The Everyday Feast
(Pie, Creamy Leeks, Honeyed Fruitcake & All Things Good)

Pear & Gorgonzola Pie - From My Dining Table

The Everyday Feast - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Pear & Gorgonzola Pie - From My Dining Table

Thanksgiving has been and gone. It’s as if it never was. Now, we’re all about the snow dusted rooftops, the holly and the ivy and the red peppermint candy canes. This year, I lived it vicariously – Thanksgiving, that is – through a flurry of pretty pictures of pie, and tales of festive spirits, gathered around tables laden with food. Somehow, it’s left me feeling wanting.

Thanksgiving isn’t something that I grew up with. Not properly. Not in that same way as Christmas or birthdays or Easter. It’s one of those holidays that floated in and out of my life. Ever present – somewhere in the background – but not religiously celebrated. When you live in one country, come from another, and have friends who come from many more still, this happens quite a lot. You collect holidays like pennies. And then, sometimes, you lose them too. It’s just how it goes.

'Scampi in Saor' - From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine Leeks Lightly Cooked in Milk with a Parmesan & Thyme Gratin - From My Dining Table

There was a time, though, a brief chapter when we celebrated Thanksgiving. It started one year with an impromptu dinner party. With friends in Venice who had lived in the States for a short while, and other friends – also in Venice – one of whom was American. So there was a legitimate, albeit slightly tenuous, American connection. We ate in a beautiful palazzo on the Grand Canal, where the friends – the once who had once lived in the States – had their family home. All frescoed ceilings, ornate wall hangings, stone floors and pretty belle époque chairs – the kind that are upholstered in precious satin and creek a little when you sit on them. Birdseye views over gondolas floating down the Grand Canal.

It was a cozy dinner: no proper planning, and no turkey. You will find, that it’s oddly difficult to buy a whole turkey from a Venetain butcher, nigh on impossible at the last minute. But the spirit was there, the bit where we went round in a circle at the dining table and gave thanks for all our blessings – that was there. [Read more...]

The Ivory Tower
(& Some Very Fast Food)

Apple Cake with Mascarpone and Amaretti

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice Scallops on the Shell with Butter and Thyme

I am living in an ivory tower. It has views over the rooftops. I’ve been living there for a while now – a few weeks at least, maybe months. How long exactly is hard to tell; life takes on a rhythm of its own in the ivory tower. I would invite you up, have you in for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. A catch up and a good gossip. But there’s not all so much room up here in the clouds, in this little metaphorical tower of mine. I can barely squeeze in myself, for all the piles of books. 

I’m in the final stages of my doctoral thesis, you see. That bit of writing a thesis which anyone who has written a thesis will tell you, is pretty much all encompassing. It’s the bit when the day to day demands of life – the email that you haven’t replied to, the thank you note that you still haven’t posted – get put on hold. Until tomorrow. Until the day after that. Until the thesis is finished. It’s the bit when you live and you breathe footnotes, edits and appendices. And, in my case, a little love poetry too. My thesis – were you wondering and by the by – is all about the art of love in Ancient Rome. And so it is that I stand before you in my ivory tower as some bookish incarnation of Rapunzel. With shorter hair. And a long to-do list. 

Radicchio and Borlotti Bean Salad Venice

Funnily enough, I don’t mind all too much this haze of work-library-sleep that I’m living in. It can be a little restrictive at times, granted. When the sun is shining outside, I feel it most – they’re so precious those last glimmers of autumn sunshine that I want to drop my notes and just be, but be outside.

That said, spending the day with books for me is always a pleasure. I like books. I’ve always found libraries, for example, to be rather magical places; there’s something about any given space where you find a critical mass of books that gives me a very special feeling. It’s hard to describe it exactly – kind of like curiosity crossed with inspiration crossed with a deep urge to lightly drag my finger along the book spines lined up on the shelves - as if playing a silent xylophone. I met my husband in a library, you know. It was early October. First-week-of-our-first-term-of-our-first-year at Oxford. I was daydreaming in the Latin poetry section. How he happened to be wandering in the literature wing of the library – I’m not all too sure. He studied maths. Still – I’m happy he happened there. And now it is written in stone: good things happen in libraries.  [Read more...]

