Summer Picnic, Summer Memories
(Tarts, Cake, Sandwiches & Lemonade)

Summer Picnic - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Summer Picnic - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Summer Picnic - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

A week or so ago – goodness, how time flies and only now am I sitting down to write about it! – we went for a picnic. I have a soft spot for picnics: there is something about eating from gingham checked baskets that appeals to the romantic in me, makes me feel as though I’m living life in a black and white movie. Picnics always have something of the party about them: my twenty-first birthday party was a picnic – I remember we played croquet, drank champagne from plastic cups, and lazed on the grass, barefoot and happy, until well passed sunset. 

Summer Picnic - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Summer Picnic - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

But last week was the first picnic of this season, the first of many this summer. It was a beautiful, sunny day so we packed up flasks with lemonade, tin plates and a big cotton blanket. Baskets with peaches and cherries and apricots. I baked focaccia. Armfuls of figs and a pot of honey – figs with honey is one of the loveliest things in the world, especially when smeared on focaccia. We had sandwiches and cake – because to my mind it is not a picnic without either sandwiches or cake. And baby tortine salate – savoury tarts with asparagus and pecorino – the kind of food that you just have to eat with your fingers. [Read more…]

‘La Merenda’
(Tea, Cake And Then A Little Supper)

Red Wine Cherry and Mascarpone Tart - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Red Wine Cherry and Mascarpone Tart - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Secret Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

I was leafing through a cookbook. I spend a lot of my time leafing through cookbooks. Sometimes, while standing at the kitchen counter before the day has started proper, cup of tea in hand and pondering upon all that I could cook and all that we could eat. Other times, I sit in bed with my camomilla after dinner, and read through recipes as if indulging in a wonderfully compelling novel. That kind of leafing through cookbooks – the kind I do in bed with no real method or plan or intention to it – that is one of my most favourite things. It is how I relax. Do you do that too, I wonder? Or is it just a me thing?

Anyhow: Honey From A Weed by Patience Gray. It’s a funny book, really; there are no glossy pictures – the pages, filled with evocative sketches, tell the story of a stonemason living in Southern Italy. Then there are a few recipes added in for good measure. The book is about fasting as much as it is about feasting and the quirks of simple life in a part of Italy where time stopped long ago and has been moving very slowly ever since.

Secret Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Crispy Roast Duck Legs with Red Wine Figs - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Perhaps my favourite chapter is the ten or so pages dedicated to la merenda, that Italian ritual of afternoon tea. I say ‘afternoon tea’, because while merenda may or may not actually occur in the ‘afternoon’ and rarely involves ‘tea’ as such, somehow afternoon tea seems to encapsulate its spirit, in as much as words of the English language can. Merenda is – as Patience Gray so aptly points out – a very different affair from a ‘snack’, say, which is food snatched; merenda, you see, is food shared. Of course, food shared always tastes best. Don’t you think?

Growing up, la merenda was an important part of daily life. It was a something truly worthy of the la, of that almost reverential ‘the’ that – like an introductory drumroll – precedes its very mention. LBellucci, la Loren, la merenda.  [Read more…]

And Then Summer Came…
(The Art of Cooking on a Barbecue)

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Secret Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine untitled-8568

June is here, and suddenly we stand on the cusp of summer. Roses in bloom, wisteria in flower – shimmering in the wind, in that wonderfully delicate way that it has. The scent of jasmine almost overpowering, as I brush past the bush in our little garden. The days linger delightfully, and the skies have become that piercing bright blue – the colour of the proverbial Irishman’s eyes. These – these few of my favourite things – whisper ‘summer is here’. And after the long winter (winter, somehow, always feels long – don’t you think?) there is no sound more pleasing or more warming.

