The number of foreign tourists visiting Italy has fallen in recent years. For all its art treasures, stunning landscapes and UNESCO heritage sites, il bel paese, the beautiful country - which is how Italians like to see themselves - is paying the price of the ongoing financial crisis and the rise of new holiday destinations, not to mention the complacency of a political class incapable of making the most of a priceless heritage.
One sector bucking the trend, however, is food and wine - cookery schools and courses in particular. Last year an estimated 800,000 "culinary travellers" attended 18,000 courses of one sort or another in Italy, and this year the figure is expected to exceed 900,000. Gastronomia has become gastromania.
Castles, palaces, mansions, farmhouses, apartments - the venues for cookery classes are diverse and the range available is impressive. Even if you don't know your tortellini from your tortelloni, there's sure to be a course to suit.
Many professional cooking schools organise classes on demand. The International School of Italian Cuisine, or ALMA, housed in the magnificent Ducal Palace of Colorno just outside Parma, arranges lessons and tours for visiting food lovers under the guidance of expert chefs; it's the brainchild of the renowned Milanese chef Gualtiero Marchesi.
In Forlimpopoli, just inland from the Adriatic beach resorts of Milano Marittima, Cesenatico and Rimini, Casa Artusi is a "centre of gastronomic culture" dedicated to the town's favourite son, Pellegrino Artusi, author of the Italian gastronomic bible, Science in the Kitchen and Art of Eating Well.
It offers short courses on domestic cooking with local produce. On similar bespoke courses at Ital.Cook in Jesi in the central Marche region, teacher-cooks from restaurants all over the country bring their own produce with them.
Michelin-starred chefs are getting in on the act, too. At Castel di Sangro in Abruzzo, Niko Romito of the acclaimed three-star Ristorante Reale reveals the secrets and techniques of haute cuisine at his Formazione school.
For something more lavish, last month the Stirred cookery company launched a new program of culinary holidays, including hands-on classes and study trips, at the splendid 15th-century Villa Casagrande, in the foothills of the Dolomites, not far from Venice. At the swanky Castel Monastero, a restored 1,000-year-old monastery in the hills 24 kilometres east of Siena, the Gordon Ramsay-inspired "Tuscan Retreat Cookery Program" promises a "journey into the true essence of Tuscan and Italian cuisine".
On a more personal level, cook David Sgueglia della Marra takes students shopping at Rome's Campo dei Fiori market in the morning for ingredients which they cook at his Piazza Argentina loft in the evening. And in Milan, husband-and-wife team Lele and Melissa run Ma' Hidden Kitchen Supper Club in their downtown home, offering small classes and dinners. And if you want to set a literary seal on your Italian cooking experience, Australian author and journalist Lisa Clifford organises Taste Every Word retreats in the Tuscan mountains for those who "love food, love writing and love writing about food". She also throws in some cheesemaking for good measure.
To help you find your bearings among this embarrassment of riches, here is a selection of places I'm personally acquainted with or which colleagues in the know swear by.
Pollenzo Cookery School
In Pollenzo, a village complete with a Roman amphitheatre in the heart of the north-west region of Piedmont, the atmosphere is remarkably cosmopolitan. Since 2004, students have been coming here from all over the world to attend the University of Gastronomic Sciences, part of a hub of international food and wine culture - which also comprises a "wine bank" and a hotel - developed by the Slow Food association on the site of the Agenzia, an old Savoy royal estate. A new addition to the project is the Pollenzo Cookery School, which organises 12-month courses in the kitchens of its Corte Albertina restaurant. Also available are weekend and summer packages with lessons on Piedmontese cuisine (hence plenty of stuffed pasta, local beef and truffles in season), guided tours of local markets and the wine bank, dinners and accommodation at the stylish four-star Albergo dell'Agenzia, with its restaurant, swimming pool, hammam, hot-tub and gym. There's also the chance to meet top international guest chefs who visit Pollenzo periodically to cook at the university's Academic Tables canteen and attend their lectures - from Alex Atala of D.O.M. in São Paulo and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, to Giorgio Locatelli of Locanda Locatelli in London and the famed Catalan Ferran Adrià. With Turin, the Riviera and the Alps all less than two hours' drive away, the place is also a great base for a holiday - if, that is, you can drag yourself away from the kitchen.
