Our very own Karen Jones tells the story of how she turned a small idea into a fantastic trip. Here is her report from our first ever holiday with Suffolk-based food school The Cooking Experience.
Have you ever had a random thought which developed into a great idea? Back in 2017, I was buying a new kitchen and, in the showroom, there were some amazing cooking smells emanating from another room. Choosing a kitchen design and colours etc. can be a thankless task so, during one visit when I became increasingly frustrated and quite frankly fed-up, I thought I would go and investigate, so I followed my nose - literally!
The room was filled with people happily learning how to cook and my eyes diverted in the direction of a rather jolly looking chap who seemed to be in charge. I could see he was busy so, whilst grabbing one of his cards off the kitchen work surface, I briefly called over and said “I'm taking one of these. I have an idea and will be in touch.”
From that day forward, my idea of organising a TravelQuest Exclusive Cooking Experience holiday in Italy developed into a reality very quickly.
Mark and Annie David own a fabulous company called the Cooking Experience based in Hadleigh, Suffolk, where they offer all types of cookery courses for the public and local businesses.
I knew from the moment I met this wonderful couple that my idea would work. They are so experienced and passionate about what they do (as are we) and they had always thought about offering their customers an opportunity to go away with them and have a week of intensive cooking. Of course, they were unsure of exactly where to start and what to do.
That is until TravelQuest became the answer. Along with the Manager, Mary, and her team in TravelQuest Ipswich, we quickly sourced a beautiful villa which could house 18 people comfortably and offered a large kitchen with an industrial-sized cooker with plenty of pots, pans and utensils.
We were very excited about this little gem and so quickly found flights and transfers so we could offer a completely unique holiday to our customers. Sharon, our Marketing Manager, worked her magic to create a flyer to advertise the trip, giving it the title ‘A Slice of Pisa’!
An email went out to Mark and Annie's database with ‘A Slice of Pisa’ attached and within 48 hours the trip was full! We were all quite overwhelmed by the demand and interest in this type of holiday.
On the 22nd September, I met all our guests at Stansted Airport at 7 am and soon realised we were in for such a fun time. The group was a fantastic, eclectic mix of people from all walks of life, including a retired face repair surgeon (who will be 80 next year) and his wife, a retired Radiologist; two former head teachers; a female audiologist who owns a hearing care centre; a G.P. from Stowmarket; a customs officer; a carer; singers; drama fans; Maisie, who was celebrating her 18th birthday with her hairdresser mum; a businessman and a pharmaceutical marketeer! So many life experiences amongst them and stories to tell – and boy did they tell them!
The Ryanair flight from Stansted to Pisa went smoothly and was actually very prompt. I was relieved to see my contact in Italy, Lisa from Red Cap Tours, at the arrivals hall to meet us all with her two minibuses ready to transfer us to the villa in the small commune called Crespina. It was just half an hour from Pisa and set in the Tuscan hillside.
First, though, I needed to go with Mark (or Marko, as he likes to be called) to the car rental desk to pick up my hire car. I was overjoyed to learn that I was given an upgrade to a Renault Megan, but you should have seen my face when I realised the size of this thing! It was an estate version and my first thought was hairpin bends, crazy drivers, tiny narrow roads, stone walls, etc. etc.!
Well, I was here now and there was no other choice than jumping in and following Lisa from the airport to the villa! How I kept up I do not know, but I managed it and we were laughing about it at the time.
When we all arrived at the villa, we were taken aback by its beautiful location. The views were just stunning and took our breath away. We could see Pisa in the distance, even the tower, and then to the other side, we viewed the tiny medieval town of Lari, with its castle perched dominantly on the top of the hill. It was absolutely gorgeous!
We were all very happy with the inside of the villa too. Our rooms were decorated differently but were very grand with high ceilings and beautiful Italian furnishings. There was a huge lounge with a great speaker system for our music and the kitchen was a decent size, filled with all the utensils you could wish for on a cooking holiday.
