Venice is a city built for oohing and aahing. From charming, narrow cobblestone pathways that stretch into wide piazzas, tiny little shops that sell an assortment of Murano glassware and Venetian masks, delicious Bellinis at Harry’s Bar (the birthplace of the Bellini) and gondola-lined waterways that dot every inch of this tiny little place, there is just so much to see and do. I’ve only been to Venice once but it certainly left an indelible impression.
So I can imagine just how wonderful it must be to actually grow up in the place, as Englishwoman Skye McAlpine did when her parents decided to uproot the whole family and move to Italy when she was just a child.
“My parents had always loved Italy, so they decided to move to Venice for a year. The idea was just to stay for a year and kind of enjoy being in Italy. And then they loved it so much that we stayed there and it became our home. It’s a really small town, so as a child, I had this huge amount of freedom – I would walk to the pastry shop by myself, play with my friends in the square and watch the boats. It’s a really magical place for children,” she says.
McAlpine is a home cook who became immensely popular off the back of her blog, From My Dining Table, a beautifully-photographed affair that documents her many tried-and-tested Venetian recipes and the heartwarming narratives that accompany them. In many ways, the blog represents an extension of a childhood built around family meals.
“Well, I think it’s impossible to grow up in Italy and not love food. So it was inevitable really that it would be a huge part of my life but also my parents loved cooking, so my mother always cooked and my father always cooked and we would always have friends over and entertained a lot. My parents really ran an open kitchen policy, so if anyone was visiting Venice – friends or relatives – they would always bring them over for lunch or for dinner,” she says.
Her parents’ infectious love of cooking rubbed off on an impressionable McAlpine, lending her the qualities and skills to become a gifted home cook who, like her parents, also likes to entertain family and friends often. From her childhood onwards, she also spent an inordinate amount of time (“a lot more of my time than I should have!”) reading cookbooks. And so it seems quite natural that she evolved from devouring cookbooks and writing recipes on her blog to writing her very own cookbook, the newly released A Table In Venice.
It took McAlpine nearly two years to put together this ode to Venetian home-cooking, featuring recipes McAlpine grew up with as well as those she discovered through research. Nearly all the recipes are new, and not available on her blog.
In the introduction to the book, McAlpine writes that tourists don’t often get to sample Venetian home-cooking, because these heirloom recipes that have been cooked for generations using local ingredients are the food Venetians often reserve for themselves.
“A lot of people come and visit Venice, but I think they experience the more touristy or exposed side, and what I was kind of passionate about was the food and life in the Venice that I knew – the kind of behind-the-scenes, secret Venice. The subject for me just seems really natural, because in a way, it’s the food that I know and love best,” she says.
In the book, you’ll discover relatively unknown Venetian dishes like spinach, ricotta and mint pie; roast duck with apples, pears and chestnuts; langoustine and fig salad; and almond and orange blossom tart, each with a distinctive story about their place in McAlpine’s life and useful descriptions about taste, history and ways to enhance the flavour of the dish.
“It was important that it was a book that people could cook from. Though I guess I started with the recipes I cook most often and that bring me the greatest joy. And often those come with a personal story, whether it’s a memory or a recollection. Like the flourless chocolate birthday cake is a recipe that my mother gave me and I’ve adapted and now make for my son’s birthday, so it’s kind of very personal to me,” she says.
The book’s personal approach extends to the photography and food styling, all of which McAlpine did herself at home (hence the reason it took her two years to complete it).
“I think it was time-intensive, it took me perhaps longer than if I just had to develop the recipes, but for me, how the food looks is such an important part of eating. It’s just nice to develop the recipe and write it, and then actually photograph it and see it all come together – it felt very complete,” she says.
Many of the recipes in the book are incredibly simple and require very few ingredients and steps. The recipe for fennel risotto for example, only requires six ingredients while the roast duck with plums only needs six ingredients (two of which are salt and pepper!). McAlpine says this reflects how simplicity is at the core of Venetian food.
“I think Venetian cooking, like Italian cooking has a focus on eating rather than cooking. It is traditionally a very simple cuisine and all about letting the ingredients speak for themselves and knowing how to pair them together so they can do that eloquently. And also for me, I’m not a trained chef, I am a home cook, so I tend to gravitate towards recipes that are simplest, but also most rewarding for the cook, so where you can put in the least amount of effort but also enjoy something that is going to make the most of the effort that you’ve put in,” she says.
In many ways, McAlpine is the perfect person to write this cookbook – an honorary Venetian who grew up in the city, familiar with its quirks and charms, but who is still essentially British, which gives her the opportunity to present Venice from the viewpoint of a local but the world view of an international traveller.
“It’s that funny thing of when I’m in England, I feel incredibly Italian and when I’m in Italy, I feel incredibly English. So I think in a way, it’s put me in a unique position to translate something that to me feels very natural, because that’s what I grew up with and that’s what I know best. But it allows me to translate that outside of Italy because I’m not Italian,” she says.