Learn To Cook In France

Days in the kitchen or at the market, evenings sipping wines in the French countryside or the heart of Paris - what better way to brush up your culinary skills, asks Jenni Muir?
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Provence, Jean-Louis Vosgien at Château de Berne

Provence, Jean-Louis Vosgien at Château de Berne

"The French love exotic food, but I know that's not the perception," says Jean-Louis Vosgien. He cuts Tunisian-style brik pastry into long triangles, arranges them on a baking sheet, and sprinkles them with olive oil, coarse ground paprika, pepper and turmeric, then bakes them for five minutes.

The pastries will be used to decorate a plate of fresh tuna tartare, flavoured with shallot, chives, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce and tomato ketchup. Another garnish is bottled biryani paste thinned with water and olive oil. Result: a modern restaurant-calibre meal with only the pastry to cook.

If you never thought you could produce sophisticated French food, here is the man to show you how. Jean-Louis hosts hands-on and demonstration classes in Haute Provence at a wine estate owned by the British businessman Bill Muddyman. Accommodation is at the property's auberge, which boasts a swimming pool, tennis court, gym and salon therapies. Cooking lessons are followed by lunch or dinner on the patio, looking out over the vines, enjoying wines from the estate.

Contact: L'Auberge at Château de Berne, www.chateauberne.com Tel:+33 494 60 48 88.

Cost: From €770 (£465) for three days, two nights, double occupancy.

Gascony, French Kitchen in Gascony

Inspired by the natural, gourmet lifestyle of Gascony, where foie gras and confit de canard are still sold at the farmhouse door, the American Kate Hill decided to settle here nearly 15 years ago.

Kate teaches in the cosy 18th-century kitchen of her guesthouse on the banks of the Canal des Deux Mers. Classes are for two to four people, with participants staying in the guesthouse.

She teaches traditional dishes such as tourain d'ail, poule au pot and tarte aux olives, in a modern, easy style. In November she will host a five-day duck confit and foie gras workshop.

Suppers, including innovative local wines, are taken on the terrace or in front of the open kitchen fireplace. There's also a local armagnac. Downtime can be spent exploring the woods or on scenic towpath walks.

Contact: Gourmet on Tour, www.gourmetontour.com Tel 020 7396 5550.

Cost: £665 for three nights including accommodation, most meals, and excursions.

The Loire, Walnut Grove cookery school

This exciting new school is an idyllic rural property in the Mayenne area, close to the border with Brittany, an hour and a half drive from St Malo.

Maynard and Freya Harvey purchased and renovated the farmhouse in 2001 to run as a luxury gîte before starting their teaching programme with their business partner Benedict Haines.

Expect to have your culinary skills patiently kneaded and stretched. Maynard and Benedict love precision cooking and slick, professional presentation. They're proud to maintain a ratio of four students to each chef so everyone gets personal attention. Freya leads excursions to a local buckwheat mill and farmhouse dairy, as well as visits to art galleries and the medieval town of Vitré.

Contact: Walnut Grove cookery school, www.walnutgrovecookery.com, Tel: +33 2 43 98 50 02.

Cost: £895 per person including 5 nights full board and excursions. Wine and drinks extra.

Paris, Patricia Wells cooking in Paris

Long-time Parisian resident, restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune and the author of nine hit books, Patricia Wells is renowned as a leading authority on Parisian and Provençal food and cooking.

Classes are limited to six people and held in her cooking studio, a restored artist's atelier. On three of the days, students cook lunch together. On the other two lunch is taken at restaurants such as Le Pré Catelan and Pierre Gagnaire. There are also extensive tastings.

Contact: At Home with Patricia Wells, www.patriciawells.com

Cost: €3,500 (£1,870) including excursions and lunches. Accommodation and dinners not included.

Normandy, Le Manoir de Carabillon

Le Manoir de Carabillon is in Falaise and run by a Danish couple, Jakob and Tracey Schottlander. Their classes are designed to suit all skill levels and focus on top-quality local ingredients in traditional provincial dishes plus a few modern recipes. There are also excursions to local markets, fishing ports, cathedrals and beaches.

Contact: Gourmet on Tour, www.gourmetontour.com. Tel 020 7396 5550.

Cost: €950 (£630) including four nights accommodation, meals, wine and excursions.

FRENCH FOOD BOOKS

French Colonial Cookery, David Burton, Faber & Faber

Exploration of France's colonies worldwide and how the settlers adapted their favourite regional dishes to the exotic ingredients available. Includes recipes such as Mauritian bredes au bouillon and ratatouille Creole.

The Ripening Sun, Patricia Atkinson, Arrow

Atkinson and her husband moved to the Dordogne in 1990, where they invested in a few vines. But the first wine tasted terrible and her husband left. Today she runs a 21 hectare estate and her Clos d'Yvigne wins wine awards.

Cooking and Travelling in South-West France, Stephanie Alexander, Viking Australia

One of Australia's most renowned food writers travels through the south-west of France exploring everything from underground caves to food markets. Excellent photography accompanies discussions of the food, wine, history and culture of the region.

French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David, Penguin Books

A range of simple, traditional recipes such as pot au feu is presented in a way that even novices in the kitchen will understand. The author also advises on the best cooking tools to use to get the best results each and every time.

The French Kitchen: A Cookbook, Joanne Harris and Fran Warde, Doubleday

Collection of 120 illustrated family recipes passed down through the generations. Includes classics such as coq au vin, onion soup and crème brulée. Plus Great-Aunt Simone's marinated tuna, and Great-Aunt Marinette's slow fudge sauce.

Simple French Food, Richard Olney, Grub Street

Explores the best of home cooking, using well-chosen ingredients and a sensitivity of how to cook them well. Detailed recipes allow for a little improvisation.

Goosefat and Garlic: Country Recipes from South-West France, Jeanne Strang, Kyle Cathie

Provides regional recipes and also traces the origin of the ingredients such as the pig, geese, ducks, garlic and cheeses.

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