Hobby holidays: For gourmets

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The Independent Culture
RECIPE for a successful holiday: take a week in a comfortable French chateau hotel, a few mornings shopping in the markets, a measure of culinary guidance in the afternoon cookery lessons, and round it off with a hearty meal each evening.

That might be the ideal, but cookery courses vary widely in style, so it's worth talking through the programme before booking. Some are very much hands-on and you do most of the cooking yourself, while others may be based on 'watch and learn' demonstrations by the chefs. The best will also give help and advice on buying ingredients. While much of the time you are likely to be based at the hotel, there is usually a chance to do some local sightseeing on the occasional half-day off.

Wine tours are usually more mobile, with more time on the road visiting the vineyards and the growers. If your aim is to make progress in tasting, you may want to choose an escorted tour, ideally led by a Master of Wine who can give reliable advice on what you're drinking (or buying). Prices given are guides only - some may increase for 1994.

THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE: A cookery survival course for 'absolute beginners' (five days, pounds 335) is one of many options offered by the Ballymaloe Cookery School near Cork (010 353 21 646785). The Earnley Concourse near Chichester (0243 670392) also has a wide variety of lessons to choose from - seafood, handmade chocolates, Italian cookery for vegetarians. Weekends cost pounds 124 full board. In London, Leith's School of Food and Wine (071-229 0177) offers both beginner's and advanced holiday courses in the summer and includes a lecture and tasting on Wine with Food (two weeks non- residential, pounds 583).

Wine specialist Blackheath Wine Trails (081-463 0012), which runs tours to France, Spain, Portugal, Madeira and Israel, stresses that participants do not have to be 'wine buffs' or have any prior knowledge of wine. Based in a Herefordshire country house, Wineweekends (0432 840649) has a beginner's weekend (Friday night to Sunday morning) which includes tasting tips, making sense of labels, and comparison tasting for pounds 120.

THE ROUX FACTOR: Francophiles have no shortage of holidays to choose from. Long weekends arranged by Inntravel (0439 71111) in Normandy, Picardy and the Loire teach local specialities including fish and seafood dishes - and there are also wine-tasting breaks in Champagne. Cookery course prices start at pounds 173 (self-drive including ferry fare). French Expressions (071-794 1480) offers a four-day break, Cookery in France, at the Chateau de Montreuil near Boulogne ( pounds 345 - self-drive, including ferry) as well as 'independently tailored' wine holidays in most of the wine regions of France. La France des Villages (0449 737664) offers a four-night break in Normandy, including cooking lessons and visits to the markets, an oyster farm and local wine cellars (around pounds 500 excluding travel to Cherbourg). Those who want to work up an appetite could try Ramblers Holidays (0707 331133) Easter House Party at a hotel in the Vercors where walking is combined with French cookery lessons. Wine specialist Arblaster and Clarke (0730 266883) runs escorted tours to the Loire, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, and one to the Rhone and Provence which also takes in the Aix music festival.

TAKING IT EASY: The Oriental in Bangkok has a Thai cooking class on weekday mornings which includes curries, desserts and fruit carving. The full week will set you back around pounds 1,400 (flights extra); contact 071-537 2988. Many operators arrange packages to the October Munich Beer Festival - DER's prices (071-408 0111) start at pounds 269 for a three-night break.

SPLASHING OUT: Italian Cookery Weeks (081-208 0112) are based at a farmhouse in the spectacular Umbrian hills near Orvieto. Last year's price was pounds 875 for seven nights' full board. More expensive still, Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, at Chateau du Fey in Burgundy has a summer series at about pounds 1,700 (010 3386 631834). If distance is no object, Australia Options (0904 692892) has information on touring the vineyards of South Australia and the Hunter Valley.

FAMILY FAVOURITES: Young Cooks of Britain (0243 779239) runs cookery weeks for children aged 11-16 in August at Lavant House School in West Sussex (five days cost pounds 265 all-in). Families are welcomed on the cooking weeks offered by Gourmet Espionage (0379 71234) in the Pyrenees. Adults pay about pounds 700 (including flights and half- board), children's prices start at about pounds 450. Also wine weekends in Bordeaux.

GOING SOLO: LSG Theme Holidays (0509 231713) has cookery and wine holidays; the 'Perigord Cookery' week in the Dordogne has no single-room supplements (all-in price around pounds 700). The Old Rectory, near Pulborough in Sussex (079 882 306) has an annual five- day course called 'Cooking for Men', pounds 100.

CUTTING COSTS: Some of the best-value courses are run by the Ardess Craft Centre (03656 31267) in Northern Ireland. Full board and tuition costs pounds 45 a day for weekend courses including vegetarian, gourmet and Indian cooking. Courses run by Earnley Concourse (above) can be attended on a non-residential basis - a weekend's tuition is pounds 84.

THE INDEPENDENT CHEF: Sonia Stevenson (0752 851813) who used to run the Horn of Plenty restaurant in Tavistock, Devon, gives cookery classes all round the country specialising in sauces, fish and seasonal dishes. If you can get together a group of six people, she will come to teach in your own kitchen. In France, nearly all the wine regions have 'Routes des Vins' which signpost you down the back roads and past the main vineyards. Most growers are only too happy to let you taste - big operations generally have some kind of shop front, the smaller ones may take you into their own kitchens. You can get details of the routes from local tourist offices. The Wine Society (0438 741177) costs pounds 20 to join and has a regular list of wines for sale, including case selections which are chosen to help you learn more about different wines, grapes and vintages.

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