Learn to cook Italian food - under Italian weather

Max Davidson joins a master class in cookery on the Amalfi coast

The flashpoint came with the soufflé. Marco had just whisked the egg-whites and was folding them into the rest of the mixture with a wooden spoon, when Donna from Putney piped up. "Delia says you should never use a wooden spoon with egg whites." You could have heard a soufflé drop. Marco looked daggers at Donna. The rest of us held our breath. One does not tell Italian chefs what to do with egg whites. It is like correcting the Pope on his Catechism.

The flashpoint came with the soufflé. Marco had just whisked the egg-whites and was folding them into the rest of the mixture with a wooden spoon, when Donna from Putney piped up. "Delia says you should never use a wooden spoon with egg whites." You could have heard a soufflé drop. Marco looked daggers at Donna. The rest of us held our breath. One does not tell Italian chefs what to do with egg whites. It is like correcting the Pope on his Catechism.

"And who is Delia?" demanded Marco, nostrils flaring. I could have hugged the man. It would be churlish to say that the best thing about Italian Cookery Weeks is that they take place a thousand miles from a television set on which one can see the face of Delia Smith. But the fact that the courses are Delia-free contributes to their appeal. This is not Italian food as found in England. It is Italian food as found in Italy, cooked by Italian chefs using Italian ingredients and, just for good measure, in Italian weather. What could be more enticing?

The cookery weeks were started 10 years ago by Italian food-writer Susanna Gelmetti. Others have got on the band-wagon since, but the concept was new then and still holds good today. Susanna and her team now run residential weeks in Umbria, Puglia and, the one I attended, on the Amalfi coast, a couple of hours drive from Naples. In high summer this stretch of coast is known for its traffic jams, as tourist buses inch along the narrow roads hewn into the cliff face. But in spring the crowds seemed a long way off.

The little hotel-restaurant where the course took place was perched on the hillside above Marina del Cantone, a sleepy fishing village with a pocket-handkerchief of a beach. Day trips to Capri and Pompeii, and to the neighbouring towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, were part of the package. All were marvellous in their way, none more than so Ravello, the jewel in the crown of the Amalfi coast. Its old villas, with their stupendous views, ravished the eye. But the main event, as it should have been, was the cooking.

I would not normally call myself a keen chef: the best club in my bag is the microwave and half an hour in the kitchen is my top whack. But here I was happy to spend several hours a day with a wooden spoon in one hand and notebook in the other. It helped that the kitchen was in the open air, on a vine-covered terrace where we ate al fresco at the end of the lesson. It helped that the ambience was so exquisite, with petunias tumbling out of the window-boxes and the sea dancing in the sunlight. But those were incidentals. The food, and the drama that went with the food, held centre stage.

Neapolitan cuisine, starting with pizzas, was the order of the day. Most of us have tried making pizzas and, if we are honest, have been disappointed with the results. It is hard to get the dough just right and, watching Marco prepare his, it was easy to see why. He kneaded it for the best part of 10 minutes, pummelling the dough into shape with his great ham-like fists. It was like watching an angry osteopath ­ but it made for a wonderfully elastic dough.

Lesson one: cooking takes elbow grease. The toppings were nothing dramatic: just fewer, better, simpler ingredients than you would encounter in a pizzeria in England. What was dramatic was the wood-fired oven. It was over 400°C and cooked the pizzas in under two minutes. The results were sensational. It looked as easy as shelling peas when Marco was in charge but, when the time came for us to make our own pizzas, it was a different story. The others on the course, all women, produced something vaguely edible. My own effort collapsed in an ungainly mess and had to be tossed to the dog, Luna. I fared little better with the home-made pasta. I made a decent enough dough, but feeding the dough through the pasta machine and getting something resembling tagliatelle to come out the other end, was another matter. The result looked like the map of the Tube.

Generally speaking, humiliating the guests was not the object. This was not Ready Steady Cook transposed to the Mediterranean: it was a serious cookery course, albeit conducted in a festive atmosphere. We watched, listened, learnt and, when appropriate, lent Marco a helping hand. Susanna, meanwhile, kept up a running commentary, elucidating the finer points of Neapolitan cooking.

Day after day Marco seduced us with fresh delights, from fish ragu to baked pork with fennel; from tiger prawn risotto to sea bass wrapped in courgette flowers; from rum baba to semifreddo with hazelnuts. Just watching him at work was an education. Watching him at work and, at the same time, being able to smell the ingredients, bought fresh from the market that morning, was very heaven. Sliced pumpkins, chopped tomatoes, freshly grated Parmesan, great clumps of basil, lemons so perfect that you wanted to paint them... Even if we had not been able to eat the dishes afterwards, it would have been an orgy for the senses.

It beat TV cookery shows hands down, the way live football beats televised football: there was something visceral, close to nature, about the experience. The only disappointment came when I got back to England. I rushed out to the supermarket and bought the ingredients for a fresh pesto sauce, as demonstrated by Marco. Then I threw a bottle of bog-standard supermarket pesto into the trolley for purposes of comparison. Disaster. At a blind tasting, after I had sweated long and hard over my pesto, two out of three members of the Davidson family preferred the supermarket one. Come back, Delia, all is forgiven.

Italian cookery weeks on the Amalfi coast in June cost $1,249 per person, all inclusive. Similar weeks are available, at the same price, in Umbria in the autumn. Contact Italian Cookery Weeks, PO Box 2482, London NW10 1HW (tel: 020-8208 0112, e-mail: info@italian-cookery-weeks.co.uk, www.italian-cookery-weeks.co.uk).

Getting there

Go (tel: 0870 607 6543, www.go-fly.co.uk) flies to Naples and Rome Ciampino from Stansted. Return flights to Naples cost about £115. Return flights to Rome Ciampino cost about £90.

Getting around

Major car hire firms are represented at the airports, but a scooter may be a more practical choice in the cities and can be hired in the city.

Enjoy Rome (tel: 00 39 06 445 1843) offers walking and cycling tours.

Where to stay

In Bagnovignoni try the Posta Marcucci Hotel (tel: 00 39 0577 88 71 12). The Hotel Le Terme (tel: 00 39 0577 88 73 00) offers rooms with a view. La Parata (tel: 00 39 0577 887508) or the Capucine convent doubles as a b&b (tel 00 39 0577 888 925). Double rooms cost from £33.

Further information

The Italian State Tourist Board, 1 Princes Street, London (tel: 020-7408 1254, www.enit.it).

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