Many of us claim Italian to be our favourite cuisine – and what’s not to like, with all the pasta and red wine? However, this is a slightly one-note view of the country’s food. London-born Skye McAlpine grew up in Venice, and is on a mission to introduce people to true Venetian cooking, in all its variety-filled glory.
Although she’s not a professionally trained chef, McAlpine’s recipes have won huge popularity as lovingly-formed slices of Italian life.
Her food journey started with a blog, From My Dining Table, which has now been transformed into a new cookbook, called A Table In Venice. Here, McAlpine talks about her love of cooking, and how we could all make our dining tables a little more Venetian…
McAlpine is obsessed with poring over cookbooks like they were novels, but it was only when she was doing her PhD that she started writing about food herself.
“I really enjoyed my PhD in 17th and 18th century English translations of Latin love poetry, but it was a real conversation killer at dinner parties,” she says with a giggle. “What was so lovely about writing about food is that it’s a fantastic way to connect with pretty much everyone, because everyone eats.”
This “personal connection” is why McAlpine first started her blog back in 2014, and her warm writing, as well as her recipes, has won a legion of fans.
Few things could be more personal than McAlpine’s recipes. She and her husband Anthony, and their toddler son Aeneas, now split their time between London, where McAlpine was born, and Venice where she grew up.
She does all her own food photography too – but this, she admits, has been a learning curve. “When I started the blog, it was so frustrating because food looked really nice on the table, but it didn’t look like that in the picture,” she recalls.
Ever the student, McAlpine swotted up on food photography and styling and invested in a decent camera. What makes her images even more endearing is that all the photography is done in her Venetian kitchen, which naturally has much more character than a blank studio.
“Shooting the book myself feels like a way of telling my story more personally,” McAlpine explains. “It’s definitely not perfect, but it feels very honest, and it’s very me.”
Using her own kitchen adds to the homely, welcoming feel of the book – and indeed her whole approach to food – too. “It’s a big rambling house, and it’s very Italian of us to have three generations living there at one time,” McAlpine adds of the family’s Italian home.
Perhaps unsurprisingly from someone who did a PhD in Latin love poetry, McAlpine is preoccupied with the history of Italian food – something which is sharpened by the surroundings of Venice.
“Because it’s such a crumbling and old city, it does encourage you to focus on the history,” she says. “If you love history and stories like I do, Venice is like a massive toy box full of wonders to play with.”
This feeds into the recipes that she has created, such as her favourite breakfast of kiefer – almond paste croissants that became part of Venetian cuisine during the early 19th century Austrian occupation.
So what sets Venetian cuisine apart from other areas in Italy? “Italian food is usually very fresh and simple flavours, so what’s most interesting about Venetian food is its unusual use of spices,” McAlpine explains.
“Because of Venice’s history as the top of the spice route and a melting pot of cultures, there is a lot of spice – cardamom, cinnamon, pink peppercorns, bay leaves and saffron – all these flavours run through otherwise quite plain and simple dishes, which I think is really nice.”
Having roots in two different countries has given McAlpine a fresh take on Venetian cuisine. “If you grow up in Italy, you have a very strong sense that there is a right and a wrong way to eat things. Whereas Anglo-Saxon culture is much more adventurous, and we get more excited by fusion and blurring the lines and exciting new ways of using things,” she says.
This means that while McAlpine is strictly Italian in some senses (you won’t in a million years find her eating pasta with chicken), she’s more open to experimentation in others – she tells a hilarious story of a fruit seller’s horror when he found out she was making a distinctly untraditional apple, rose and thyme tart.
“That is the weird thing when you come from one place and live in another – I’m not really British, I’m not really Italian,” she says. “I’ve never known any different because I grew up that way, but I think it is nice to have multiple cultures, so I get to pick and choose.”
As for her advice to anyone wanting to dip their toe in Venetian cooking: “Start with what you like,” she says simply. “I think that’s best way to get excited, because we all have different tastes.
“Because I’m a completely self-taught home cook, and these are recipes I cook at home, they’re all incredibly simple and quite intuitive,” McAlpine adds. “Whatever takes your fancy, really start with that with the confidence of knowing that it is easy to do, because I can do it.”
A Table In Venice: Recipes From My Home by Skye McAlpine, is published by Bloomsbury. Available now.
- Press Association