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Just like mama cooks

So entranced was a Merseyside teacher by her Italian cooking and art holiday that the following year she took her pupils along, writes Sarah Farley

It takes a truly dedicated teacher to wish her pupils could join her on holiday, especially if it's to a romantic spot in the Italian countryside.

But when Susan Duffy revisited one of her favourite places, Castello di Proceno in the province of Lazio, which offers cookery courses in Italian cuisine, she decided she must bring a school group to experience the magic themselves.

As curriculum area leader for aesthetics and technology at Prenton high school for girls in Birkenhead on Merseyside, Mrs Duffy realised after the first trip that it would also benefit art students as well as those taking food technology, because Proceno is only 140km from Florence and Rome and close to the borders with Tuscany and Umbria.

So last autumn, she took a second group of 16 Year 11 girls. "It's not quite like any trip I've organised before as it's rather off the usual path for schools and we had to organise the travel ourselves," she says. "The girls and their families had to be committed to the idea as it cost around pound;450 per student, plus funding from the Gifted and Talented and Excellence in Cities schemes. "But I knew what a fantastic place it is and how much it would mean to the girls so I was very determined."

The owner of the 12th-century castello, Cecilia Cecchini Bisoni, known as Pucci, is used to running cookery classes for adults, but had not catered for a school group before, although the restaurant does have a link with a local catering college. So it was new experiences all round, as some of the pupils had not been abroad before, and none had been to Lazio. The first cookery class with Claudio was an introduction to the ingredients and equipment the students would be using in the kitchen at the Castello.

"We were given special hats and aprons and told we were preparing our meal for the restaurant that night," recalls Laura Hill. "The utensils we used were old and traditional, with items we had never seen before. There were more ingredients than we normally use, such as herbs and different vegetables."

Dishes made by the students included fresh pasta, tiramisu ("not at all like the stuff we get at home - much nicer"), and meat dishes, one group even making sweet and sour wild boar.

"There were so many new things to try; food we know but here cooked differently and dishes and ingredients we didn't recognise, like some of the herbs," says Natalie Carter. "The meat and vegetables were much fresher and the food generally had more flavour. I had never cooked or eaten asparagus before, or spun sugar to decorate a dessert.

"We also learnt to make proper pizza, it is served very plainly, not loaded with toppings."

While the cooks were in the kitchen, the artists were painting and drawing.

One visit to Civita di Bagnoreggio, a tiny village known as la citta che muore (the city that is dying), impressed Jenni Quach. "The rock is being eroded and the landscape looks like the moon," she says. "There is a lost city over a high bridge and it was just like being in a painting."

To learn more about the culture and history of the area, they organised trips to the Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia, to Orvieto, where they admired wood carvings, and to Florence where they visited the Uffizi Gallery.

The value of experiencing Italian cooking first hand has inspired some girls to incorporate it in their project work for A-levels. "I am using ideas I would never have thought of before going to Italy," comments one pupil.

Perhaps we'll be seeing "Sweet and sour Wild Boar - Wirral style" appearing locally.

Details on Castello di Proceno from

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