The Venetian Shibboleth
(& Some Autumn Comfort Food)

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I kind of love how when you ask a child how old they are, they’re always painstakingly precise with their answer. They’re never five or six years old. They’re five-and-a-half or six-and-three-quarters. The ‘half’ and the ‘three quarters’ – it seems – all important, game changing details.

Funnily enough when people ask my husband, Anthony, if he speaks Italian, he does that same thing. He is considered in his reply – some might say almost pedantic. He always insists that he’s ‘just learning’. His Italian by the way: pretty much impeccable; but still, for the sake of punctilious accuracy – he’s learning. And then, just as the conversation is about to move on to some other nicety or another, he adds: ‘and Venetian too’. The Venetian is the all important detail – like that game changing ‘and-a-half’.

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The thing about Venetian is that it’s kind of like a secret language; it’s a shibboleth that parts the locals from the foreigners. It’s the birthright of those whose blood runs with the lagoon, whose bones feel the whims of the tides and those who are born to row gondolas. Essentially learning to speak Venetian is tantamount to learning to be Venetian. That’s why Anthony is right: it is an important detail.

Of course, there are other telltale signs of Venetian-ness: walking through Piazza San Marco with purpose. At dawn, before the crowds get there and while the street cleaners are still sweeping. That’s one. Taking your spritz standing at the bar with one or two cichetti. That’s another. They’re easier to replicate. But speaking Venetian like a Venetian, that comes from the heart. Like cooking.

[Read more...]

Venice & The Wabi-Sabi
(& Three Sweet Italian Tarts)

Three Recipes for Sweet Italian Tarts - From My Dining Table

Three Recipes for Sweet Italian Tarts - From My Dining Table Three Recipes for Sweet Italian Tarts - From My Dining Table

Some places have an aura. Call it a history, a feeling, what you will. But you know what I mean, don’t you? You kind of walk in and feel a thousand years wiser. It’s as if you can picture the story that the faded walls are telling you, you can hear the old peeling paint speak, the dusty glass windows and the creaky door that won’t quite shut – they all have a tale, and now you have become an intimate part of it. Venice is full of those places. It’s a city brimming with history. No one building is straight lines. No single floor isn’t crooked and cracked, where water has seeped up through the foundations and centuries of pounding footsteps have worn it away. I sort of think of it as a European expression of wabi sabi - not so much simplicity and minimalism, but perfect imperfection. That is what makes the city so beautiful.

Three Recipes for Sweet Italian Tarts - From My Dining Table Three Recipes for Sweet Italian Tarts - From My Dining Table

It’s a comforting beauty, on a human scale. When you’re walking through an age old street, over paving stones first laid in the middle ages, and you’re carrying your shopping – it’s heavy and the bags feel like they’re about to break through the bottom. Then you look up to see a crooked gothic window, somehow that’s when it’s most beautiful. Or when you’re sitting in a coffee shop with a Palladian folly to your left, and you’re doing the crossword puzzle; oblivious to the building’s magnificence, the kind of architectural virtuosity that people travel across conteinnts for a mere glimpse of; yet somehow you’re  invigorated by it. The crossword flows better because of it. These are the moments – when the mundane and the sublime collide. These are the moments like no others. [Read more...]

The First Signs of Fall
(& An Autumn Feast)

Grape Picking and an Autumn Feast - From My Dining Table

An Autumn Feast - From My Dining Table An Autumn Feast - From My Dining Table

It’s been a long time coming. The signs started a while back: the first leaves turning. Those thunderstorms at night, when the heavens opened and rained down on us with all they had. At once apocalyptic and comfortingly familiar. After all, it happens every year. And then, when we woke the next morning, in the calm after the storm, the skies were clear blue – sharp, razor blue, like the proverbial Irishman’s eyes; the air was just that smidgen cooler. The sun felt like it will never warm our skin quite in the same way again. Autumn was here.

