My tan has faded, but my tagliatelle shines on

Mastering Italian cookery in a week isn't so hard, it's rocket salad, not rocket science

Funny how the location of your kitchen can determine the level of satisfaction to be had from preparing dinner. I suspect that not even the prospect of creating a perfect risotto at Gordon Ramsay's stove could match my recollection of an afternoon spent shelling peas on a hot stone step, with a bottle of cold white wine close by and Amalfi's spectacular coastline in the distance. It's all about context.

Funny how the location of your kitchen can determine the level of satisfaction to be had from preparing dinner. I suspect that not even the prospect of creating a perfect risotto at Gordon Ramsay's stove could match my recollection of an afternoon spent shelling peas on a hot stone step, with a bottle of cold white wine close by and Amalfi's spectacular coastline in the distance. It's all about context.

Context is a crucial factor for the co-ordinators of Italian Cookery Weeks (ICW). Since 1990 Susanna Gelmetti and her team have shaped and refined the concept of the gastronomic holiday abroad. I spent a week at their school in Marina del Cantone, a pretty but humble seaside village near Sorrento. The resort stands out for one main reason: on the steep road that winds down to the beach is a Michelin-starred restaurant, Quattro Passi. And directly above it, on a terracotta tiled terrace – beautifully landscaped with tree-shaded lawns, bougainvillaea and views of the Mediterranean – are balconied guest rooms, a cool, glass-walled demonstration kitchen and al fresco dining area, immaculate and ready for budding gastronomes to check in.

My group comprised 15 holidaymakers from Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, all eager to be instructed over a week in the art of cooking traditional Italian dishes. Not all of us were committed foodies or even skilful cooks; some had simply taken to the idea of a themed holiday in this glorious location. One of the group, an Australian touring the Med with her two girlfriends, told me: "We're here to do leather." Disappointingly it turned out they were not a band of travelling dominatrixes, but three shoe addicts aiming to make a dent in southern Italy's stock of kitten-heeled slingbacks.

Fortunately, our teaching chef was a tolerant man who'd seen it all before. Marco Corsica is London-based for most of the year, running the kitchen of a highly acclaimed Italian restaurant in Mayfair. In May he returns to his native southern Italy to teach at the cookery school, and in September transfers his skills for an autumn season at ICW's Umbria site, a converted castle in spectacular grounds.

It was a 10am start each morning, and after a relaxed breakfast on the terrace we put on our calico aprons, scrubbed our hands and lined up in front of Marco's industrial-sized kitchen counter. First we were briefed on the day's lunch menu by Kirsti Crawford, cookery school co-ordinator. The three-course lunch began with Marco's demonstration, throughout which he and Kirsti gave a clear, running commentary. Then it was our turn: we'd already figured out that lunch would appear faster if everyone pitched in, so, under expert supervision, we set to work preparing the meal's main elements. Our reward would be to have the fruits of our labours served to us in civilized fashion, by the school's three wait staff, at lunch around 1pm.

Our first lesson was in pasta-making. Lined up along the yellow-painted benches, we giggled at the unexpected pleasure of thrusting our fingers into a heap of "00" grade flour, olive oil and egg yolks (a far nicer task for the hands on a Monday morning than tapping at a computer keyboard). Once the dough was kneaded to our chef's satisfaction, we attempted to imitate his dexterity in feeding it through a pasta machine several times in quick succession to achieve smooth, glossy strips for tagliatelle.

It was clearly wise to conquer this skill at the start, as in most Italian homes south of Naples fresh pasta is eaten twice a day. The emphasis was on tradition: we rolled gnocchi, stuffed peppers, stirred risotto, wrapped monkfish fillets in veil-thin Parma ham. I'm pleased to report that the less enjoyable traditions – scrubbing mussels, cleaning artichokes, gutting fish and washing up – fell to the staff.

The beauty of cooking traditional food on the Costiera Amalfitana is that there is an abundance of fantastic ingredients which require little embellishment or fancy preparation. Next to Quattro Passi is an olive grove whose oil has DOP certification, making it the fruity equivalent of a fine wine. Parmiggiano Reggiano, buffalo mozzarella, lemons, tomatoes, walnuts, rocket, ham and seafood are plentiful, cheap and delicious.

The drawback – if you could call it that – was that butter, cream, sugar and alcohol were equally plentiful on our plates. We chose to look on the bright side and count the taste and wholesomeness of each ingredient rather than its calorific value.

Opportunities to burn off calories came after lunch each day, when Kirsti lead free excursions to various locations nearby. These locations being Capri, Ravello and the ruins of Pompeii, any thoughts of an afternoon siesta were quickly erased. Those familiar with the Sorrentine peninsula's famous sights could stroll down to the pretty, if pebbly, beach for some peaceful sunbathing or an espresso at the shorefront café. We walked a coastal path that went from the beach around the headland to a stunning bay beyond: in the heat of a Sorrentine afternoon, it felt punishing enough to have countered some of the effects of lunch.

We regrouped in the early evening for drinks, before the evening lesson began at 8pm, resulting in a four-course feast at 10 o'clock. In true Italian style we sat up till the early hours, chatting and knocking back eye-wateringly strong grappa.

I'd arrived a keen cook, but over seven days learnt several new tricks, acquired a little more flair and had my senses sharpened: squeamish though I am, I tossed tiny baby octopi whole in to a sizzling pan of garlicky oil; learned to chop courgettes "correctly"; slung pizza and posted it neatly into a scorching oven on the end of a long shovel; whisked egg yolks for 10 whole minutes to render my semifreddo sufficiently light. I also learnt there are few better ways to release stress than to pick up a kitchen mallet and mercilessly batter a disc of bloody fillet steak into almost-transparent carpaccio.

By the last day we were all of us converted to cooking the Italian way, and went shopping for utensils at a basic but well-stocked village ironmongers. Pasta machines, nutmeg graters, soufflé dishes and a fair number of mallets crossed the counter in return for laughably small amounts of money. Recipes for the 40 or so dishes we'd cooked were given to us at the end of the week, though the practical experience was far more valuable.

Flying out over the Bay of Naples at dusk, on a scheduled flight where I was one of only a few passengers, I felt sad to leave. "You could have an extra airline meal if you like," said the kindly air steward. "We've dozens left over tonight." Funnily enough, I wasn't tempted.

The Facts

Getting there

Jackie Hunter was a guest of Italian Cookery Weeks (020-8208 0112; www.italian-cookery-weeks.co.uk). One week at either school in autumn 2002 and summer 2003 costs £1,599 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Naples or Rome, transfers, food and wine, tuition and organised excursions. Places are available at the Umbria school this autumn (Sept & Oct).

She drove from Naples to Sorrento courtesy of SunCars (0870 500 5566; www.suncars.co.uk), which rents cars from £145 per week in September.

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