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…]

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…]