It’s no wonder environmentalism and gastronomy tend to go hand in hand. After all, both share a respect for whole food, thoughtful growing practices, and quality over quantity. The natural result of this union? The eco-friendly cooking-school vacation. What better way for green-minded foodies to indulge both their love of the land and love of food than to partake in this latest travel sub genre? A growing number of eco chefs have begun inviting vacationers to study in some of the most beautiful locales in the world. Whether you prefer making hand-rolled pasta on an organic olive farm in Tuscany or muddling a curry paste using organic lemongrass you picked in Thailand, the world really is your kitchen. Here are eight sustainable cooking schools where you can nourish your inner gourmand.
Ballymaloe Cookery School (Shanagarry, Ireland)
In her thick Irish brogue, Darina Allen
, chef and proprietor of the Ballymaloe Cookery School
in County Cork, Ireland (pictured above) describes her approach to food: “It’s very simple. We just cook from the farm and surrounding gardens according to the seasons—the way we’ve been doing for the past 15 years.” Her dishes really are as straightforward as she says. Grilled mackerel comes from the bay a mile away; winter stews are stocked with root vegetables, like Jerusalem artichokes, grown on her 100-acre organic farm; blackberries for summer compotes are picked from one of her 12 gardens; an Italian mousse-style ice cream starts with fresh cream from her Jersey cows and eggs from her free-range hens; and a local butcher provides pigs that students learn to use tail to snout. But Allen’s humble description doesn’t do justice to the breadth of activities Ballymaloe offers. At the farmhouse-turned-school, which is attached to a 14th-century Norman castle, foodies can choose from 12-week professional certificate courses, two to five days of intensive introductory classes, or daylong primers on forgotten skills such as foraging—all within walking distance of the 18th-century cottages that Allen rents out by the week.
Details: Daylong classes start at $220; five-day courses are $1,086. Lodging starts at $37 per night, or $126 per week (+353 21 4646785, cookingisfun.ie).
Food Artisans (Montepulciano, Italy)
When asked why she moved from California to Tuscany six years ago, Pamela Sheldon Johns, founder of Food Artisans
, an Italian cooking school and tour company, is hard-pressed to name just one reason. “There is still a lot of artisanal, traditional food here,” she says. “People still think about food seasonally—and my daughter’s school lunch is 90 percent organic.” Her passion for her new home shines through in the way she immerses her students in Italian culture. Johns’s tours (there are four different ones) cover all the important regional cooking styles of northern, central, and southern Italy, but nothing rivals the experience of cooking Tuscan food on her working organic olive farm. There, Johns gives hands-on lessons in rustic peasant cuisine like ribollita (a hearty vegetable soup) or pici (a thick, hand-rolled spaghetti) in the kitchen of her 400-year-old villa. Students also attend tastings at local Montepulciano wineries and pecorino cheese producers; dinners hosted by neighboring villas; and impromptu poolside parties, where classes focus on how to make various antipastos and fresh margherita pizzas baked in outdoor brick ovens. “It was magical,” says Deanne Raish, a student who plans to go back this year. “We really got to experience how the Italians live.”
Details: A weeklong class costs approximately $3,500, including all meals and lodging (805.963.7289, foodartisans.com).
Annie’s Kitchen (Murs-en-Provence, France)
Annie Jacquet-Bentley is best known for founding L’Ecole des Chefs, an apprentice program that allows home cooks to train under star chefs. With Annie’s Kitchen
, she’s inviting students to learn Provençal cuisine in her 18th-century shepherd’s home in the town of Murs
. Her state-of-the-art kitchen overlooks hills of lavender and olive trees, and there she teaches students to cook like she does—sans recipes. “The best approach to cooking is seeing what’s fresh at the market, then coming home and coming up with dishes,” says Jacquet-Bentley. Those include classics like bouillabaisse, claufoutis, and chocolate madeleines, as well as forays into other dishes like roasted lamb and goat-cheese soufflé. Since classes consist of only four to six people, students receive a lot of attention. They’ll also visit local artisans who make goat cheese, bread, and honey, and take wine-tasting lessons from a sommelier.
Details: Five-day classes are $2,650 including meals. Local lodging starts at around $70 per night for a bed and breakfast (hote-en-luberon.com).
Rancho La Puerta (Tecate, Mexico)
Fitness of the mind, body, and spirit has always been the philosophy of Rancho La Puerta
(pictured above), a historic spa situated in a cactus-and-wildflower-filled valley just over the Mexican border on the Baja Peninsula. And to fuel the reams of activities it offers—60 in total, from mountain biking to meditating—the spa has always served Mexican-Mediterranean cuisine, primarily vegetarian, sourced from its five-acre organic garden. Now, guests have one more activity to choose from at the world’s first fitness spa's cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta
(The Kitchen That Sings). Its director, food writer and Napa Valley insider Antonia Allegra, is just one of the culinary heavyweights affiliated with the 4,500-square-foot facility. Michel Stroot, the only spa chef ever to be nominated for a James Beard award, will serve as consulting chef, while Jesus Gonzalez, who worked alongside Stroot for 14 years, will teach students how to cook inventive, healthful dishes like Baja paella, sea bass in rice paper, and pineapple-and-candied-ginger sorbet. The school’s approach, says Allegra, is to show that “food is not a recipe that you get out of a magazine,” but rather nourishment rooted in the natural world. Toward that end, students will pick the vegetables they’ll be cooking that day from the spa’s garden, and attend discussion groups led by nutritionists and food experts.
