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.

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