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The world divides into two kinds of people: the people who will never watch a movie twice. And the people, (like me) who – while they may or may not be happy to admit it – enjoy watching a movie for the second time more than they ever do for the first. These are the people who feel a quiet satisfaction in knowing what is going to happen before it does happen – we derive a kind of comfort from that sense of déjàvu. These are also the people best suited to living in Venice. You see, there is a plus ça change about daily existence here that may or may not be your cup of tea: Venice is a city that lives by its own sense of time; trends are irrelevant; change a dirty word. Take it or leave it: Venetian life has the same intangible quality of a silent, black and white movie – the kind with ever so slightly grainy images – running on repeat, ever the same and yet kind of alluring. Of course – that is all very much my cup of tea.  [Read more…]

Home Is Where My Kitchen Is
(& A Simple Spring Supper)

Baby Artichoke Salad - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Baby Artichoke Salad - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Baby Artichoke Salad - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. I flew to New York. It was my first time in the city by myself and staying for longer than a few nights. In the past, I have only ever been for long weekends with Anthony; or travelling through with my parents – though that was many moons ago. My official excuse for the trip was work – I had a few meetings and so forth. But I was also happy to catch up with friends. And I was able to view my cousin’s exhibition at a gallery in the East Village. She is a crazy talented artist and I was so proud to see her work in all its full glory – I can’t help but boast about it just a little. 

Dark Chocolate, Ground Almond and Rum Truffles - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Secret Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

I found a little time to sneak into my favourite vintage store – only to discover that the owner is headed to Venice on holiday later this month, so we chatted about where to go and what to do. And before I knew it, a whole afternoon had gone by. I ate at some exquisitely good restaurants (oh, the food in New York!): Buvette, Estela, I Sodi, Reynard, and another adorable little place that I can’t remember the name of – but the sugary bomboloni are still vivid in my mind. Then I flew back home with a suitcase full of cinnamon babka (from Russ and Daughters) and tiny toy cars, for Anthony and Aeneas respectively. Though I wouldn’t be honest, if I didn’t say that all three of us enjoyed the babka.

Once home, I was swept up in the mad rush that is the opening of the Art Biennale. Venice, as you know, is a quiet, sleepy town – by ten o’clock the streets are empty. I can hear the water lapping in the canal below as I doze off to sleep, and when someone walks past our front door late at night the sound of their heels clipping on the paving stones echoes into my bedroom – like the booming tic toc of an old grandfather clock. It is a city so quiet that suitcases rolling down the streets sound loud: the council is threatening to implement a ban, as they have received so many complaints. True story. [Read more…]

Born To Be Wild
(& A Few Spring Recipes)

Wild Strawberry & Whipped Ricotta Tartlets - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Wild Strawberry & Whipped Ricotta Tartlets - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Secret Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

A few weeks ago, I had an email from a reader to say that she was coming to Venice. Ann leaves the loveliest comments and we have corresponded for some time now online, so I was disappointed to find myself travelling at the exact time she is going to be in town. There is nothing so lovely as putting a face to a name, and I had visions of us sipping cappuccino in the sunshine and swapping stories about food. Instead I sent Ann a long and rambling email with a few recommendations, along with a list of things that she categorically must do. Above all, I insisted that she eat bruscandoli (wild hops). Bruscandoli, you see, are somewhat of a thing at this time of the year in Venice; they grow along the river banks, and we eat them in risotto, in frittata, with eggs, in pasta, what have you. They are utterly delightful. Arguably, no more so than white asparagus. Or those sweet, tiny artichokes. Or ruby red radicchio. But the truth about bruscandoli is that their season is so very short and so very unpredictable, that at the mere whisper of the name comes a little frisson of excitement. They are – for want of a better word – a ‘delicacy’.

Wild Hops & Pecorino Frittata - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

The thing about seasonal food like this, is that it is rich with associations: it’s almost more about memories than taste. Just as turkey tastes of Christmas (or Thanksgiving, depending on where in the world you stand), more than it does of turkey. Or chocolate – a certain chocolate cake, perhaps – tastes of birthdays (depending on how your mother used to bake it), more than it does of chocolate. My father was always very keen on bruscandoli: he used to sauté them lightly then add a poached egg on top, eat them drenched in runny yellow yolk – with dousings of salt. Sometimes I cook them that way too. My godfather – I remember – would time his visits to Venice around bruscandoli season. He would correspond extensively with my mother, asking if she had sited them at the market yet, like a leopard scouting his prey. The years he didn’t visit, I would travel to London with bunches of bruscandoli on my lap, carefully wrapped in a damp tea towel to keep them fresh. When I eat bruscandoli I often think of my father, and of my godfather, and of all their eccentricities. But above all, when I eat bruscandoli I know that it is the beginning of Spring. [Read more…]