Details: Weeklong visits, including classes, meals, accommodations, and ground transportation from San Diego International airport, start at $2,690 per person (800.443.7565, rancholapuerta.com).
Philo Apple Farm (Philo, California)
Over ten years ago, Sally Schmitt left her famous Napa Valley restaurant, French Laundry, in the hands of Thomas Keller and embarked on a new job: teaching cooking classes on her family’s biodynamic apple farm
. Lessons take place around a big butcher-block table in her farmhouse kitchen. “My aim is to get people to use real ingredients, and do as little as possible to them. I know that’s been said 5,000 times before, but we really do,” she says. Using organic fruits, herbs, and vegetables as well as goat cheese straight from the farm, Schmitt teaches four different meals over the course of a weekend, beginning with a Friday night three-course dinner of, for instance, artichoke soup, bacon-wrapped scallops, and roasted pears served over cinnamon ice cream. Between meals, guests can tour the 30-acre farm, visit nearby wineries, explore the redwoods of Hendy Woods State Park, and unwind in one of the three cottages Schmitt has decorated with four-poster beds and claw-foot tubs.
Details: Weekend classes—which can sell out a year in advance—start at $1,500 including lodging and meals, and run February through Thanksgiving (707.895.2461, philoapplefarm.com).
Philipkutty’s Farm (Kumarakom, India)
When this sustainable island farm in the southern Indian state of Kerala began offering homestays in 1999, proprietor Anu Mathew realized her guests enjoyed more than just the moonlit boat rides on the lake, walks through the mango groves, and massages at the local Ayurvedic center. They also liked to hover in the kitchen
, where her mother-in-law prepared red fish curries, shrimp masalas, and vegetable stews. “Many of our guests like to watch cooking, and they want to know how to make curry, so that is how we started this,” Mathew says of the farm’s informal cooking school. Each day, guests of Philipkutty’s lakeside villas
can take a class with Aniamma Philip, or “Mummy,” who teaches the traditional foods of India’s southwestern coast. Many of Mummy’s ingredients come from the mostly organic farm. The curry leaves and ginger grow just outside her kitchen door, and exotic fruits like the dark, smoky kokum just beyond. Mathew also leads tours of their tropical crops, and is always on hand to suggest a dozen other activities, from visiting local Hindu temples to spiking fresh jumbo prawns for the next day’s meal.
Details: A $200-a-night stay includes three meals a day. Cooking classes are an additional $12 per person (+91 4829 276529, philipkuttysfarm.com).
Four Seasons Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai, Thailand)
There are dozens of cooking schools in Thailand, but only one Chef Pitak. The charismatic, multilingual chef was such an integral part of Alan Rosen’s trip to Chiang Mai, a cosmopolitan mountain town ringed by hill-tribe villages, that he plans on returning for a refresher course. “We ate at the best places in Thailand, and his cooking was the best Thai food we had,” he says. The setting is surely a perk: The thatched roof, open-air kitchen overlooks deep green rice paddies, and a tinkling, nearby waterfall outside completes the peaceful aesthetic. But it’s Pitak Srichan’s ability to teach
novices technical dishes, like an intricate lattice of fried egg, that truly impresses. “He takes no shortcuts, and he doesn’t dumb it down,” says Rosen, who, in addition to preparing prawn-and-papaya salad, roasted-duck curry, and classics like pad Thai, learned to muddle fresh lemongrass and galangal gathered from the resort’s organic herb garden. Each morning begins with a trip to the local market, where students can buy exotic fruits such as the prickly-thorned durian and indulge in coconut rice pudding for breakfast. Over the following four hours, Chef Pitak guides them through a four-course lunch as they take in the scenery.
Details: The culinary package at the Four Seasons (pictured above) is $675 per day with lodging, or $150 without (+66 53 298 181, fourseasons.com/chiangmai); nearby accommodations such as the Chedi Chiang Mai are available ($180 per night, website).
John C. Campbell Folk School (Brasstown, North Carolina)
If somehow you missed (or miss) summer camp, the John C. Campbell Folk School
is where you can make up for lost time. The 300-acre campus in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, complete with dorms, campgrounds, and a cafeteria, is a backwoods lab of forgotten skills like blacksmithing, weaving, and soapmaking. Its culinary program
, one of the newest components of the 82-year-old school, has grown from a handful of classes in 1999 to its current roster of 43 offerings. “If you had told me the Folk School was going to be as big as it is today, I would have said you’re dreaming,” says Carla Owen, an instructor who has worked at the school since the ’70s, and now helps oversee the cooking classes, which cover everything from Scandinavian cuisine to chocolate making. She’s watched the on-site garden go from being chemically treated to becoming 100 percent organic, and has seen the importance of sustainability grow in each class. Milk from the cheese-making class, for instance, comes from a nearby dairy; the vegetables in the winter-gardening class come from the instructor’s own garden; the sweeteners for Owen’s breadmaking class are local honey and sorghum syrup (a traditional Appalachian ingredient). The kitchen features a giant hearth that provides heat for the 18th-century cooking class, and a wood-fired brick oven where Owen bakes breads. If you’re game for more activities after class, you can learn English country dancing, quilting, or woodcarving, or simply walk the school’s scenic trails alongside wandering creeks and into the mountains.
Details: Weekend classes, including dormitory accommodations and meals, are $384; weeklong classes are $792 (800.365.5724, folkschool.org).
Story by Nicole Davis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2007.
Copyright Environ Press 2007