As you often find with people who truly love food, cook and food writer Skye McAlpine says she remembers life through what she ate. The comforting risotto her mother would lovingly create for her every Sunday night. The dinner parties for 12 (or even 20) that her parents would throw with the sound of a Verdi opera blaring over the chorus of knives and forks. “It is more about the people you eat with than the food itself,” Skye explains. “Italian cooking is a celebration of simplicity, whether it is tomato with mozzarella and basil, or prosciutto and melon. Even pasta is not complicated to make or particularly showy, but it is an excuse to sit down and enjoy the ritual of eating together.”...
Skye left London with her family for Venice when she was six. Her father, Lord McAlpine, was the former Conservative party treasurer and her mother, Romilly, owned a catering business and a delicatessen in Mayfair. As a prominent politician in the 80s, her father came under threat from the IRA, so moved to Italy. Skye – now mother to five-year-old Aeneas – divides her time between her stylish flat in South London and the family home in Venice with its crumbling plaster walls and watermelon-green shutters. Her new book, A Table in Venice: Recipes From My Home, is filled with the food she loves and remembers growing up. “I would watch my mother for hours as she magicked flour, butter and eggs into cake, pasta and pastry,” she says. “I learned how to roll gnocchi from my friend, Ornella, and, from her mother, Maria; how to mix a cup of cooking water into pasta dishes so the sauce tastes wonderfully creamy. I learned how to make really good buttery biscuits from my great-aunt, and how to knead pizza dough from our local pizzaiolo, Paolo.” And it is not just food her 152k Instagram followers get a taste of. Her compact city kitchen is filled with interiors inspiration – see the wall of concealed cupboards, the custom foldout dining table and kitchen island on wheels (oh, and the curtain rail holding pots and pans). Then there’s her impactful but easy-to-emulate tablescapes piled high with fruits and flowers. Even her wardrobe is a Dolce Vita-inspired feast of 50s-style dresses, whether new Dolce & Gabbana or vintage Oscar de la Renta. We couldn’t wait to join her and bake the traditional Venetian breakfast Kiefer – almond paste croissants – and talk vintage style, whether Italians ever have to be told to eat their greens and why pasta will always be ok in her book. She is definitely our kind of mama. A Table In Venice: Recipes From My Home, is published by Bloomsbury, price £26.
How did you first start blogging?
I began when Aeneas was a year old – largely because I became more productive when I became a mother. Ironically, I probably get more done now than before. I was studying for a PhD in Ancient Literature, I really appreciated my studies but I thought if I was going to work and be away from Aeneas, I wanted to make sure I was doing something I absolutely loved. So when I went back to finish, I started my blog at the same time as it had always been a dream for me and I loved cooking.
And what led you to write your book?
I have always loved cooking and cook books and I have literally got hundreds of them and spend too much time reading them. But the one I didn’t seem to have was the one on Venetian home cooking. All the books on Venetian food are more restaurant-focused – there was nothing that had the recipes that I grew up with. It went from there. It’s not a comprehensive study of traditional Venetian food, it is my experience of the city and my childhood, which is as much the people as the food itself. There is a recipe for Tiramisu – Venice’s great claim to international culinary fame – for example which is one of my absolute favourites. That recipe came from one of my dear friend’s mother, Maria, an amazing cook. There is a recipe for tortellini floating in chicken stock and that is a recipe I got from another friend – all the recipes come from people.
Is that what you love about the Italian food culture - that it is so convivial?
Of course it is about the food and everyone in Italy eats well, but more importantly it is about sharing with your family and with your friends. It is rare to see Italians sitting down and eating by themselves or eating on the go. Food is such a social thing in Italy, and Venice is no exception.
Do you have a favourite Venetian dish?
Gosh that’s really hard. One of the recipes in the book that I absolutely love and that is very Venetian is Frittelle alla Veneziana. They are doughnuts made with pine nuts and raisins, and rolled in sugar and you only get them at carnival time in Venice. I absolutely love those.
What was it like growing up in Venice – did you go to school on a gondola?
[Laughs] I mostly walked to school. There is a thing called the Traghetto, which is like a gondola that crosses the Grand Canal. For my elementary school I used to take that, which was really fun and sweet.
What do you remember about living there?
It is an incredible city as a child as you have amazing freedom. It’s such a small town and everyone knows everyone – it’s really safe. From the age of six, I was able to wander around by myself, play in the square, go and buy something from the shop, which is so thrilling to have that freedom. And then the water is fun – as an adult the charm wears off a little in the high tide when you worry about your shoes but as a child it is an absolute dream. I was coming from England and a very different life so I appreciated it all the more.
What was your favourite meal when you were little?
One thing my mother would make for me every Sunday night was risotto. It was such a favourite and it still is. There are a few risotto recipes in the book – one that I love is fennel risotto – radicchio and Gorgonzola risotto is more wintery and that is also gorgeous and rich.
Do you think the Italian diet is more healthy?
They don’t talk about health in the same way, so it is much more natural and organic, if that makes sense. Italians love vegetables, not in the same way as in the Anglo Saxon world, where we grow up thinking you have to eat your vegetables because they are good for you – it is more of a celebration. Lots of dishes that are absolutely delicious are vegetable-heavy. You grow up enjoying them more naturally.
