By Corinne Tyler
Two guest houses located on the spectacular Amalfi Coast, one a provincial home in Positano, the other a palazzo in Sorrento, offer their patrons cooking lessons, if desired, or simply memorable cuisine to enjoy and outstanding accommodations from which to explore this splendid region of Italy.
Along the southwestern coast of Italy in the region called Campania, south of Naples, lies the Amalfi Coast, a stretch of mountainous coastline named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The coastal highway that traverses the Amalfi Coast begins below the city of Naples and winds its way along the coast to Salerno, passing through Sorrento and Positano along the way. The highway is situated high upon cliffs of limestone that drop off into the Tyrrhenian Sea below. Terraces of lemon and orange, olive, Bougainvillea, and Palm trees along with Mediterranean bush cling tightly to the cliffs and mountains, ravines and gorges.
Although tourism has replaced fishing as the primary source of income for many towns along the coast, the way of life for many residents is still steeped in simplicity, food and family and a connection with food and the earth. The rich volcanic soil in the region provides a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Olive oil, Mozzarella and wine are made locally and fresh fish is a main ingredient of the local diet. Preparation of the cuisine is largely a reflection of the lifestyle and surrounding landscape, mostly uncomplicated but rich in flavor and pleasing to the eye and palate.
Cooking Vacations, based in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States and Positano, Italy, has made it possible for travelers, casual and serious cooks alike, to learn the recipes, tips and tricks of Italian cuisine under the tutelage of experienced local chefs via the many cooking vacation programs that they offer throughout Italy. Programs are offered in Sicily, Puglia, Umbria, Luguria to Tuscany, Rome, and Campania to name a few.
Amalfi Coast Lemon Lifestyles in Positano and Luxury Lifestyles at the Palazzo in Sorrento are two of eight different packages offered by Cooking Vacations in the Campania region. The venue for each program is a private residence with limited accommodations providing an intimate atmosphere for guests. Each program offers cooking classes featuring Neapolitan cuisine, excursions, an opportunity to sightsee, shop or just relax and soak up the atmosphere in two very different and historic settings.
The resort town of Positano, formerly a fishing village, is on the south side of the Sorrento Peninsula in the Gulf of Salerno. Its windy streets are filled with cafés and restaurants and stores selling ceramics and resort wear. Most buildings are made from tufa stone and built into the mountainside, many with cupolas and terra-cotta roofs, patios, arched doorways and terraced gardens.
Amalfi Coast Lemon Lifestyles™
Villa Azzura, located on the northern end of Positano, is a 350-year-old residence that has been in the family of its owner, Marco, for three generations. Marco spent his childhood in the house, which is named for his mother and grandmother. When Marco inherited the house he worked diligently to maintain the authentic Moorish style that is characteristic of the architecture in Positano and along the Amalfi Coast.
Asked why he wanted to team up with Cooking Vacations and share his house with visitors, Marco explains that he believes the atmosphere created when people come together to cook, eat and enjoy wine in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere can generate great conversation and sow the seeds for good friendships. This, along with his great appreciation for food, has inspired Marco to open up his house and kitchen. He says that even in a famous place like Positano, it is possible to still find, special and unique situations that are authentic, so he strives to create non-touristy, "authentic" local experiences for his guests. Those also are the objectives of Cooking Vacations, so it seemed like a logical affiliation.
The name for Marco’s program with Cooking Vacations, Amalfi Coast Lemon Lifestyles, was selected to bring to mind the ubiquitous lemon trees that have been cultivated along the coast since the 11th century. Terraces of lemon groves line the mountainsides and there is a lemon tree in most family gardens. The Amalfi lemon is known for its size, juiciness and relatively seedless nature. Marco asks, how can the lemon be excluded if one would like to build an appreciation of Italian dishes of the region? It has become an integral part of the local cuisine. Marco strives to use as much organic produce as possible and buys from local farmers.
