A vacation among pots & pans

"This is not the Army" is how Nito Carpita welcomes seven American students on our first night at her cooking school. It is just what we need to hear after journeying from different corners of the US and slogging through torrential rains to arrive at the 18th-century stone farmhouse where Nito and her husband, David, live in Provence.

Most of us had come to Mas de Cornud, the Carpitas' home, cooking school, and country inn not only to sharpen our cooking skills but to experience the seductively romantic, leisurely lifestyle we'd come to know through films like "A Sunday in the Country" and books such as Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence."

Mas de Cornud may not have been the Army, but it was not Club Med either. Our teacher, a chic Egyptian woman with curly black hair and a disarming smile, had cooked all over the world. She'd worked alongside such culinary giants as Jacques Pepin and taught novice and experienced home cooks.

The five-day course would include a full roster of dishes we'd make with Nito's direction - from puff pastry and pie crusts to heartier stuffed quail, leg of lamb with anchovy sauce, and oysters gratin.

At that first briefing, Nito announces that she will be cooking pumpkin soup and a leek tart for supper. "Enjoy it," she says, "because after tonight, you're taking over." And, she adds, several guests will be joining us for meals during the week.

A tour of the kitchen helps inspire confidence. Something about having a well-equipped, attractive work space and a drawer full of our own tools gives us a sense of invincibility that would soon be put to the test.

After a traditional French breakfast of bread and homemade jam, we start our first day the way every proper French cook would: at the outdoor market. With a straw basket holding her beloved Chihuahua, "Bina," and a cell phone, Nito swiftly leads us around gorgeous displays of fresh vegetables, fish, cheeses, olives, and herbs.

Following like goslings behind Mother Goose, we listen intently as she shares hints for choosing and cooking each item.

"What motivates me is beautiful ingredients," she says, getting us into the French mind-set. "When I see them, I think, 'What can I cook with that?' "

Then she scurries over to the fish table, where tiny opalescent shellfish called "tellines" glisten in the sunlight. She buys a bagful, which we later saut with garlic, olive oil, and parsley.

Then Nito sets us out on our own to shop, wander the back roads of St. Rmy, or wile away the rest of the morning writing postcards at local cafs. Our only deadline is lunchtime, followed by our first lesson in the kitchen.

At lunch, we begin to get acquainted. The cast of characters includes two couples from Seattle who became friends when the guys worked at Microsoft, a grandmother from Virginia with a sardonic wit that quickly wins us over, and two young Massachusetts moms who play tennis together.

Our cooking levels are all over the board. Tracy, who works for Al Gore's presidential campaign, pulls an olive pit from her mouth and proclaims, "I just plain don't cook. Is it possible to zap apple tarts in the microwave?"

Joan, the Southern grandmother who runs a recycling business, tells us she sent her husband home after they'd been traveling around Europe. "He's my sous-chef. He doesn't need this," she says.

And Kevin from Seattle talks of the passion for cooking he inherited from his parents. "Mom cooks from the heart, and Dad by the book," he says. "And I like to cook with an Asian accent."

It's just another week for Nito and David, who seem to genuinely enjoy hosting a revolving door of strangers.

David, a marathon runner from Montana, is the backbone of the business. When he's not booking reservations, driving into town before sunrise for fresh-baked baguettes, or unfolding yet another lovely Provenal tablecloth for mealtime, he is touring guests around the area.

He enthusiastically shares his vast knowledge of the surrounding attractions, including the asylum where van Gogh spent his last year and painted some of his most recognizable works, the Roman city of Glanum, and the area's olive oil factories and cheese farms.

Now it's time to don those aprons, wash those hands, and scrub those fingernails with fresh lemon slices.

We each commit a faux pas or two in the kitchen, such as the time a certain reporter filets a salmon without cutting close enough to the bone, and Nito shrieks "Ooh, la, la!" or when another student's pie crust puffs up like a balloon because it wasn't pricked before baking, or yet another student tries to zip ahead of the class, following the wrong recipe.

As the week progresses, however, we become more efficient. Nito might say that wasn't difficult, since we start off at a low point.

"Congratulations, you set a record today," she announces when we finally sit down to dinner about 8 o'clock on our second evening. "You spent more than five hours in the kitchen making this meal. No other class has taken as long."

We then launch into a rather harsh critique of our own cooking, which only leaves us feeling more deflated.

A trip to the "Metro," a wholesale store exclusively for professional chefs, is the midweek turning point. After convincing Nito to let us tag along with her, we purchase not only cans of foie gras, chocolate bars, and tart pans, but also some professional-looking chef's clothing.

White jackets and black-and-white checked pants replace T-shirts and bluejeans in the kitchen that afternoon. Clothes certainly don't make the chef, but Nito can't help chuckling when our new look seems to inspire better, speedier cooking. She tosses each of us a white necktie to complete the look, and summons David to take our picture.

For the rest of the week, we cook about four hours a day under Nito's watchful eye. As she talks us through each recipe, she shares her knowledge of food science, corrects our chopping, slicing, and dough-rolling techniques, and teaches us to be resourceful with every scrap of leftover food.

And she kids us when we get squeamish about twisting heads off quail or cleaning out their innards, a process that conjures up scenes from the movie "Babette's Feast."

When we aren't in the kitchen, we linger over meals at the long dining room table, visit an olive oil factory, and explore such colorful nearby towns as Avignon, Arles, Isle sur la Sorte, and Les Beaux. We manage to calmly cook for several newlyweds, including, to our surprise, Norm Abram, host of public television's "This Old House," and his new bride. We even eke out time to play lively games of boule.

On the day of our departure, we exchange hugs and e-mail addresses. With graduation certificates, the week's recipes, and those magical chef's whites tucked away in our suitcases, we start our journeys back to the States. A ride on the fast train from Avignon to Paris allows time to reflect on the week, doze off a little, and dream about how to bring home the lessons of Mas de Cornud.

*For more information: Mas de Cornud, Route de Mas Blanc, 13210 Saint-Rmy-de-Provence, France. Phone:

33 0 4-90-92-39-32. E-mail: mascornud@compuserve.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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