A passable attempt at passata down among the olives

Sarah Gracie packed her apron, set off on a one-week, al fresco cookery course deep in the Italian countryside and found there was life after sun-dried tomatoes

Take one of the most beautiful parts of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, add a 16th-century Spanish castle, olives as far as the eye can see, wine on tap, and some of the best food you've ever eaten in your life, and you have an Italian cookery week in Puglia.

The business was set up in 1991 by Susanna Gelmetti. After working for several years as British correspondent for Italy's La Repubblica and pining across London for fresh basil and decent pasta, she raised a small loan from the bank, took a lease on an 18th-century farmhouse in Umbria, and ran a page of advertising in the Independent on Sunday Review. The places filled from that single issue, and a dream was born. Two years later, on strength of demand, she opened the school in Puglia.

"My aim is to create a deeper understanding of Italian food and the culture it has come from. If you do not have a more strongly-rooted understanding of the food, you just get fads and fashions. The supermarkets will sell sun-dried tomatoes for a few years, and then move on to something else. But if you truly love this food and respect its integrity, you will never look back. There is no reason why the English should not shift to the Mediterranean diet forever. "

I have to say that this is a project that one finds oneself heartily able to commit to on Italian soil. Arriving in the little low-key airport of Brindisi under a vertical sun, the cookery week battlebus picks you up and bumps you along roads lined with oleanders and patchwork olive fields.

Puglia has always been a rough country. Terrino they say of the people, meaning covered in earth or "earthy". And it has always been a poor relative to the north of Italy, with feudal patterns of land-ownership and rather late-in-the day industry.

But this gives it a special beauty. It is a fierce intractable land of rocky limestone outcrops, red iron-rich earth, jewelled sea and olives. Part of Magna Graecia in the first century, it was then taken by the Romans. And the land still bears the marks of this conquest, parcelled up as it was and given in reward to retiring centurions for a lifetime's hellish service in the legion.

Puglia is the largest producer of olive oil in the world. In fact, the economy revolves around olives. Women working in the fields are still paid for their labour in olive oil; wounds are dressed in it; and olive oil is applied to every dish on a scale that would leave you fatly marinated and penniless in England. "Olio magico," says our cook, Tonino. And truly, the oil is of such a quality and intensity of flavour that it is a completely different experience from your average supermarket equivalent here. You only have to heat a little in a pan - no garlic, no herbs - and you will feel dizzy with the fragrance.

The cookery school is sited in a Spanish castle built by a Bourbon nobleman (Puglia was overrun by the Spanish after Charles V became Holy Roman Emperor). Castello lo Spagnulo was designed as a maseri, or farmed, walled estate. Any militaristic pretensions it ever had have long since gone and the actions of time and sun have modified the stone of the central courtyards and outbuildings to a glorious friable honey-coloured glow. Walled enclosures include oleander groves, with their flag-pink blooms, pomegranates and limes. Stone fountains endlessly divide the sound of water. And the bedrooms have been fitted into converted sacristies and grain stores.

Appropriately enough, lessons take place just outside a temple, a small graceful structure overlooking the terrace and fountains. We gather al fresco, around huge tables set out with red check cloths. And all around us are the olives.

Ancient, with enormous gnarled boles,it is humbling to think that some of these olives have seen the millennium before Christ and will now see in another. Split here and there by age, their great girth is propped up by a beam. It is not hard to see why in this culture, when an olive tree dies, there is general mourning. Their hoary presence leans over and blesses our lesson.

Our teacher is Tonino, a small Puglian who has built up two restaurants and is a professor at the local scuola degli albergi. He has a reputation for the quality of his authentic Puglianese dishes and for the ice sculptures he fashions for weddings and banquets. He speaks little English and we learn from his gestures as he takes the huge implements - plates the size of cartwheels, bowls as big as sinks - and shows us how to make marinated anchovies, a fabulous passata, seafood risotto, swordfish rissoles.

