Demuths vegetarian cooking holiday review | creative holidays, Europe
The Quick Read: Rachel Demuth, the UK’s top vegetarian chef who is famous for her award-winning restaurant Demuths in Bath, runs occasional vegetarian cooking holidays in Italy and France. We tried her holiday in Southern France, a 19th century chateau where you can head for a week to discover a slow, convivial approach to food that is all at once local, compassionate and healthy by default. Rachel leads the retreat and teaches students how to cook delicious Mediterranean meals using the best ingredients of the locale, from lush market vegetables to fresh pressed oils. There’s also plenty of down time for swimming, walking, cycling or simply relaxing in the beautiful countryside.
Who it’s best for: A keen love of vegetables is required to enjoy Demuths. This may be France, but rather than focusing on cheese, butter and other rich foods commonly associated with the country, Demuth focuses on its regional vegetable produce. Be prepared to immerse yourself in vegetable-based cookery, along with other sous chefs: a willingness to collaborate is essential. Demuths is a great option for couples and friends, but equally perfect for solo travellers. Everyone works together, so it’s a great way to meet new people.
What you can do: The focus is, of course, on the food. To that end, you’ll get a chance to visit the local markets and discover just how exciting shopping for a vegetarian feast can be. There’s plenty of time in the kitchen, where you’ll learn to cook with everything you’ve sourced at the market – tomatoes, artichokes, aubergines and radishes inevitably make their way to your basket. You’ll also learn to bake French bread and master other classic French dishes like tart au citron and brioche. In between cooking lessons, there’s plenty of down time to just “be”. Chateau Ventanc has a large swimming pool and a huge beautiful garden for maxing and relaxing. But you will probably also be drawn to the Canal du Midi, right outside of the chateau’s doors, offering miles of walking, running and cycling opportunities.
Where you stay: Chateau Ventenac has everything you’d expect from an idyllic retreat in French wine country: a giant terraced garden with an in-ground pool; a view of the canal and its neighbouring vineyards; bright, airy bedrooms with hardwood floors and soft comfy beds; and plenty of tea whenever you want it. There are seven bedrooms, five with ensuites and some with luxuriously deep free-standing bathtubs with claw-feet. We loved the Mediterranee Suite in particular.
Oh, and of course, there’s an epic teaching kitchen with lots of sweet little French touches like shabby chic cupboards, vintage pottery and everywhere you look, bowlfuls of beautifully arranged vegetables.
Remarkably, though, it isn’t the view or the kitchen or even the luxurious free-standing bathtubs that are so remarkable—it’s the make-yourself-at-home vibe that Rachel exudes, along with her cohort Helen and the chateau’s owner, Julia. Guests are free to wander the house, relax in the lounge, make use of the kitchen and in general, just “be” without worry.
How was it for us: The tomatoes. I have never before, nor since, experienced such delectable tomatoes as I did on this retreat. Almost every meal paid homage to them in dishes proving that less is more when good vegetables are on the line. One of the week’s most memorable dishes was a simple salad of sliced tomatoes, fresh herbs, and olive oil. Another favourite was tomatoes farcies, tomatoes stuffed and baked with wine-cooked rice and vegetables. Both were simple, vegan, quintessentially French, yet inherently healthy.
“Healthy” might not be what you’d expect from a retreat devoted to cooking French food, and yet that’s exactly what I got – much to my surprise. I learned very quickly that a retreat like this, though billed as a cookery retreat, is also a lesson in how to live and, in particular, how to slow down.
At Chateau Ventenac, meals started at around 6 p.m. and usually went until past 11. Yet I never left the table feeling unpleasantly full. Had I discovered the secret to the “French Paradox?” Or was I simply enjoying the food?
When you’re in a place with a well-defined food culture, it’s hard not to take time to savour each mouthful, especially when no one’s rushing you to finish your meal. But there was something more to our meals than just the food. For many of those hours, we were too busy talking and laughing to devour our plates in one swift gulp.
Those meals reminded me that eating isn’t just about the food—it’s also about the people you’re with, the stories you tell, and the memories you make.
One woman I met on the retreat was Sunita, an Indian chef from Doha who came to the chateau simply to meet other people who liked food as much as she did. This is one of the sweetest aspects of a cooking retreat like this one: friendship is pretty much baked into the holiday. The people I met contributed more to my trip than any monument, museum, or scenic overlook ever would. They taught me things, made me laugh, and made me not feel so alone in a country I had (wrongly) judged to be totally anti-vegetarian and vegan.
What we took home: Loads of healthy recipes and cooking techniques that I still continue to use. Also, new friends and better appreciation of “slow food”.
Would we go back: In a heartbeat. For the tomatoes alone.
People watch: Rachel Demuth is a fabulous teacher but so too are her assistants. They all work together and are immensely friendly and easy to get along with; a good thing especially since you share a house with them for 5 days!
Food watch: Obviously vegetarian and vegan is the name of the game, and Rachel will also happily cater for gluten-free and other special requirements. Dishes are made with whole food ingredients, mostly vegetables. Breakfast is usually pretty light as you do so much eating and cooking during the day. We made our own brioches and croissants on the first day which are then served at breakfast but there is also yummy muesli and organic yoghurt, as well as coffee, tea and organic juice. Lunch is light, served on the terrace and, come evening, there’s a smorgasbord of the food you make during the day – more of a ‘family style’ dinner featuring lots of big bowls and platters of salads, tarts, crudites, dips and so on. Wine is included and comes from a cave in the village. When we visited there was also a session of wine tasting with a Master of Wine on one of the evenings. Sometimes there is an evening out included, to a local restaurant.
What’s queenly: Hard work in the kitchen is rewarded daily with al fresco meals in the terraced garden. This is also where you’ll find Rachel planning menus for future lessons; it’s worth interrupting her for a chat – she doesn’t mind – and is a fountain of knowledge.
What’s lowly: Plenty of non-cooking time is allocated for personal pursuits, but poor weather can limit your options as the village is very small and not very convenient to any interesting indoor activities. So bring a book or a journal and prepare to spend some time enjoying the chateau’s comfy bedrooms and lounge areas (or epic bathtubs!).
Insider tip: Bring your walking shoes and a camera and get outdoors – the scenery is spectacular and you’ll want to remember it.
Price with a companion: £1,295 per person sharing a double room for accommodation, all meals, wine and cookery classes.
Price going solo: £1,295 sharing, or with a £250 single supplement for your own room. Non-cooking partners are welcome with a reduction of around a third of the cooking partner’s cost.
Value for money: Given absolutely everything is included, even wine, it’s good value.
Reviewed by Monica Shaw
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