An Autumn Feast - From My Dining Table An Autumn Feast - From My Dining Table

It’s taken me some time to get used to the idea. I won’t lie. I’m like that, you see: new people, seasons, places, restaurants, what have you – they warm on me slowly. I need to feel that I’ve got to know them a little, that we’ve bonded in some way or another, before I’m happy to commit, to embrace fully. That said: I’m an Aries, so once I do embrace, I never let go. I wasn’t born an Autumn baby – I’m more about the bright Spring days and the overblown peonies of early Summer. That’s my natural milieu. That said, now that it’s here, somehow my colour palette has shifted – subtle at first, barely noticeable. I find myself gravitating to the golden hues and the muted oranges. My tastes have morphed: I want soup, thick and piping hot. I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen, craving the soothing warmth of the stove. Not because, it’s so cold. It’s not – not yet, anyhow. But because suddenly it feels comforting. I’m drawn to all the fruits of the fall: the apples, the pears and those pumpkins. I want to wear a jumper, to feel the need to just close the window, and to walk on a path dappled with crispy, dry leaves. I want to snuggle in a cashmere blanket with a mug of hot tea. So here and now, I’m committed to Autumn. [Read more...]

Shades of the Lagoon
(A Frition’ & Lemon Rosmeary Buranelli)

'Buranelli' Butter Biscuits with Lemon Zest & Rosemary and A 'Fritoin' - From My Dining Table

'Buranelli' Butter Biscuits with Lemon Zest & Rosemary and A 'Fritoin' - From My Dining Table 'Buranelli' Butter Biscuits with Lemon Zest & Rosemary and A 'Fritoin' - From My Dining Table

The great irony about living in a city – any city – is that one never really finds the time to do all the things that are most special to do there – you know, the things that sit tantalisingly on your doorstep and other people travel across continents for, longing to see. The tourist-y things. In Venice, this great irony weighs heavier than most places. Venetians, you see, when all is said and done, resolutely think of themselves as a breed apart from tourists; they float in a parallel universe, walk the streets with the certainty of someone who recognises each winding calle as their own, with the quiet confidence of those who feel quite so at home nowhere else. ‘Not being a tourist’ is, in fact, an art form cultivated by Venetians – devotedly and over generations. They speak their own language – Venetian, unintelligible to an Italian from any other corner of the country; they eat their own food – a clear demarcation between tourist-y restaurants (the ones with garish photos of food on the menu) and non tourist-y restaurants (the ones where there is no menu – you eat what the kitchen brings you and, inevitably, it is exquisite); they do their own thing – drive their boats through the quieter canals, and take the dark back alleys, that seemingly lead nowhere, to go about their daily business; somehow or another, they end up all but avoiding the main sites – with all the priceless treasures and the hoards of other people admiring the priceless treasures.

'Buranelli' Butter Biscuits with Lemon Zest & Rosemary and A 'Fritoin' - From My Dining Table 'Buranelli' Butter Biscuits with Lemon Zest & Rosemary and A 'Fritoin' - From My Dining Table

It occurs to me, though, that this whole doing your own thing, this not being a tourist malarkey, is all well and good; in fact, mostly, it’s pretty damn fine. I’ll be honest: there are few things that give me more pleasure than seeking out those hidden corners of this enchanted city. I love that the campo where our house stands is far off the tourist trail; it is no the less beautiful for it – with its crumbling Medieval walls that whisper a story all the more precious to me because so few people have heard it. Secret Venice has a mystical and enticing ring to it; and it’s a privilege to share a part of that city. But, nonetheless, sometimes – just sometimes – it’s fun to be a tourist too.  [Read more...]