A weekend package of two lessons, meals and two nights' hotel accommodation costs from $557 per person. Piazza Vittorio Emanuele 9, Pollenzo, 12042 Bra, +39 0172 458 511
Albergo Real Castello di Verduno
"I was born and grew up in the kitchen, where my mother was chef before me," says Alessandra Buglioni di Monale. Her family's hotel-restaurant, Albergo Real Castello, is in the winegrowing village of Verduno, just 10 minutes' drive from Pollenzo. It's housed in a fairytale hilltop castle built in the 16th century and bought by her great-great-grandfather from the King of Italy in 1909. We had met for an aperitivo in the castle gardens on a fine spring evening, and the view of the Langhe wine hills in the middle distance and the still snow-capped Alps beyond was amazing. With di Monale were her husband Olek Bondonio, a wine producer of part-Polish origin, and their three children. They had been gathering sage and elderflowers for a series of lessons on the use of flowers and herbs in the kitchen for a group of students from Japan. Di Monale has been organising short cookery courses since 2001. Each consists typically of a two-night stay at the hotel, two three-hour lessons and a shopping tour of Alba market, where she knows all the stallholders; in the spring, that meant potatoes from Signora Piera, strawberries from Signora Stefania, asparagus and red onions from Signor Giovanni, black cherries from Signor Beppe and wild asparagus and parsley from Signora Luisa. "We teach people not only how to cook authentic Piedmontese dishes," di Monale says, "but also how to present and serve them." The hotel is full of history: portraits of di Monale's ancestors in the hall, a mirror in the sitting room engraved with the names of the Savoy royals, guest rooms decorated with faded frescoes and original tiled floors. It's a place where time stands still, a place you'll never want to leave.
A weekend package including two lessons, a trip to the market, a dinner and two nights' accommodation at the hotel costs $1,142 for two; courses are designed for two to eight people. Via Umberto I 9, Verduno, +39 0172 470 125
La Tavola Marche
This inn-cum-cooking school is housed in a secluded 300-year-old farmhouse in the Marche region, not far from Acqualagna, famous for its truffles, and unmissable Urbino, a gem of the Renaissance, hometown of Raphael and a UNESCO heritage site. The owners, Americans Ashley and Jason Bartner, were on honeymoon in Rome in 2006 when they decided to embark on their rural idyll and what they describe as a "healthier, saner life". Jason received classical training at the French Culinary Institute in New York, but has found his true milieu cooking the simple rural food of the Marche. "There it was about style; here it's about what's in season," he says. The couple offers half- and full-day "hands-on, roll up your sleeves, dive right on in" cooking classes, as well as custom packages on topics such as cooking with wild vegetables, and foraging, slaughtering and butchering. Accommodation is in beautifully restored apartments with wooden beam ceilings, tile floors and stone fireplaces, and there's a swimming pool on the grounds. "There's something so satisfying about creating a special holiday for someone here and connecting them through the food to the culture and the people of this area," says Ashley.
Half-day classes cost $185 per person, full-day classes $295, and there are accommodation packages. Agriturismo Ca'Camone, Via Candigliano, 61046 Piobbico, +39 331 525 2753
Badia a Coltibuono
Located at an altitude of 650 metres above sea level in the heartland of Chiantishire, halfway between Florence and Arezzo, this is one of Italy's most prestigious wine estates and the first wine resort to open in the area. There's a cooking school in its main building, a restored 11th-century Benedictine monastery that doubles as a B&B and restaurant. The school was founded 20 years ago by cookbook author Lorenza de' Medici and is highly recommended by Annalisa Barbagli of the respected Gambero Rosso food magazine, who was born nearby. Classes are held in English from March to November by chef Andrea Gagnesi, who guides students through the preparation of an authentic Tuscan meal, then teach them how to serve it with the estate's wines. The resort has eight double rooms, converted from the cells where the monks used to sleep, all overlooking its award-winning Renaissance gardens, and five apartments. At the end of a hard day in the kitchen, guests can swim in a large pool or stroll though magnificent fir forests. And if that's not enough food and drink, the estate's wine cellars are open for guided tastings of its historic vintages and other wines accompanied by cold cuts, cheese and crostini.
A three-day course on traditional Tuscan cookery, with meals, wine, excursions and accommodation in a double room, costs $1330 per person, for two people. 53013 Gaiole in Chianti, +39 0577 744 81
Anna Tasca Lanza - A Sicilian Cooking Experience
As it says on the tin, not so much a school as total immersion in the island's unique flavours, scents and colours. Situated on the Tasca d'Almerita family wine estate in the province of Palermo, the school occupies Case Vecchie, a typical Sicilian country mansion. If you've read The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa or seen the Visconti film version, you'll get my gist. It was founded in 1989 by the late Anna Tasca Lanza, wife of Venceslao Lanza di Mazzarino of one of the most noble families in Sicily. It's now run by their daughter Fabrizia, a cook, art historian and cultural anthropologist. Courses from half a day to five days focus on island cooking; the longer ones take in visits to a local sheep farm to see ricotta being made, to the wine cellar, to street markets in Palermo and to the Valley of the Temples, near Agrigento, for a picnic. Virtually all the ingredients used in classes - a Mediterranean bounty of citrus fruits, figs, prickly pears, pistachios, almonds, olives, carobs, and much more besides - are grown on the estate, and accommodation is provided.
Courses are taught year round, except in August and December, and can be customised. Prices vary from $220 per person for a half-day course with a lesson and lunch, to $3,685 per person for a five-day course with lessons, tours, meals and accommodation. Case Vecchie, 90020 Sclafani Bagni, Palermo, +39 0934 815 621