The Goodness of Time
(& An Homage to White Asparagus)

White Asparagus 'Soldiers' & Creamed Eggs Sauce - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

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I picked up Alice in Wonderland the other day, my old copy from when I was little. It’s a pretty book, bound in red leather with a gold trim and fine paper, the kind that old books always seem to have, the kind that crinkles so nicely as you turn the pages. No real rhyme nor reason for my picking the book off the shelf where it has sat, happily undisturbed for a very long time now. I sort of happened upon it absentmindedly and then found myself immersed in the story, as if falling down some kind of rabbit hole of my own, down into a world of nostalgia and fairytales. There is something at once comforting and decadent about reading children’s books as a grown up. Don’t you think?

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I vaguely had at the back of my mind a thought that perhaps Aeneas and I could add Alice to our repertoire of bedtime stories, though I wasn’t sure if perhaps he is still to young to enjoy it as I did, or too much of a boy to enjoy it as I remember doing. As I flicked through, I paused for a while upon the tea party scene. I don’t know how well you know the story of Alice, but perhaps you too remember the scene with the long wooden table and the delicate china tea set, the Hatter and the March Hare and the tiny little dormouse, who snoozes on the table. I have somewhat of a soft spot for long tables and pretty china, as you know well – so perhaps it was inevitable that I should gravitate to this part of the book. Anyhow, about half-way through the chapter, there is this darling little piece of dialogue. I would give you a synopsis, but Lewis Carroll phrases it so very prettily that I don’t think I would do his words justice. It goes like this: [Read more…]

Calling All the Ladies…
(& Cooking with Mimosa, Orange Blossom and Lemons)

Blood Orange and Rosemary Tart - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Mimosa Cake - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Mimosa Cake - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

This Sunday, we had the pleasure of lunch with one of Anthony’s best friends from school; inevitably, conversation turned back to teachers and sports days and old pranks. It was an all boys boarding schools so, as you can imagine, there were lots of pranks.

My schooldays were quite different. I went to our local day school in Venice: it wasn’t snazzy and it wasn’t grand, but I was very happy there. The building was an ancient monastery: all cobwebs and crumbling brickwork; we had no computers and no science labs. We learnt chemistry by rote and from a blackboard, and sat at wooden desks with carved etchings from generations of students. Some classes were taught by monks in habits. We had no uniform and no real sporting facilities. Other than a football pitch, a quarter of which had been sold off to a neighbouring hotel, so it was oddly shaped and tricky to play football on. That said, we were very proud of it: football pitches, even L-shaped ones, are hard to come by in Venice. The teachers were adorable and cared about each and every one of us more than you might expect teachers to do – and all in all, given that we were teenagers, we really weren’t quite so very troublesome as we might have been. 

Mimosa Cake - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Lemon and Saffron Risotto - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

There were thirty-five in our year group. Of those thirty-five, only seven of us were girls and we were treated differently from the rest of the class. Not, in a patronising, gender-differentiating way. More in an all-women-should-be-treated-as-ladies kind of a way. Boys, without exception, opened doors and carried books for us; and teachers, broadly, allowed us more freedom than our male counterparts. It was an unspoken (and very precious) privilege that girls were allowed off school premises at break time to walk to the local coffee shop or gelateria. It occurs to me now, that perhaps all of this is old-fashioned. Maybe not fair. And certainly not politically correct. Perhaps it gave me unrealistic or incorrect expectations of how the world does or should look. Nonetheless, it stands that: beyond learning to read Latin and Ancient Greek just as the boys did, I also grew up thinking of myself as a lady. And I’m happy that I did. [Read more…]

In Search of E. Hemingway
(Wild Duck & Apple Pie)

Crispy Duck with Roasted Grapes - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Exploring the Venice Lagoon - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Crispy Duck with Roasted Grapes - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Right now, I am reading Across the River and into the Trees: Hemingway’s novel about the war-scarred American colonel and the beautiful Venetian countess. There is this passage in the book, where they talk about roast duck – wild duck from the lagoon. It’s little more than a passing remark, barely a couple of lines and of no great narrative import; but I, as you know, have a thing for food and for words and for Venice (and as it turns out, duck too) so it struck some kind of a chord with me. ‘I never knew anything could be so wonderful to eat’ the Venetian says to the Colonel (about the duck), ‘when your teeth close on the small slice of meat it is an almost unbelievable delight.’ And so, now I find myself craving duck. Craving unbelievable delight.