So, it was a really great start to our week and we all settled in quickly and got to know each other better.
Dinner on the first evening was a simple plate of cold meat, cheese, fried peppers and asparagus, all washed down with some lovely local wine.
Annie and Marko had really thought through what we were going to be making for the week. On our second day, we enjoyed a huge breakfast spread of fresh bread made by our own fair hands, yoghurts, compote, honey, marmite, Marko's own marmalade and copious amounts of coffee, kindly and lovingly prepared by Simon. The group worked hard in the kitchen to make focaccia, ravioli and tagliatelle from scratch to accompany fresh asparagus, parmesan shavings and salad. It was all delicious.
I loved hearing everyone having fun in the kitchen and calls of “yes, Chef”, “of course, Chef”, “no, Chef”, “pardon, Chef”, “are you serious, Chef?” could always be heard, along with a few screeches of pain and the odd expletive after burning fingers on the oven! Everyone truly mucked in and helped with all the cooking and the mammoth task of setting the table and washing up for 17.
One of our group, Simon, took it upon himself to be chief Barista and made coffees for everyone every day. I don't think anyone realised how much work that was for him, but he never complained and we always had coffee available!
Every day, by the time lunch was devoured and we all tidied up, it was then time to start thinking about the dinner. We ate late most evenings, at around 8.30-9pm, but everything was explained by Marko and people just loved to learn new things when cooking from scratch. We had squid on one evening, which was interesting to prepare, and a few people were a little squeamish. Finding out how to fillet a fish was amazing too, as was learning how to portion a whole chicken.
Halfway through the week was Maisie's 18th birthday. What were we going to cook for her?
Two ladies (Sarah, an amateur chocolatier and Diana, who makes superb cakes) set about obtaining ingredients and decorations in order to make a lovely birthday cake. There was so much improvisation but the finished product was amazing and Maisie was so pleased. She even learned how to make the sugar netting for the top.
The days passed so quickly, as they were truly filled with either cooking, relaxing, reading a book by the pool or going to the supermarket to help choose the ingredients. In the evenings, we would just chat around the table or play a game which Sarah organised for us all. She had gone to the trouble of interviewing each one of us to find out one interesting fact. Sarah then wrote these down and, on the third evening, announced all the facts without disclosing who they belonged to.
The aim of the game was to find out why fact belongs to which person by going around the group and asking questions. It was such a great idea and fun to discover funny and amazing things about the group. It was a true icebreaker and I would thoroughly recommend playing this at any dinner party. Sarah is a natural entertainer so she kept us thoroughly amused all week.
On Tuesday, I had organised a tour for eight of us to go to Pisa and Luca with Red Cap Tours, a great full-day out. The others stayed behind to enjoy more relaxation and cooking and it was a slightly easier day for Marko and Annie as there weren't so many people to instruct.
Late Thursday afternoon, we all took a ten-minute drive to a local vineyard for a wine tasting. Thankfully, the vineyard owner kindly helped me with lifts or I would have been making eight single journeys in order to get everyone there and back!
On our last day, I took two couples to the small town of Pontedera, just a 20-minute drive away. Here, they caught a train to Florence, an hour and a half away, for just €30 return. It is also possible to go to Pisa from here for just €8 return so, although our villa was a little isolated, as long as you have a car it is easy to do some sightseeing on your own.
The rest of the day was spent taxiing the other guests to and from the wonderful medieval town of Lari, just three miles away. There is a famous family-owned pasta factory which exports all over the world. The owner shows you how he makes the pasta and, of course, allows you to buy some to take home.
Our last day came far too quickly, but we all mucked in to make sure the villa was clean and tidy before leaving for the airport and our flight home. This truly was one of the most wonderful experiences I have had and I felt very honoured to be able to host the trip and look forward to many more in the future. Keep your eyes peeled for what’s to come.
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