Bikini, flip-flops, egg whisk

Forget the suntan lotion. To guarantee a happy holiday, make sure you take the kitchen cupboard
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Indy Lifestyle Online

From a croft in the wilds of Scotland to a luxury beach house in the Caribbean, the possibilities offered by self-catering holidays are endless. Until you decide to start cooking. Then you discover that you have no oven and only one wonky saucepan, and the knife with which you intended to behead an oven-unready chicken is so blunt it's useless. Undaunted, you decide to pour yourself a glass of local wine and whisk some eggs into an omelette. No use, there doesn't seem to be a corkscrew, and even when you manage to get the eggs into the warped frying pan, you can't find a spatula.

From a croft in the wilds of Scotland to a luxury beach house in the Caribbean, the possibilities offered by self-catering holidays are endless. Until you decide to start cooking. Then you discover that you have no oven and only one wonky saucepan, and the knife with which you intended to behead an oven-unready chicken is so blunt it's useless. Undaunted, you decide to pour yourself a glass of local wine and whisk some eggs into an omelette. No use, there doesn't seem to be a corkscrew, and even when you manage to get the eggs into the warped frying pan, you can't find a spatula.

The secret to feeding yourself well on holiday, it seems, is to be forewarned so you can arm yourself accordingly. Grill your travel agent on everything from kitchen facilities to local opening times, especially if travelling to a remote French gite where shops shut on different days.

According to the holiday company Thomson, rural villas tend to have better-equipped kitchens than urban or hotel complex apartments that are within easy reach of restaurants. The assumption is that none of us wants to cook if we can eat out.

Read brochures carefully. If there's no mention of a fridge, for example, it does not exist.

Inevitably, the more you pay, the better equipped you'll be. However, what's in a kitchen varies from country to country. Stumbling hungrily and sleepily into your Tuscan farmhouse after a long journey, you'll probably find a coffee maker, but will be hard pushed to locate a kettle, let alone a teapot or toaster, warn Simply Travel who specialise in self-catering around the Mediterranean. In France, too, water is boiled in a saucepan, not a kettle.

Wherever you're going it's still worth packing a few essentials such as a cookery book, sieve, knife, hand-whisk, wooden spoon and spatula, J-cloths and tea towels as well as clingfilm and plastic ziplock bags. If you have space, take a favourite pan or two, some mixing bowls and a plastic measuring jug. If you want to weigh ingredients, you'll need scales, especially in the USA, where cup measures are used.

Of course, if you're camping, you'll have be packing the kitchen sink, too.

If packing all that appals you, I suggest you stick to three essentials: a large Swiss army penknife (with all the gizmos such as corkscrews, scissors and knives), a wooden spoon and the appropriate copy of the Lonely Planet's new World Food Series (£7.99). This handy-sized book provides lots of useful culinary information, including local specialities (and what you might wish to avoid), social niceties and a few recipes. The series currently covers Italy, Spain, Ireland, Morocco, Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam and Turkey. France is due in September and New Orleans in October. At the very least it will make entertaining reading in the car or the plane.

Though timid travellers won't need to pack their PG Tips if they're staying closer to home, the self-caterer in Britain could still face a shortage of supplies. If, in your haste to get close to nature you arrive late at night at a beautiful mill in the wilds of Kintyre only to find there's no tin opener in the drawer, you'll be hungry until you can find a shop the following morning.

Some holiday lets, such as the Landmark Trust, an independent charity that rescues and restores architecturally interesting buildings, do not always supply a telephone - no chance of e-mailing for an emergency food parcel, then.

House swaps are increasingly popular, and have the advantage that the fridge may not be empty, even if the kitchen cupboards don't contain everything you'd like.

Richard Ehrlich, The Independent on Sunday drinks correspondent, has twice visited America by exchanging his home through Green Theme International Home Exchange. "They both had very nice kitchens," he says of his US accommodations, "but it's worth checking what you consider essential against what they've got so you know what to take."

Being passionate about cooking, there are three items that Ehrlich never fails to pack: a full pepper mill, a wooden spoon and his chef's knives. "Its probably illegal to take my knives, but I've never been stopped," he admits.

Don't, however, carry your Sabatiers in your hand luggage - even in Britain a chef's knife is considered an offensive weapon outside the kitchen. Better to pack a small, blunt-ended serrated knife. It won't fillet a fish, but it won't land you in jail, either.

If you're making a temporary home in a city such as New York, however luxurious the accommodation, you may be sharing it with cockroaches. Keep all your food in the refrigerator or use airtight containers. That way, you can safely store any indispensable British ingredients, such as teabags, Marmite or chocolate biscuits. I have known people to take packs of bacon with them to Europe.

Others prefer to go with the local flow. Andrew and Jacquie Pern, chef and joint proprietors of the Star Inn in Harome, North Yorkshire, always take their holiday in January. "We like to go somewhere warm," explains Andrew Pern "so we decided to self-cater in Jamaica. Not that we did much cooking."

On any small island imported food is expensive, so stick to local ingredients - which will be fresher and better anyway - and which are surely part of the point of cooking for yourself abroad. "We bought loads of freshly landed fish, lobsters cooked on the beach and fresh fruit like paw-paws and pineapple. I cooked everything really simply and served it with a squeeze of lime," said Andrew Pern.

If you don't know what to do with an unfamiliar fish, you can always ask the locals.

In Mustique everything has to be brought in but, for a price, you can buy marmalade at the delightfully pretty, well-stocked Corea's Food Store, then recover from the strain with a mango ice cream next door. If that is too exhausting, companies such as Caribbean Connection list properties with kitchens stocked with everything - even a cook.

Travel agents:

Caribbean Connection (01244 355500)

Gite Holidays in France (08705 360360) www.brittany.ferries.com

Green Theme International Home Exchange - house swaps (01208 873123) www.gti-home-exchange.com.

The Landmark Trust (01628 825925)

Simply Travel 24-hour brochure line (020-8541 2222) www.simplytravel.com

Recommended holiday cookbooks:

Caribbean: 'Treasures of my Caribbean Kitchen' by Anne-Marie Whittaker, Caribbean (Macmillan Education)

France: 'French Provincial Cooking' by Elizabeth David, Penguin

Greece: 'Greek Food' by Rena Salaman, Harper Collins

Italy: 'Italian Food' by Elizabeth David, Penguin

Spain: 'Traditional Spanish Cooking' by Janet Mendel, Garnet Publishing.

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