Theres something very satisfying about eating ones own hand-made pasta in the restaurant of a top Italian hotel.
If only every meal one cooked was served by smiling, attentive waiters on a flower-laden, sun-warmed balcony and washed down with a glass of perfectly chilled white wine...
At this point, my wife would probably interject to say that she would settle for me doing the cooking every now and again. After a morning at the cooking school at the Masseria Torre Coccaro hotel, I can proudly say that there is one three-course Italian meal I can make from scratch - even including the pasta itself. Creating spaghetti using the cutting machine is now no problem, although I have to admit I was a miserable failure when trying to make pasta shells by hand.
We spent the morning with Libarata in her kitchen, using vast quantities of the local olive oil as we fried huge slices of aubergines before stuffing them with mozzarella and tomatoes, prepared the separate doughs for the pasta and the Apulian version of a vegetarian Cornish pasty,and produced a terrific spaghetti sauce. It was all great fun.
After 10 years of living in Canada, Libaratas English was up to the challenge of getting me in an apron and cooking quality food, and the two and a half hours spent chopping, frying and kneading sped by (and built up a healthy appetite for the lunch we had so diligently prepared). In fact, we made so much food that we needed doggy bags to carry it back to our room, to finish for supper.
Food, not surprisingly for Italy, is one of the highlights of the five-star Masseria Torre Coccaro. Situated in Apulia, southern Italy, on the Adriatic coast roughly midway between Bari and Brindisi, the hotel is a member of Small Luxury Hotels.
Nothing, it seems, is too much trouble for the relaxed but superbly efficient staff.
Its worth staying there for the breakfasts alone, even if choosing what to eat does demand careful consideration. Should one go for the mini pizzas, the small rolls or the croissants? What about the papayas, kiwis, cherries, strawberries, melons and other fruit? If I ask for scrambled eggs, mushroom and toast, do I also want some smoked salmon with it? And will I have room afterwards to try at least two of the cakes on offer?
After that breakfast, we skipped the hotel restaurant at lunch time - aside from the day we cooked lunch - but dinner there was simply a delight. As the hotel is on the coast, sea-food naturally dominates, but there is enough permitted fish and vegetable options on offer to satisfy most palates. (Libarata, in the cooking school, also needs advance warning of kashrut requirements if you dont want to find yourself cooking mussels or prawns.)
After a first course of ravioli with nettle and tuna (a combination I had originally not considered but which is well worth trying) we settled on sharing a salt-baked sea bass, and chose the fish from a selection brought to our table. Thirty minutes later, the sea bass returned, encrusted in salt. In a skillful demonstration of steady hands and patience, the waiter chiselled away the salt before filleting the fish and serving it. Accompanied by a sparkling local white wine, this was a meal to savour.
Obviously, the Masseria Torre Coccaro is not somewhere to go if youre trying to lose weight, but it is a perfect location if one wants to retreat from the bustle of everyday life and sink into the tranquillity of an isolated 16th century building, set back from the sea and surrounded as far as the eye can see by ancient olive trees.
Originally built as a watchtower to spot Turkish invaders, the building then became a fortified farm, hosting its own beautiful small chapel, built in 1730. Indeed, the chapel is still in use today and provided a spectacular wedding venue for another couple while we were staying there. The following day the hotel courtyard provided a backdrop for a swimwear shoot, so the setting is very much in demand. The courtyard, as befits an authentic, ancient building, is uneven, so its probably not suitable for those who are unsteady on their feet.
The hotels 33 rooms vary in size and are dotted around the complex like separate houses, but even the smallest rooms are big. The room to aspire to (we could see its pool from our window) is the Orchard suite, which has been carved out of an ancient cave, looking out onto an orchard planted in the 17th century and the rather more modern pool.
These caves also provide a focal point for the hotels own spa, where theres an indoor pool, Jacuzzi and Turkish bath to help ease away the strains of modern life, along with a wide range of massages, facials, aromatherapy and so on. These Aveda treatments (the art and science of pure flower and plant essence) are not cheap - a one-hour shiatsu massage costs 100 euros - but its worth going to the spa just to see how theyve turned the caves into comfortable treatment rooms.
Theres a well-stocked bar to tempt the weak, but for those concerned about the calories theyve been consuming, there is the hotels outdoor pool. Shaped like a lake, it is quite small so its not for serious swimmers and the one distraction from the general peace and quiet of the hotel is a nearby go-kart track, which can be heard at its nosiest by the pool.
But theres always the sea. The Masseria Torre Coccaro has its own private beach a five-minute drive away. The hotel will take you there and return you if you dont have your own car but, if youre determined to work off the slices of cake at breakfast, the hotel also has a fleet of mountain bikes and you can just cycle over to the beach club which, naturally, has its own restaurant and sushi bar.
Its also worth cycling to the small fishing village of Savelletri and having some ice cream on the sea front or, for the historically inclined, the museum at Egnazia is a 10-minute cycle ride away. Famous for its archeological park, it reveals how the area has been inhabited from the Bronze Age. Unfortunately, the museum has little by the way of explanation in English, so it does take some work.
The ancient port city of Monopoli, at whose vegetable and fish market the hotel buys its ingredients for the cooking school, is too far away for a comfortable cycle ride, but the hotel staff will drive you there if you want a look around. And for golfers, the hotel also has its own nine-hole course and driving range.
Apulia, it has to be said, is not Tuscany: theres no Florence or Sienna, and its cities are not Rome or Venice, but for those looking for a new view of Italy, this Adriatic coastal region is definitely worth exploring. Just dont eat too much.
Naples is the closest city to Apulia with an organised Jewish community and a synagogue (on Via Cappella Vecchia 31)
In 1290, the Jews of Apulia of were accused of killing a Christian child. Thousands of Jews fled or converted, ending 1,000 years of Jewish life. Synagogues in Trani, Bari and other cities were converted to churches
The Apulian port of Bari had a large Jewish community in the 14th century
The 5 star deluxe Masseria Torre Coccaro in Puglia (39 080 482 9310; www.masseriatorrecoccaro) offers double rooms from 242 (165) per night on a B&B basis. Citalia (www.citalia.com; 0870 909 7554) offers 3 nights from 512 per person based on two sharing a twin room with patio garden, including breakfast, car hire with pick up and drop off at the airport and scheduled flights with Alitalia. Extra nights from 94 per person per night. Alternatively, British Airways operates a direct service from Gatwick twice weekly