Playing Games & Dreaming Dreams
(& Eating Spaghetti with Lobster)

Houses, Dreams & A Recipe for Spaghetti with Lobster - From My Dining Table

Houses, Dreams & A Recipe for Spaghetti with Lobster - From My Dining Table Houses, Dreams & A Recipe for Spaghetti with Lobster - From My Dining Table

One of my favourite games to play is planning my last supper. Anyone who knows me well, will know that I love nothing more than to plan a good meal. Feasting really is – and always has been – my ‘thing’. But to plan a meal with no thought for the pragmatics of oven space or the dross of washing up, is just too delightful for words. I can’t resist. The game usually goes something like this: I start. I always start. My opening gambit, a simple supper; indulgent – yes – but in its very decadent simplicity. Barbecued lobster with really good chips. The thrice cooked kind, deep fried in duck fat. Followed by either chocolate cake – flourless, naturally – or tiramisu’ – proper tiramisu’ with savoiardi biscuits soaked in very strong espresso, none of that dry sponge cake malarkey. Then I ask the others around the table to plan their last supper. One by one. This is the best bit. You can tell so much about a person from what they choose for their last supper. And who they would like to cook it – you know that someone is serious about their food, when they specify who is going to cook it. One thing leads to another, fictional food envy grows rife. It gets quite competitive. Suddenly lobster and chips seem rather prosaic. What about tagliatelle with white truffles? And a cheese course? Is there room for pears with gorgonzola?

Houses, Dreams & A Recipe for Spaghetti with Lobster - From My Dining Table Houses, Dreams & A Recipe for Spaghetti with Lobster - From My Dining Table

The other game that I secretly indulge in playing, is the dream house game. You know – the one where you choose a house (money no object, obviously – it’s not quite so fun when money is an object – too much like real life) and you imagine yourself living there. What colour would you paint the walls, what parties would you throw, how many dogs would you have. So – maybe your dream house is a shack on a deserted beach, or a brownstone in the West Village. The world very much your oyster in this game. As with the last supper game, there’s a rhythm to it, we always play in the same way. I begin with an apartment in Paris – it has high ceilings, herringbone parquet floors and tall windows with gorgeous, old fashioned shutters. I am torn between painting the walls a very soft shade of damask pink, or going for a minimalist white. Any thoughts? Anthony follows with a Queen Anne house in the English countryside – somewhere that is an easy distance from London – with acres of rolling hills and a rose garden. He has researched this quite extensively, in the back pages of Country Life - and it seems there are plenty to choose from. He would like to build a lily pond in the garden. And I quite agree, that would be too idyllic for words.  [Read more...]

Boats & Leafy Orchards
(& Prosecco Peaches with Zabaglione Cream and Amaretti)

Boats, Orchards & A Recipe for Prosecco Peaches with Zabaglione and Amaretti - From My Dining Table

Boats, Orchards & A Recipe for Prosecco Peaches with Zabaglione and Amaretti - From My Dining Table Boats, Orchards & A Recipe for Prosecco Peaches with Zabaglione and Amaretti - From My Dining Table

When Anthony and I got married – five years ago, now – I bought him a boat as a wedding present. Not a flashy boat – a little bathtub of a boat, with a minute outboard motor. The idea was that we could explore the lagoon together. You see, you’re only ever a true Venetian once you have a boat. Or better, when the man in your life has a boat. The boat is – in fact - a male prerogative. Of course, there are women who know how to drive, tie knots and the like – and there must be women who own their own boats, but they’re chimeras. Few, far between and very much out of the ordinary. Certainly, cause for conversation – kind of like women taxi drivers in London. You know they exist, but I have yet to be driven by one. How about you? Of course, I should rebel. The twenty-first century educated feminist in me knows this. And occasionally, I toy with the notion of learning to drive the boat myself. But then summer life morphs into a lazy hazy dream; I’m chauffeured around, strewn out on cushions, looking up into the clouds in a clear blue sky. And learning to drive the boat is added to my to do list for next year.

Boats, Orchards & A Recipe for Prosecco Peaches with Zabaglione and Amaretti - From My Dining Table Boats, Orchards & A Recipe for Prosecco Peaches with Zabaglione and Amaretti - From My Dining Table

Anthony keeps the boat at the cantiere - a massive, dusty warehouse, where vessels are stacked up one on top of the other, and lowered into the water with a crane as and when their owners want to use them. There’s a petrol pump, and an expanse of concrete that looks on to the open lagoon, where the guys who work there sit in their deck chairs. This is a clearly designated male only zone. By the same unspoken rule that means that women don’t drive boats. When I have ventured through the cricket-y iron gate and into the yard, a hushed silence falls – palpable. Everything is not as it should be: the men stand straighter and squint at me suspiciously. Rough and ready, it is also a clearly designated Venetian zone - not a word of Italian is spoken here, just the local dialect. Ideally, in hoarse, gruff tones. [Read more...]

