BUT AREN'T COOKERY HOLIDAYS REALLY EXPENSIVE?
Often the answer to that is "yes" but it is possible to take a cooking holiday without selling all your Le Creuset kitchen equipment. Some of the most economical cookery holidays outside of the UK are self-drive weekends just across the Channel in Normandy and Belgium. Inntravel (tel: 01653 628811) has a series of "cook around France" three-night breaks which take place in traditional auberges and country hotels. The emphasis is placed on getting behind the scenes of the hotel kitchen (two afternoons per weekend). There are several hotels throughout northern France featured - for example, at the 300-year-old Auberge du Val au Cesne, some 30 miles from Dieppe, you can learn to make rillettes de saumon and tarte Tatin, while at Le Manoir d'Acherie, you join prize-winning Bernard Cahu to harvest some top cooking tips for classic Normandy meat dishes. These self-drive holidays, with Hoverspeed Channel-crossing, half-board accommodation and courses, cost from pounds 152 per person.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE OF US WHO DON'T KNOW BASIL FROM BALSAMIC?
Unlike many wine holidays, you can approach a cookery holiday as a complete novice without the fear of humiliation. Leith's School of Food and Wine (0171-229 0177) offers one-, two- and four-week courses for non-professional cooks who display more enthusiasm than skill (there are also classes for advanced students). Prue Leith, who supplies food for the Orient Express and also owns Leith's restaurant in Kensington Park Road in London, runs intensive courses which integrate a knowledge of wine and food with instruction often provided by well-known chefs and food writers. Learn to prepare puff pastry, bake basic bread and casserole chicken on her next beginners' course, which takes place from 13-17 December. The classes all take place in Kensington, London and the prices are from pounds 420 for one week. This price does not include accommodation.
BUT WILL I SEE MORE THAN JUST THE INSIDE OF A KITCHEN?
"Italian Cookery Weeks" (0181-208 0112) was founded by Susanna Gelmetti nine years ago and the programme now extends to Umbria, Puglia and Amalfi on the Mediterranean coast. These mouthwatering week-long tours offer guests a chance to get out of the kitchen and explore duomos, frescos, hilltowns and fishing villages. The latest edition to the programme is Sorrento, south of Naples where the sophisticated culinary tradition mixes Calabrian peasant food with Arabic influences and regional dishes from Sardinia.
Their most unusual offering is "vegetarian cookery weeks" at Montali, a country house in the Umbrian hills, overlooking Lake Trasimeno. Seafood fanatics should enjoy the Mediterranean fishy recipes with plenty of sun- dried tomatoes plucked straight from the roofs of houses, especially designed for shrivelling the succulent fruit). These holidays also include afternoons of sightseeing. They take place from May to October and one week with all cookery tuition costs pounds 1,175. Prices include return flights, full- board accommodation (including wine with meals) and transfers.
CAN I COMBINE THE COURSE WITH LOCAL CULTURE?
If your appetite for knowledge isn't satiated by learning to cook, Euro Academy (tel: 0181-686 2363) runs language and culture courses in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Ecuador and Russia. Cookery can account for as much or as little of your course as you desire. Learning to cook in a different language works as a sort of living role-play; actually acting out the verbs and eating the nouns is a divine way to learn and remember. It certainly seems that after their two-week minimum course, the way to your heart and your head is through your stomach.
Alongside the language courses they also offer film, art, history of art and architecture classes plus various opportunities to take excursions to neighbouring sights. Self-catering accommodation is available from pounds 245 per person including the course but excluding flights. They also offer lodgings with local families, which simply adds to the learning experience.
WHAT IF I WANT TO TRY SOMETHING MORE EXOTIC THAN PASTA?
When it comes to culinary exotica, Thailand is probably the market leader in cookery holidays. Symbiosis (tel: 0171-924 5906) has a two-week Feast of Thailand trip, taking in a four-day cookery course in Bangkok followed by exploration in the north taking in the markets of Chiang Mai and a visit to local villages to learn about "tribal cookery" before heading up to the Burmese border for a two-day school offering lessons in spicy northern Thai cuisine. These groups trips have specific departure dates and the maximum number per group is 10. The price per person is pounds 995 full-board, with accommodation and transport but excluding flights. They also offer tailor-made packages to Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indonesian food is less well-known but the delights of gado-gado, (steamed vegetables in a spicy peanut sauce), and the tongue-singeing sensations of the spicy Padang food of West Sumatra is worth travelling to the near- antipodes. For those who fancy sampling some of Vietnam's 500 traditional dishes, try the Vietnam Gourmet Traveller from The Imaginative Traveller (tel: 0181-742 3113), an extensive 15-day trip with an emphasis on food and some cookery instruction (pounds 860 all-inclusive, but minus international flights).