Pappardelle with Duck Ragù - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Exploring the Venice Lagoon - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Each year when summer comes, my husband, Anthony, takes his little boat out into the lagoon to explore. He is gone for hours at a time, sometimes the whole day. He comes back salty and sandy, often sunburnt, always pretty happy. And with some new little nugget about lagoon life that we relish dissecting together over the dinner. I particularly like hearing about his culinary adventures: where he stopped off for lunch, what he ate, how it was cooked, and so forth. The food and the restaurants which you find in the open lagoon, you see, are like nothing that you see in Venice proper. They’re wild and menu-less – you eat what was caught that morning, or what the cook fancied eating himself; it’s proper rustic, rough and ready, home cooking. It’s good. [Read more…]

Roses Smell Sweeter in Winter
(& A Valentines Dinner Of Sorts)

Valentines Day Dinner - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Valentines Day Dinner - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Valentines Day Dinner - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

I was never much one for roses. They just didn’t capture my imagination: I thought peonies prettier and daffodils more characterful. Then, on the day we were married, we stood on the stone steps of the church where we held the wedding service, and rose petals showered down like rain. Our bridesmaids and page boys threw them up in the air with the kind of ecstatic, frenetic energy that only small children have. They were petals torn that morning from roses that grow in a friends’ garden, not more than a few steps from the church. Big gothic, garden roses. The honest and unpretentious kind, with gnarly stems and oddly shaped, but deeply scented flowers. And since then, I’ve had rather a soft spot for roses. I keep a little vase of them by my bedside so that, as I drift off to sleep, I can smell them.

Valentines Day Dinner - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Valentines Day Dinner - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Valentines Day is kind of the same story. I will be honest and say that I’ve lived a life unmoved by cupids and love hearts, and all this seasonal talk of love-with-a-capital-L, that the first breath of February always brings with it. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to think of love as something seasonal. Like asparagus or baby artichokes. But more so, it occurs to me that so much about holidays is ritual and tradition. It’s nostalgia and expectation, set in stone through the sheer act of doing the same thing year in and year out. You write your own meaning into a holiday. That is the thing about Valentines Day – somehow Anthony and I have never really celebrated it. Not through some great act of rebellion, not because we’re Valentines refuseniks or heartless souls; it’s just that somewhere amongst the business of day to day life and the thralls of having fun, we must have missed our first Valentines together. And now that’s the way it falls. It’s just not one of our holidays – in the way that Christmas is or Sunday mornings are.  [Read more…]

Playing House in a Venetian Palazzo
(Decadent Dark Chocolate Cake & Snow White Meringues)

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Rosemary Cream & Cocoa Dusted Meringues - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Rosemary Cream & Cocoa Dusted Meringues - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Flourless Chocolate Cake with Rosemary Cream & Cocoa Dusted Meringues - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

It struck me at the dining table. In that lull after pudding (a sweet and decadent butter pudding made with chunks of panettone and candied orange peel) and just before coffee. When Beth, sitting on my left, had left the table to check on something in the kitchen. And Taylor, on my right, was engrossed in deep conversation with Tami sitting on her right. And in that fleeting moment of solitude when for little more than a breath, I wasn’t eating or talking or checking that everyone had glasses filled with wine; in that nanosecond, I paused and I enjoyed. I was oddly conscious of this poem that I happened upon a few years ago. I’m not one for remembering lines, but the words from that poem stuck with me somehow, as if etching themselves on my soul. ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying; and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.’ A carpe diem of sorts. A lesson in relishing the present and the actual.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Rosemary Cream & Cocoa Dusted Meringues - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Flourless Chocolate Cake with Rosemary Cream & Cocoa Dusted Meringues - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Were I the kind of person to keep a diary, I would fill pages just off the back of that single moment. Because somehow while it might have just been dinner for everyone else, for me it felt like some sort of momentous colliding of all my favourite things. The long table with the flickering candlelight (I have a very soft spot for long tables) and the bowls of opulent fruit: pomegranates, golden market pears and so forth. The frescoed walls and the vaulted ceiling, the old terrazzo flooring creaking with the weight of centuries of Venetian tales. The food – a winter vegetable soup to start and then homemade gargatti with tiny tomatoes and barely cooked prawns – just the kind of simple food that I crave and love and live for. The chitter chatter softly emanating from the twenty of us gathered around that table. For me, you see, dinner is rarely just about the dinner. And this dinner particularly so. [Read more…]