Dreamy Sundays & Beloved Old Books
(& A Lavender Pannacotta)

Dreamy Sundays & Lavender Pannacotta - From My Dining Table

Dreamy Sundays & Lavender Pannacotta - From My Dining Table Dreamy Sundays & Lavender Pannacotta - From My Dining Table

There is something comforting about old books – books written decades ago, before twitter, mobile phones, or the twenty-four hour news cycle. I’m not old – not, really – but I have never lived in a world without telephones or television. Yet that world – the one depicted in stories before my time - feels oddly familiar. Somehow it all resonates: the hats and the diamond pins, the kid gloves and the afternoon tea, the handwritten letters on embossed writing paper and the swishing skirts. Maybe because I grew up devouring Agatha Christie murder mysteries – and when I had read them all, I went back to the beginning and read them once again. Or maybe I have some sort of a spiritual connection with that era - from another life that I no longer remember, but recognise intuitively on some level of my subconscious. But there is something about that world - the glamorous thirties, forties and fifties – that feels inexplicably nostalgic and deeply soothing.

Dreamy Sundays & Lavender Pannacotta - From My Dining Table Dreamy Sundays & Lavender Pannacotta - From My Dining Table

I always think that the telltale of a favourite book is what you choose to read when you’re sick; you know – when you’re laid up in bed with the flu or what have you. It’s the book – withhe coffee stained, dog-eared pages that gets you through the day, when the day is all one big blur of crumpled tissues and duvets, and you’re completely unable to articulate a conversation or follow the news. Without fail, I turn to Nancy Mitford. I start with the Pursuit of Love. And slowly make my way through Love in a Cold Climate, then The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred too. Lost in her novels’ lighthearted, sing song prose – I can hear the cut glass tones of outmoded English voices, and I can just about see grand ballrooms, with twirling debutantes in clouds of pastel coloured chiffon. Call me frivolous – but the pages of Mitford’s books are my spiritual home of sorts, my safe haven from reality. That is the joy of a novel: it’s escapist, reality artfully filtered through rose tinted lenses. That’s why I read novels when I’m sick and not historical biographies: because I’m a girl who likes a happy ending. Real life rarely guarantees a plain and simple happy ending. But, tell me, what do you read when you’re sick?

[Read more...]

The Lost Summer
(& A Couple of Very Sweet Sweets)

Gelato with Grappa Drenched Raisins & Whipped Ricotta Sfogliatine with Figs

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This is the Lost Summer. The summer that never was - it’s  drifting around somewhere in Neverland; with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. You know – the little boys who fall out of their prams, while their nanny is looking the other way, and are spirited off to Neverland.  It’s as if I blinked and it passed us by. The summer, that is. The weather has been all crazy storms at sunrise and bouts of raging hot sunshine at sunset. Unpredictable and unreliable. The lagoon here in Venice ominously grey one minute, and clear, clear blue the next. I’ve heard rumours of an apocalypse of sorts. Some remember the summer of 1984 – apparently that was a stormy one too. Others say that they have never been a July like it – not in living memory. Yet still the air is hot. Heavy and muggy – like a thick wooly blanket wrapped around you, that you simply can’t shake off. And even when it storms – there’s a moment, fleeting, a gust of fresh air that blows through – but then it’s gone, the heavy heat reigns once again.