CAN I SOAK UP SOME SUN AS WELL AS OLIVE OIL?
Simply Turkey (0181-747 1011) offers a number of cookery courses in early May and in October. They are based at the restored village of Ocakkoy, which has a swimming-pool, and the beautiful Olu Deniz beach nearby. The course includes trips to the market and cookery lessons which introduce salivating guests to the robust regional delights of "olive oil dishes", seafood cookery, minced meat dishes and pickle-making. Part of the course incorporates excursions to local restaurants and kitchens. The two-week holiday costs pounds 645, including flights and accommodation with breakfast.
It's back to Thailand with Tasting Places (tel: 0171-229 7020), which is overseen by Soho-chic chef Alistair Little. It has provided some of the best cookery holidays in Italy over the past decade and has expanded into Koh Samui.
Classes are conducted in a specially designed kitchen at Laem Set Inn, which is located on the less built-up southern tip of the island. The next trips are in September, with lessons in English from Thai experts. The emphasis will be hands-on cooking as well as discussions and demonstrations on various special ingredients used in Thai cuisine. There are also visits to local food markets and the all-important time to dive and snorkel on the coral reef and explore the islands. Prices start from pounds 950 including tuition, full-board accommodation in Thai bungalows, and transfers. Flights are not included.
WHAT ABOUT ARRANGING THINGS INDEPENDENTLY?
There are numerous cooking schools in Thailand - the Royal Thai School of Culinary Arts is a member of the World Association of Cooking Societies and offers specialised courses, with very small classes (maximum eight students per class and four per teacher). The centre is located on the beach, overlooking the Gulf of Siam, some 88km south-east of Bangkok.
The courses cover fusion cooking as well as Thai, including a fruit- and vegetable-carving class, and prices are from $1,695 (pounds 1,060) for one week with full-board hotel accommodation and tuition. Chiang Mai, in the north, is a very good destination for independent travellers who feel the urge to make an impromptu appearance at a cookery class.
You could try cooking the legendary spicy Thai soup at the Tom Yam Cookery School, Lake View Park II, Maejo Rd, T844877. It is just 15 minutes from Chiang Mai and they offer a free pick-up service from the city.
WHAT IF I WANT TO SAMPLE SOME HOME COOKING?
British food enthusiasts may have heard of the family Schneideman who founded Divertimenti, the mail-order food equipment shop, in the 1960s. Alex Schneideman has set up Market Discoveries (0171-823 8151) which specialises in taking amateur cooks to the hallowed food markets frequented by professionals.
Tours include trips to Billingsgate fish market along with other, equally stinky international destinations.
Acorn Activity Holidays (01432 830083) offers a two-day course in Hereford where the emphasis is on creating healthy, hearty dishes using local, seasonal ingredients. The next course runs from 11-12 September and costs pounds 120 per person (accommodation not included).
Of the multitudinous cookery courses on offer in Ireland, you could try the Ballymaloe Cookery School (00 353 21 646785) in Shanagarry, Co Cork. Darina Allen started the classes over a decade ago from her home and their success led to expansion, with the school now held in a converted apple barn.
In terms of the course's credibility, you can count six TV series and eight cookery books. Courses can be residential and one week costs about Irpounds 315 (pounds 300). Along with traditional home cooking, tuition includes ethnic food (Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Moroccan and Thai), seafood, vegetarian, family food, intensive introductory courses and - a good one for anxious parents - survival courses for teenagers about to leave home.
FIVE TOP DINNER PARTY DISRUPTERS
1 Head off to West Sumatra for its fiery Padang food - if you still have the stomach for otak - braised brains.
2 Eating dog - thit cho or thit cay - in Vietnam brings luck (not for the unfortunate pooch). However, eating it at the wrong time of the year (there are different dog schedules according to the position of the moon and the region of the country) is considered to bring bad luck. Though for most foreign visitors, being presented with canine cuisine (dog is the most popular meat in the north) at any time would seem less than auspicious.
3 Traditional bush-tucker in the Australian outback doesn't stop at damper (unleavened bread) and beer. Witchetty grubs and ants with honey- filled bottoms are the hors-d'oeuvres to be seen with around Alice Springs.