Do you ever have to say to Aeneas to eat your greens?
No I don’t. I might say, ‘Try and have a bit more dinner’ but I try not to make a fuss about vegetables because I think it takes away some of the fun. I just try and cook them in a yummy way. We are really lucky as he has always been a little boy who eats everything. And we always made a point of eating together as a family and eating the same thing so he is allowed not to eat it if he doesn’t want it but he is always encouraged to try it. And if we are eating it too, it makes it more interesting for him. We have mealtimes and that is when we have food – and he might have an afternoon tea, but if he doesn’t eat dinner that’s fine, but that was dinner. I think that is quite empowering for children to learn to respond to their own natural appetite. It’s nice to listen to our bodies.
Do you enjoy eating out with Aeneas?
I find in England we rarely eat out with him – you always feel you are not particularly welcome with children. That is why I love the River Café in London – the food is delicious and whenever we go with Aeneas, they are always super welcoming. In Italy everywhere you go they are delighted to have children – it is never a problem. In London we have created this strange culture where you have ‘child-friendly’ restaurants, which seems like such an odd idea.
Do you have any tips on family meal-planning?
Keep it really simple – eating the same thing makes everything a lot easier. Often in the evening, if it is just us at home, we will eat earlier – pasta or grilled steak or tuna with vegetables – quick and easy but whole foods.
What’s your favourite family-friendly recipe?
Any pasta is fantastic – pasta with zucchini, prawns and saffron is quick and easy to make. There is a sense of pasta not being healthy, it comes from this idea that it is a bit of a cheats meal but I don’t think it is. If you have lovely vegetables in the sauce and other elements in there, there is nothing wrong with pasta – it is a great way to try different tastes. Something like Carbonara where you crack an egg yolk with some parmesan, black pepper and bacon – it’s fast food and absolutely delicious.
What have you learnt about yourself since becoming a mum?
To be more patient and that it is a huge learning curve. One of the exciting things is that there are constantly new challenges and joys. Every stage feels slightly different – almost like starting from scratch – and each one brings it’s own particular set of challenges and rewards.
How do you stay motivated?
I think that is the challenge of every parent. There is a saying that is kind of a cliché, ‘Do a job you love and you will never work a day in your life’ and that is true. There are aspects of the job, particularly emails, I would prefer to do less but overall it doesn’t feel like work and I am always really excited to get down to it – that’s what keeps me motivated.
How do you manage the juggle?
Not very well. I get up early in the morning and work before Aeneas gets up – I muddle through as best I can and try not to give myself too hard a time when I’m not doing as well as I would like. I’m saying ‘no’ more and thinking of that not as something you are saying ‘no’ to, but the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to something else. It’s accepting there are only so many hours in the day.
Do you find it hard to switch off?
Yes, I don’t think I ever switch off. I am always cooking, thinking of new recipes or ideas but that is the fun part. Last year at Christmas, my husband and I went on holiday for a week and I didn’t look at emails or Instagram. It was the first time I did that. I am going to Sicily for a week this summer to a house with no wifi so I will switch off then too. You do come back invigorated.
What is the best parenting advice you have been given?
When you have a little one, everyone is full of advice and it is often useful but people can also be judgmental in their advice. Whatever feels right for you and your family is the right way to bring up your children. If you had 20 mothers and fathers in a room and asked their opinion, everyone would have a completely different view and all have happy children so there is no right or wrong way and that makes it easier.
Where do you love to shop?
I love vintage. I find a lot on Instagram – @butchwacksvintage @xtabayvintage are my favourites – the 50s A-line shape suits my figure and I like that the designs have a story and if they have lasted this long, they are usually incredibly well made. I also love Gul Hurgel and the Dolce & Gabbana sale, especially for cotton summer dresses – you put on a dress and you are dressed. Charlotte Olympia for pumps and two friends of mine have started a Venetian slipper brand, VibiVenezia made in cool fabrics that are super comfortable.
And for the home?
A lot of vintage or secondhand, there is an antique market on the Northcote Road in South London I go to quite a lot. On my travels, if I see something I always buy it. I like Anthropologie for bits-and-bobs and it has great furniture if I had the space and Porte Italia, for beautiful hand-painted furniture. I have got bedside tables and a couple of pieces from there in Venice.
What are your tips for entertaining?
How we cook for three of us is basically the same as how we cook for friends. It makes it more of an occasion for family, and simpler and more natural when entertaining. I keep the food simple. If it is lots of people it tends to be a roast chicken or something I can put in the oven, leave and that doesn’t spoil if people are running late.
What about the table setting?
I like to treat myself to flowers but in terms of decorating, it is nice to use the food that you are eating. Bowls of fruit are so beautiful – lemons, plums, cherries, pears, peaches – whatever is in season, even something like a bowl of red onions – they’re a beautiful colour. Not being too perfect makes it more relaxed for guests, they don’t feel like they are performing.
And finally, what’s next from your kitchen table?
I would love to write another book and I would love to launch an online shop or create a shopping community that enables people to find the key essentials to put together a table that they are happy with and would like to share with friends.