Add olive oil, basil, and serve by the sea

Where better to learn how to rustle up the finest Italian food than at a school-with-a-view on the stunning Amalfi coast? Sarah Gracie is an only too willing pupil

CAMPANIA FELIX is the name the Romans gave it. The stretch of coast to the south of Naples has always drawn those wealthy enough to pursue pleasure with serious dedication. The Romans built large villas here. Tiberius retired to Capri from AD27-37, leaving the empire rudderless behind him. The Swedish doctor Axel Munthe came here to write his masterpiece, The Story of San Michele, in 1929. And Franco Zeffirelli and Gore Vidal, latest in generations of artists, writers and tycoons, have villas in the mountains above Amalfi.

It is here that Italian Cookery Weeks has opened its new school. "I wanted to add Neapolitan food to our repertoire," says Susanna Gelmetti, who founded Italian Cookery Weeks nine years ago and now has schools in Umbria and Puglia. "Naples was a powerful trading kingdom until the 18th century: you have a sophisticated culinary tradition which mixes Calabrian peasant food with Arabic influences and regional specialities from Sardinia."

The school is situated in the restaurant complex of Quattro Passi, overlooking a secluded bay. We arrive early on a Saturday morning, somewhat the worse for wear. A 6am flight had us driving through the night for a 4.30am check- in, and the two-hour drive from Naples does not help.

The Campania landscape is "volcanic". Mighty vulcan forces threw up the earth's mantle several million years ago and played cat's-cradle with it. The result is enormous limestone parabolas falling sheer into a sea for which the word "azure" was invented. The gentlest angle of incline is 45 degrees, with olive and lemon trees defying gravity to grow on tiny rocky terraces. And Vesuvius rises like an unplugged nemesis in the middle.

It may be "Europe's loveliest stretch of coastline", but as far as getting around it - unless you are a fish, forget it. Our little bus winds round and round and round in long circuitous loops to reach the top of a limestone spur. There it wheezes and splutters briefly, before winding round and round and round again to get to the bottom. Add to this the Italian road- sign system, which informs you one moment that Sorrento is 9km away, and 15 minutes later, that it is 23km away, and we begin to enter a state of unreality. This culminates in an emergency lay-by stop for the former head of a well-known public school, who is in no state to appreciate the sizzling blue view of Naples Bay behind him.

On arrival at the cookery school, things begin to look up. We are shown to large rooms with walnut cassones (carved chests) and terracotta tiles. After showering and taking in the lemony, sunshiny air, we meet on the terrace for lunch: stuffed courgette flowers with parmesan shavings and vintage olive oil; a tiella of mozzarella and aubergine; and the creamiest, most velvety risotto you ever tasted.

After lunch we are introduced to Marco, our chef and major-domo for the week. Marco is a 6ft-tall Neapolitan with a shaved head and piercing blue eyes. His physique is on the Tyson side of developed. If he hadn't been a cook, thumping great bolsters of pasta dough into shape, he would have to have harpooned sperm whales off the coast of Nantucket.

He smiles and fixes us with a gaze which seems to have been carved out of the living sea. "Ciao," he says. "Ciao," we reply with some trepidation. But Marco's machismo has long since been leeched out of him by lifelong co-habitation with the props of Italian cooking. "Sale, pepe, olio di olive, aglio, basilico," he says with evident pleasure, picking up one by one the bale-size bunches of basil, vats of spring-green olive oil and garlands of garlic on the yellow trestle tables beneath the lemon trees.

What follows is a one-week hymn to the Neapolitan countryside and to cooking. We learn how to make the tiella, layering Swiss chard, pancetta, and buffalo mozzarella (the buffalo are coralled in an area just to the south of Naples) which is as simple as it is meltingly delicious. We make roast lamb in garlic with potato galettes and arancini, a kind of deep- fried rice ball with a gooey centre of parmesan and herbs. We make pasteria, or Easter cake, and torta della nona (grandmother cake), a chocolate fisticuff that leaves us comatose at the table, the pleasure centres of the brain blown out.

We collapse in giggles over the old Olivetti machine as we learn to make fresh pasta, while Marco tells us how his mother and grandmother get up at dawn on Sundays to make the pasta, which they leave in shining strips all over the beds while the family goes to Mass.

When it is time to make pizza, the pizza-maker arrives with long wooden boxes the size of croquet-mallet crates. They are full of wonderful copper implements shaped

like flat shovels. He slides the wafer-thin dough into the embers of the huge outdoor oven (an afternoon of stoking has produced temperatures in excess of 1,000C) and then pulls it out after 30 seconds.We sprinkle the fragrant slices with olive oil and wild rocket, and then we sit for hours at long tables, set with white cloths and candles under the lemon trees, eating it all.