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One of the things that I love about walking through the streets of Venice on a hot evening are the noises. I’m not talking about the main streets – the tourist trodden path around Piazza San Marco and thereabouts; but the back streets – the ones with the funny names that seem to lead to nowhere. There, the echo of people living reverberates, through the open windows and the thin cracks in ramshackle shutters, left just ajar to capture a little breeze. Someone chatting loudly, the pounding of footsteps, and best of all the sounds of the kitchen – that unmistakable tinny click-clacking of plates being stacked, and the rattling of knives and forks as they scrape on china. It’s a sound that pleases me; it’s hard to say exactly why, maybe because I dream about what it is that they’re eating, or how they cooked it. Or maybe because it’s a sound I grew up with, and will forever be entwined, in my mind, with the deep, woollen-blanket heat of summer. But I kind of think of that sound as the voice of Venice; were city to have a soundtrack, that would be it. [Read more...]

Redemption & Thanksgiving
(& A Recipe for Sea Bass ‘Al Sale’)

The Feast of the Holy Redeemer & a Recipe for Sea Bass 'Al Sale'

The Feast of the Holy Redeemer & a Recipe for Sea Bass 'Al Sale'

Venice is a sleepy town. Entertainment is neighbourhood gossip or maybe a sudden twist in weather patterns; flooding in July, say, or heavy fog in September. By ten o’clock at night the streets are empty, in an eerie ghost-like kind of a way. Everyone is in bed. I love that about the city. Secretly, I too love nothing more than an early night, with a gripping novel and a mug of hot, sugary tea.

That said, one night a year – for one night only – Venice parties. And, hell –  it parties like there’s no tomorrow. I party with it too. Naturally. It would be rude not to.

The Feast of the Holy Redeemer & a Recipe for Sea Bass 'Al Sale'

Preparations begin at dawn - and with them the crescendo: people hang brightly coloured lanterns from street lights, and set up trestle tables along the waterfront; the gingham check tablecloths come out, as do the rickety chairs and boxes of wine. Slowly, the Giudecca Canal fills with boats – sailing yachts, small speedboats, and repurposed wooden barges; all dressed up with fairy lights and posies of greenery – olive branches and the like. Music plays - alla boom box; and people dance – in a nonchalant, devil may care kind of a way. The anticipation builds. You can feel it, almost tangible – impatient and expectant – in the hot, muggy air of a midsummer’s night. As dusk falls and the sky grows darker, you dance harder – maybe a few wild souls might jump into the water. We eat, we drink and we make merry. Until the golden rain falls. Literally. Fireworks begin and for nearly an hour, silence – muted awe punctuated only by the gunfire bangs and the oohs and aahs of delight that greet them – holds the city. Like magic, a kind of alchemy as everyone comes together in this one moment of time. If you’ve never been – you must come. Next year – third Saturday in July.

[Read more...]

A Venetian Soap Opera
(& Paolo’s Mascarpone and Black Truffle Pizza)

Black Truffle, Mascarpone & Sage Pizza - From My Dining Table

Black Truffle, Mascarpone & Sage Pizza - From My Dining Table

Think soap opera. But set among crumbling brickwork and evocative frescoes: the story of the squares of Venice. And of the characters who live in them. You see, at the very heart of all that is truly Venetian is the campo - an open square, a patch of flagstones, kind of like a piazza but on a miniature scale. If you know Venice, you’ll know what I mean: the city is a maze of tiny alleyways and campi. 

Every Venetian grows up and lives out his life in his campo. That’s where he plays hide and seek as a child, and dries his laundry as a grown up. Were he to move house, he might find a new campo to live in – one that’s no more than a few steps from his newfound home address. And over time, he might grow to love that campo too. But the campo where he grew up forever holds him tight – that’s where the church he married in is, where his butcher and his baker are, where his heart lies. 

Black Truffle, Mascarpone & Sage Pizza - From My Dining Table

We live in Campo delle Gorne - it’s not a grand square; not as far as they go. No Palladian Church and no extravagant palazzi. Were you passing through, you probably wouldn’t even stop. There’s a sleepy canal and a few houses; windows open so that you can peer into the neighbours’ kitchens – which, of course, I love to do – or watch their television through their living room window. Like most of the squares of Venice, we have a pozzo - an ancient water well, that once upon a time provided drinking water and now, is mostly used as a climbing frame of sorts. By small children and stray cats alike. And we have a tree. The tree is pretty special: not many campi have a tree.  [Read more...]