‘There Are Better Things Ahead Than Any We Leave Behind’
(& All Manner of Venetian Cichetti)

Venetian New Year's Feast - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Venetian New Year's Feast - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Venetian New Year's Feast - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

‘It was vanity what did it’. I said to my husband yesterday, imagining some sort of Agatha Christie-type scenario. ‘It was the floaty skirt. And the sheer tights. I just know it. The ones that I wore in place of the wooly leggings with the thick-soled winter boots’. You see, we went to a party on Christmas Eve and I dressed pretty rather than warm, because everyone wants to look pretty at a party. Even if the air is icy. That was when I caught the nasty cold, the one which Anthony and Aeneas now have too. Still – it was a magical night – Christmas Eve, that is. In a rococo palazzo, with flickering candlelight, where we ate pasta with shaved white truffles and watched gondolas sail by along the canal beneath us. I would not change a thing about it. Certainly not either the floaty skirt or the sheer tights.

Venetian New Year's Feast - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Venetian New Year's Feast - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Although I may struggle to accept it, it is an undisputed fact of life that you can’t have your cake and eat it. So, I feel honour-bound in some way to just accept that this year, we had one hell of a Christmas Eve. And what with our head colds and all, New Year’s Eve has just passed us by. An early night at home, with a pot of hot ginger tea. Sometimes, that’s just how it goes. Others stayed up late ready to greet 2015 at its first breath, and then partied with it into the early hours of dawn. They waved sparklers and drank from champagne flutes. I mostly pondered, quietly. And I thought about how someone once said that ‘there are better things ahead than any we leave behind’. C. S. Lewis, I think it was. I reflected on the year that has just passed – how when all is said and done it’s been a good year. Not perfect – life is never perfect. But there have been so many good things – good things that felt all the more precious to me, for the few and painful losses that came with them. It’s a funny thing time – it passes so slowly at any one given moment; but once it is past, it’s so very blurry, kind of like the view from the window of a speeding car. Moments morphing into memories so fast that you can’t reach your hand out swiftly enough to catch them. [Read more…]

It’s Starting to Feel a Lot Like Christmas…
(Seafood, Truffles, Chocolate, Chestnuts & Festive Treats)

Christmas Eve Feast In Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

Christmas Eve Feast In Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Christmas Eve Feast In Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

As I sit here, in these quiet moments before the rest of the house wakes up; when no one else is stirring – not even a mouse. I clutch my mug of hot tea, and snuggle down in our big old armchair – the one where the velvet is slightly worn in patches. I am staring at our tree, mesmerised by the lights and by that hypnotic reflective glimmer that the glass baubles give off. We collected them one by one and over the years – the baubles, that is – they’re all handblown in a glass factory in Murano, each one perfect in its hand crafted imperfection. Not unlike the soap bubbles that Aeneas blows so happily in the bath. I find myself fixating on one glass bauble in particular, though, entranced in an almost narcissistic way by my own image in its reflective rounded shape: I look overblown, kind of like a circus character of giant proportions. 

Christmas Eve Feast In Venice - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine

In this moment of precious early morning peace, I ponder idly. And it occurs to me that – in some sort of self-referential metaphor – Christmas is rather like this big reflective glass bauble. You see, it magnifies everything. Or so it does for me – do you find that too? Whatever I’m feeling, I seem to feel it more intensely at this time of year; whatever I have come to take for granted, becomes prized once more. The other day, I was walking down Oxford Street in London (we always spend these last few days before Christmas in London) – a bagpiper was playing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ on his pipes, just by the side of the road. It made me think of my father; because he loved the pipes and he loved Christmas and he would have just loved that. And then I thought how I miss him. I thought it harder and deeper than I have in a while. That is the thing about Christmas, it forces you to pause and reflect on all that is happening in your life. That way that it has of coming around every year, constant and consistent, makes you notice when something does change.
Sometimes changes for the better and sometimes it just changes.  [Read more…]