To assist him with his venture, he has hired a talented local chef named Rosa to come to the house to lead the cooking classes. Rosa is a professionally schooled chef who also tutored under Tanina Vanacore, a well-known local chef who has trained under some of Europe’s most famous chefs. Marco says that Rosa is blessed with an innate cooking ability and a well-developed sense of taste.
Marco would like his guests to know that original Italian cuisine does not have to be complicated or fussy and he hopes that his guests return home with the confidence to easily reproduce the recipes using the tips and tricks that he and Rosa can provide to make that possible.
There are three cooking lessons per week included in the program, and an extra lesson for an additional charge can be arranged, if desired. The lessons are held in the late afternoon so that guests can eat their creations for dinner the same evening. The cooking classes are very relaxed so that if guests would just prefer to watch or not participate at all, that is their choice.
A Taste of Campania
For a taste of Campania’s lemony cooking, try Tortelli di Carnevale–Carnival Fritters. This recipe makes four servings:
250 ml water (1 cup + 2 tablespoons), salt, 1 grated peel of a lemon, 50 grs (1/4 cup) of butter, 150 grs (1 + 1/3 cups) of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 4 eggs, confectionary sugar, and sunflower oil.
Boil the water in a casserole with lemon, butter and a pinch of salt. Take away from the stove and add the flour; put back on the stove top and keep cooking, always stirring, until the dough comes off the sides of the pan. Take again away from the stove tip and add the sugar, always stirring. When the mixture is lukewarm, blend the eggs and stir rapidly, until there is a smooth dough. Warm plenty of oil in a pan and pour the dough by spoonfuls into the hot oil until golden fried dough floats to the top. Remove and drain on blotting paper; dust with confectionary sugar and serve hot.
Serve with red sparkling sweet wine like a Brachetto D’Acqui or a Vernaccia di Serrapetrona or a Fragolino del Friuli.
The spacious rooms in the villa Azzura have whitewashed walls with high ceilings and are decorated with furniture and collectables that have been in Marco’s family for many years. Other pieces have been carefully selected to maintain the Mediterranean style. Current guest capacity at the villa is four double rooms, each with a western-facing view of the Mediterranean . Popular with couples and single guests, frequent visitors also include groups of ladies looking to escape to sunny southern Italy from their hectic lives and schedules.
The kitchen is situated on the lowest level of the house next to a sitting room. Both rooms open up onto a terrace with a western view that, in the summer months, has a potted vegetable garden, table and many places to sit and relax. A lemon tree with craggily branches hangs over the table like a yellow rooftop. Marco’s two dogs, Cookie and Jack make the back terrace their home.
Amalfi Coast Lemon Lifestyles™ Package
Marco doesn’t want his guests to feel that they are tied to a schedule, so he is available to organize excursions, trips or anything that guests would like to do. Because he has lived in Positano for such a long time, he has many local connections that make this possible. Marco would like for guests to feel at home in his house so guests are usually given a key to the house so they can come and go as they please.
Amalfi Coast Lemon Lifestyles offers a seven-night, eight-day package that includes a welcome dinner, daily breakfast, three cooking lessons, a selection of two food-related excursions from a choice of such places as: the Limoncella Factory (all year), Olive Oil Factory (October November and March, April), working farm, with garden and seasonal market (March-November), morning trip to Ravella and Amalfi (including a trip to the Museo de Carta), ceramics factory, Bakery (famous local bakery, nationally recognized).
Other excursions not included in the package include, Walk of the Gods (a hike in the mountains along the Amalfi Coast), Pompeii (a private guide can be arranged), fishing boat (by request only), the Island of Capri.
Sorrento, which sits along the Amalfi Coast on the Sorrento Peninsula has had many inhabitants throughout the centuries, as has the entire coastline. From the Greeks and Etruscans, to the Romans, French, Spanish and Turkish invaders. The emperor Tiberius so loved the Isle of Capri, which is off of the coast of Sorrento, that he ruled the Roman Empire from the island in the late years of his life. In the 1500’s Torquato Tasso, the famous poet, was born in Sorrento, and for centuries the city was well known for its writers, poets and its wood inlay industry. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Sorrento emerged as a popular tourist resort as it still is today.