The high point is learning how to make our own pasta. Reg, a retired salesman from South Africa, steps forward to knead his mud pie of flour and water. A shy man in a Panama, who likes to take naps in the afternoon, he is not used to being centre stage. But as we laugh at his efforts he begins to enjoy himself. "No, no!" says Tonino, as the pasta splits into shards. And he quickly rolls it up again and feeds it into the machine after adjusting the setting. "Come questa, si?" And to Reg's evident astonishment, as he takes over and begins to pass it through the roller, the pasta gushes out in wide, even, perfectly paper-thin strips.

This is more than cooking. This is therapy. We have arrived, a group of averagely stressed, high-achieving Western Europeans, with an additional burden of English reticence. Pale, overwrought, armed with a defensive carapace of lotions, books, guides and ironic reflections, we have much to learn about relaxation.

But somewhere about day three, you look up and see that this motley group has become like children. The "marks of weakness, marks of woe" are flowing from our faces. Our gestures have become more emphatic; our laughter less ironic, more drawn from the diaphragm.

"We Italians love our cooking, of course," Susanna informs us a propos the beautiful morning, the wonderful food, the good humour. "The women round here will be spending several hours a day preparing food. There is no ready-made in Italy. They would not understand it. It would be like ready-made sex or something..."

We also learn that Italians hate to measure. Susanna's voice sharpens a little when she describes a group of Americans who were always asking for exact measurements. "How much exactly is a pinch of salt, a handful of arborio?" How much? She shrugs her beautiful Lombardy shoulders. "Heh, bah, it is a pinch of salt, a handful of rice. Exactly. What can I say?" Of course, this means that sometimes you miss whole rafts of ingredients as the dish progresses to completion in a splendid tumultuous fugue. And the aversion to counting also means that every now and again someone will get left behind when the battle bus sets off on its outings to a Baroque town or Roman ruin. But it will turn around again with the greatest good humour and bump back over the rocky earth to pick up the straggler, who is then met like the prodigal son, with effusions of affection and a prime seat in the bus.

One last thing, when you have spent the day whisking, pommelling, beating and folding, you sit on the flagstone terrace and eat it all. Under the stars. Listening to the fountains. While an old guittarista called Pietro ("I fought in North Africa, you know, with Montgomery, great man") passes between the tables in his faded silk cravat singing: "Che sera, sera."

Of course, there is something about people who go on a cookery holiday. They tend to be likeable. Captains of industry, housewives, entrepreneurs who have set up major turnover businesses, university lecturers or retired international civil servants who may never have cooked a meal in their lives, and are beginning to think that perhaps their wives have had the better deal of it all these years, everyone has something to offer. We become friends in an instant. What else would you do, with such food in front of you, and the heat from the day still stored in your skin and the terrace flagstones?

Galaxies blossom across the sky. The plough is tilted into a brilliant rhomboid delicately dissecting space. "Bellissima!" someone says with feeling. And then more quietly, reverently, "Bellissima!" It is not clear whether they are referring to the food, a woman or the velvet night. Nor does it matter.

For nothing could be more beautiful than this very spot at this very moment. And if it is remotely possible, I would say get hold of the pounds 1,000 and go. Your life will never be the same again.

PUGLIA fact file

THE WRITER travelled courtesy of Italian Cookery Weeks, run by Susanna Gelmetti. Italian Cookery Weeks run courses in two locations: an 18th-century farmhouse in Umbria and a 16th-century castle in Puglia. You are taught by Susanna and a local chef in a group of less than 20 people.

Lessons are held in the morning and early evening. In the afternoon there are expeditions to the beach, to markets and to other sites of interest. In Umbria, these include the old cities of Siena, Assisi, Orvieto and Perugia; in Puglia they include Lecce, Ostuni and the town of Alberobello.

The price of a one-week holiday is pounds 1,095 with flight, pounds 955 without. This includes all accommodation, all food, all wine and excursions. It also includes use of swimming pools, tennis courts and riding facilities.

For booking and reservations, contact:

Susanna Gelmetti,

Italian Cookery Weeks,

PO Box 2482 London NWIO IHW.

Tel: 0181 208 0112 Fax: 0171 40l 8763.

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