to a medieval sewage system. Pathways to and from the accommodation are fairly medieval, too; we all got use to tripping up and down dusty tracks through the vineyards every day, on our way to and from class. After dinner, in the dark, we negotiated the track back home past fireflies and, once, an owl out hunting.

But the rooms have en suite washing facilities, are quite clean and, as long as you're with a friend, sharing isn't too arduous. Besides, sitting in luxurious rooms is not what La Cacci-ata is about; the key to enjoyment here is simply a love of good food.

The routine of the week was as follows: most mornings, decide the menu for lunch, cook it, and then eat it. After a four-hour afternoon break, we all reassembled in the purpose-built kitchen, decided what to cook for dinner, cooked it and ate that. Dinner took place in a breathtakingly beautiful setting outside on the terrace, overlooking the floodlit Gothic masterpiece of Orvieto Cathedral.

It was a very special meal. The ingredients were fresh and luscious, the food simple and hearty, and in Alastair's absence, the techniques and recipes we learnt with his excellent deputy Steve Anderson were enough to seriously impress dinner-party guests back home. Chopping onions, tying rabbit (not for the squeamish), knocking up pasta - the week gave you confidence with a variety of techniques, and answered all those niggling little culinary questions you always have.

I am now an expert on: peppers (red are nice, green are vile and a serious Alastair no-no because they are simply raw red peppers, and a Dutch marketing triumph); Parme-san (buy when old and in a lump, and shave with a peeler); salad bowls (must be "dressed" before the salad goes in); measurements (use your common sense, these are important only with pastry); and a weird thing called a "falling oven" (basically, when you put a cake in the oven, the temperature will always drop). I now know how to make pasta, pastry and the stomach-clenching Big Daddy of them all - mayonnaise. I could have stayed in the kitchen the whole week.

On reflection, perhaps I should have done. Apart from one woman, who claimed she hated cooking and said she'd been sent on the course by her husband, we weren't all that interested in having four hours a day off to sit in our spartan bedrooms or sunbathe. We wanted to cook. Yet with no classes in the afternoons, loafing around by the pool was all there was to do - apart from the day when there were no classes at all, and everyone had to go on an enforced bus trip to Siena in the boiling heat.

There was a distinct whiff of irritation when one of the week's pre-dinner tutorials was sacrificed to watch a grumpy-looking Italian make pizzas in an outdoor wood stove (the one thing nobody had in their own kit-chens). A coach visit to the marketplace in Orvieto, sacrificing another good cooking lesson, seemed similarly pointless. We traipsed around a dismal parade of open-air shops, buying things like olive stoners which broke within two days of our return.

Back in the kitchen, we were in our element. We learnt an awful lot from Steve - but that wasn't why we were there. The brochure described the Great Man Himself as "a natural communicator of cooking techniques"; but even when he was there, he didn't seem convincingly interested in our progress. He only really got going when he was doing something like flambeeing meat, and then only when we all crowded round with our cameras to catch him doing it.

Cavils apart, I can now make a mean pesto and dress it up with various secret ingredients to create something fast approaching nectar. I can marianade my olives like a pro. I have bought an armoury of sharp knives with which I now furiously, and perfectly, dice onions as if I'm on some TV cookery programme.

"It's not so much specific things you learn here," said Sarah, one of the group, "as a different way of cooking. You think about the quality of the ingredients and the way you put them together. You start to think about cooking in a totally new way. I mean, I always used to cook with green peppers." She looked nervously over at Alastair. "Never again," she whispered. !


COOKING THERE: Holidays at La Cacciata cost pounds 800 per person per week. This includes all tuition, accommodation on the estate and full board with wine, but excludes flights. Limited places are still available for 2 September-14 October; plenty of availability for 1996 courses (May to July and Septem-ber to October). For more information, call 0171-243 8042, or write for a brochure to 15 Dawson Place, London W2 4TH.

GETTING THERE: Sunvil Travel (0181-847 3041) organises Alitalia flights to Rome for the Alastair Little school. Visitors taking a specified flight from London are met by a representative of the school and taken by coach to Orvieto. Return flights cost pounds 235 until 12 September and pounds 193 until 14 October.