Luxury Lifestyles at the Palazzo
The Palazzo is located in the heart of Sorrento, close to the main hubs of activity, Tasso Square and the old quarter. The Palazzo has been in Paola and Angela’s family for 150 years and was originally built in the 15th century, as is evident by the stone arches in the entry hall that date from the 1490’s.
Originally, trained to be a lawyer, Paola, who lives in the Palazzo with her family, decided to "follow her passion" and opened the Palazzo up nearly six years ago as a small hotel. Two years after that Paola decided to offer cooking classes. She had noticed that many of her guests would request recipes and wanted to learn to prepare them as well. Paola realized that there was focus in the travel industry on vacations that included cooking, so it was natural that she teamed up with Cooking-Vacations, and the program "Luxury Lifestyles at the Palazzo" was born.
Paola enlisted the help of her sister, Angela, a professionally trained chef, to assist with classes. Both Paola and Angela are well-versed, talented chefs who credit their mother with giving them the knowledge and inspiration for their own skills.
Accommodations at the Palazzo include five double rooms, all located on the first floor. There are two kitchens, one smaller kitchen on the ground floor and a fully equipped, professional kitchen downstairs. There is also a reception hall downstairs for wedding receptions and corporate events. During renovations, it was discovered that the Palazzo sits over 2000-year-old Roman ruins, which are visible through glass panels in the floor. The clientele tends to be mostly couples of all ages, and the Palazzo is an ideal venue for an intimate wedding. Paola plans and hosts quite a few weddings each year.
As Paola says, the Palazzo is "her baby", and she has taken great care in decorating the household with neoclassical antiques and furniture, mostly from the second part of the 18th century. The sitting areas have books, flower arrangements, family photos, antiques and paintings. One sitting area has a dining table as well. Both rooms open up to the garden terrace. Although the ambience is very elegant, it is so friendly and relaxed that it is easy for guests to feel at home immediately.
Paola would like her guests to feel as if they were in their own homes and will do her best to accommodate any trip or undertaking that a guest would like to have arranged. She wants to be open with her guests but also respects their privacy as well. Paola says her goal is for her guests to have the most enjoyable visit possible. She sums it all up this way, "When you do something special for someone, you really feel that you’ve succeeded".
Excursions / Pompeii
Cooking Vacations properties can arrange any of a wide choice of excursions at additional cost. Less than one hour away from either Sorrento or Positano and a must for anyone visiting this region of Italy are the famous remains of the Roman city of Pompeii. Buried under as many as 60 feet of burning ash by a violent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24 of the year AD 70, this important port city of ancient Rome was not re-discovered until the 16th century and, to this day, is still being excavated by archaeologists.
So sudden and violent was the disaster that citizens were struck down in the act of fleeing the devastation raining down on them from heaven. Imprints of their bodies left in the hardening ash are testament to the scope of the volcano’s fury and the speed with which the city was overcome.
Luxurious villas and public baths as well as the more modest apartments, bakeries, and businesses of an important city were buried–and preserved–leaving for posterity an encyclopedia of information about daily life in Roman Italy.
The large city of Pompeii was divided into nine regions, and, at a minimum an entire day is required for the visitor to receive at least a taste of these extensive and fascinating excavations. Either of the Cooking Vacations guesthouses can arrange for guides in English and other languages. Cost for the guides and entrance fees is additional, but having a guide is strongly recommended as so much history is involved in exploring Pompeii.
The tourist season along the Amalfi Coast runs from April until the end of September with July and August being the busiest and hottest months. In the busy season, along with the suntans, the beaches, boating, street festivals and warm summer sun come the traffic jams, crowds and waiting lists to get into restaurants, hotels and attractions. In the off-season, the coolest months are January and February, but all that is needed in the way of cold weather apparel is a sweater and jacket. So, when the long lines and traffic jams have all but vanished, the months from October through June are a good time to relax, enjoy cooking and eating good food and wine. In some ways, these are the best time to slip into the slower rhythm of life along the Amalfi Coast.