4 Prairie Oysters: this red-blooded American ranch cuisine involves rounding-up little boy calves, castrating them and frying up the produce. Just remember, you're not a man until you've tasted these meatballs.
5 Traditional Icelandic delicacies on the menu at the annual Thorri Banquet, which takes place in February, include pickled ram's testicles, rotten shark (buried for three months) and bldmor - boiled sheep's blood, washed down with several shots of a potato and caraway schnapps called "Black Death".
THE FIVE TOP ALTERNATIVE COOKERY HOLIDAYS
1 Testosterone is on the menu at Pyon House (01432 830122) near Hereford during Victoria O'Neill's men-only version of her popular Cooking with Class courses. Included in the price of pounds 45 are ingredients and lunch.
2 Young Cooks of Britain (0243 779239) has a summer cookery and activity holiday for boys and girls aged 11-16. Based in a school in the West Sussex countryside, guest instructors will include Sophie Grigson. The five-day courses and cost from pounds 265.
3 To elevate the humble barbecue from a much-maligned summer tummy-filler to something a little more sophisticated, try the Global Gourmet's (01884 32257) Tex-Mex cookery course in New Mexico. From pounds 1,000 plus air fares.
4 Raymond Blanc offers a celebrity chef course at his Manoir aux Quat' Saisons Ecole de Cuisine (01844 278881). The course costs pounds 1,475 for five night's full-board accommodation with tuition. A friend can share your double room (only) for no extra charge.
5 Claridges Bar (0171-409 6307) offers a three-hour cocktail masterclass, with places still available in July and September. The price is pounds 50 and includes a cocktail-shaker, recipe booklet and certificate. Equally arcane, the Costa Real Coffee College (0171-840 2085) in London offers courses on coffee for pounds 50.
JOURNEY TO THE SOURCE: HEREND PORCELAIN, HUNGARY
IF "THE Complete Guide to Cooking Holidays" has kickstarted your appetite, it's worth adding another destination to your itinerary. If you're going to learn how to cook proper gourmet food then it's no use making do with improper plates. You need something high class to scoff from, and what more appropriate place to pick up the proper tableware than Hungary?
Not far from Lake Balaton, the small town of Herend is known to international porcelain enthusiasts as the home of the country's collectable china, and many people make the trip out there simply to admire their way through the factory and museum.
Originally constructed in 1839 under Mr Fischer (who later received the French Legion of Honour for his services to the kiln), the staff started work producing imitations of Asian pieces that their wealthy but clumsy owners needed to replace.
Soon the factory began making its own pieces and got rather a good name for itself through such high profile admirers as Queen Victoria, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, seemingly the whole Rothschild clan (who even have a pattern named after them), and a rich vein of princesses, countesses, dukes and barons.
The Herend Museum was founded in 1964 to house the factory's own porcelain collection and to provide a permanent exhibition that would explain the history of porcelain manufacturing. Examples of its most popular designs - mostly a mixture of extraordinarily lavish creations and intricate floral motifs - are set behind glass cases, splayed across elegant dinner services.
In 1993, the factory was bought from the state by its workers, and since then it has entertained the 60,000 or so visitors it receives each year with a vast collection of porcelain, photographs, a "technological show" demonstrating the various phases of porcelain manufacture, and a selection of temporary exhibitions, that most recently have included "Original Herend - poor fakes".
The Herend Porcelain Museum, at 8440 Herend, Kossuth Lajos str. 140 (00 36 88 261144), is open between May and October on Mon-Sat between 8.30am and 4pm and on Sundays from 9am to 4pm. Entry is Ft150-200 (forints) (40- 50p) per person, but don't get distracted from your task.
A teacup and saucer from the very sweet "FA" (Fleurs des Alpes) service (pictured) at one of the UK's largest Herend suppliers, Thomas Goode & Co (19 South Audley Street, London W1Y 6BN, 0171-499 2823) would cost pounds 93.
At the factory shop in Herend (part of the new Porcelanium Visitor's Centre), a similar teacup and saucer would cost Ft22,800 (pounds 60) so, pick up six teacups and saucers here, flog them to your friends back home and use the profit to splash out on the current British Airways pounds 199.60 return flight (Bridge The World, 0171-911 0990) to the Hungarian capital, Budapest, to learn how to cook yourself a decent bowl of goulash.