Pasta therapy short-circuits analysis. It is not long before we are swapping life stories. The former head of the public school tells us with a certain bleak precision of his own childhood in an English public school, abandoned by parents who were off running the empire. Someone else tells how, after losing her husband to cancer, she set off across Morocco with her two sons and became a painter. And a third tells of an out-of-body experience which took place when hiking in the Tatra mountains, after a close encounter with a bear.

Between the cooking lessons, we make expeditions to the surrounding sights. We see Munthe's villa on Capri. It was here that he gathered about him a collection of the choicest antiques and rarest plants before creating his own thing of beauty.

Capri has always been a stopover for birds making their great migratory passages from sub-Saharan Africa to northern and western Europe. The golden oriole, the hoopoe, the Sardinian warbler and quail are just a few of the species which visit the island in spring. Indeed, quail were once so numerous that the locals paid their tithes in them, hence the term "quail bishops". And one of the most powerful things in Munthe's The Story of San Michele is a description of their trapping. Nets would be spread out on the headlands and, once the in-coming flocks were caught, the trappers would put out their eyes. This broke their will. The birds could be harvested quite easily in large baskets and kept fresh for the table.

At the other end of the island is Tiberius's villa. It is a rubble of brick on a bosky plateau of pines and cedars. Here the emperor dwelt in increasingly paranoid isolation, throwing unwanted visitors from Rome over the cliffs.

Though the centre of Capri is pretty much ruined now, with a mass of designer stores selling the latest Cartier silver champagne bucket and Gucci loafers, coffee at pounds 4 a cup, and wall-to-wall limoncella sellers, you still don't have to go far off the main drag before you catch glimpses of the enchanting island that Tiberius and Munthe fell in love with.

No such effort of the imagination is required for the area close to home. From the little bay, with its trattorias on painted stilts and the odd toothless Neapolitan mending his nets, to the mule-thin paths taking you down onto rugged promontories, the area is unspoilt.

The promontories are a case in point. At first glance, they seem uninhabited, but you only have to walk along them for a few minutes to realise they are a hive of activity, as busy as a Brueghel painting. Olive-pickers lie fast asleep in the noon sun with white napkins over their faces. A man walks by with a small haystack on his back. A mason is repairing the watercourse of an old farmhouse.

Loveliest of all is a shrine tended by the old women of the village. It is half-hidden, built into a natural overhang of the rock. Inside, they have placed a figure of the Virgin Mary, decked with silver stars and halo, and banks of geraniums and irises. And on to the steps leading up to the shrine, they have painted the letters of Ave Maria, one at a time, so that you reach "a" with the last step. In the shadiest incline of the rock, under trellises of bougainvillea, are five old school chairs where they can sit and natter.

You see them making the hike from the village, wearing blue kerchiefs on their heads and carrying staves. They walk proudly, 90-year-olds as slim and graceful as girls. After sweeping the steps and watering the plants, they cross themselves and take up positions in the shady bower. Their voices rise and fall like drowsy bees in the myrtle bushes.

Nice to know that in a patriarchal land, the ancient matriarchy centred around the local shrine is still alive and well.

FACT FILE

cooking in italy

Getting there

Naples is about 50km from the Amalfi coast and this is the nearest airport. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) is the only scheduled airline that flies to Naples direct from the UK. A return flight during November costs from pounds 149 plus pounds 15 tax.

Another option is to fly to Rome, which is about 250km to the north of the area. The BA cut-price subsidiary Go (tel: 0845 60 54321) offers return flights to Rome daily, and fares available in the next few weeks are mostly pounds 120 and pounds 140, including tax.

From Rome there are regular and (by British standards) cheap train connections to Naples and the Amalfi coast. Salerno - at one end of the Amalfi coast - is a major stop for trains on the route between Rome and Naples. The ETR450 is a very fast train which runs between Rome and Naples.

Further information

Italian Cookery Weeks, PO Box 2482, London NW10 1HW (tel: 0181-208 0112). The cookery holidays take place from May to October. One week with cookery tuition in Amalfi, Brindisi or Orvieto, in Umbria, costs pounds 1,100. Price includes return flights, full-board accommodation (including wine with meals) and transfers.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
These photographs released by the University of Maryland Medical Center show images of full face transplant recipient 37-year-old Richard Lee Norris of Hillsville, Virginia
mediaGQ front page features man who underwent full face transplant
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Sport
Moeen Ali wearing the 'Save Gaza' and 'Free Palestine' wristbands on his left arm
cricket
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Battle of the Five Armies trailer released
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on