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2023-02-21 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Skye McAlpine Lays It All Out on the Table

Skye McAlpine Lays It All Out on the Table

Served with love
HAVING HER CAKE A lavender and raisin tea cake, reminiscent of an Irish tea loaf served to Skye as a child, graces the table in her back garden
Photo courtesy of Skye McAlpine and Bloomsbury Publishing

Skye McAlpine first arrived in Venice when she was six, after an IRA bomb exploded under her bedroom window at West Green, the 18th-century country estate in Hampshire in the south of England where her family lived at the time. The assassination target was her father, Lord Alistair McAlpine, a colorful heir to the McAlpine construction fortune and, as honorary treasurer of the Conservative Party, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisors.

The Venice the McAlpines moved to, near the city’s fortified Arsenale, represented a refuge from harm, and when Skye isn’t in London, it’s still her home, 4,000 square feet of crumbling, elegiac elegance in the 17th-century Palazzo Gradenigo off the Grand Canal. It is one of the visual backdrops for her new cookbook, A Table Full of Love: Recipes to Comfort, Seduce, Celebrate & Everything Else in Between. Her third and most personal book so far, it’s divided into five chapters: Comfort, Seduce, Nourish, Spoil, and Cocoon, each an occasion for her to write about events in what continues to be her very full life.

Skye and I are taking tea in the pretty drawing room of her Victorian villa in London, whimsically decorated by Ben Pentreath, the interior designer who has shaped homes for the new Prince and Princess of Wales. The sun is streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows onto pink plaster walls and Murano chandeliers, a Fornasetti drinks cabinet-cum-cocktail-fridge (a very Pentreath touch), and, in the adjoining room, walls of cookbooks and two complete sets of the Greek and Latin Loeb Classical Library, her 16th birthday present from her father.

Skye McAlpine in the kitchen of her Victorian villa in London
Photo by Stephanie Howard, courtesy of Skye McAlpine

The china we’re drinking from is from Skye’s new tableware collection, Tavola, inspired by Venetian life, to which she’s given the tagline “Live La Dolce Vita.” Outside there is a sharp bite in the London air, but, she says, it’s nothing compared to Venice: “Winter in Venice is freezing, but it is the best time to see it.”

The 38-year-old food writer returns to Venice whenever she can with her young family — her sons Aeneas, 10, and Achille, 3, and her Australian-born husband, Anthony Santospirito, a financier. Their apartment in the Santa Croce neighborhood is a serene reminder of the past, and a foil to what McAlpine describes as London’s crazy energy. Life in Venice is slow, she says. London is manic — it gets her creative juices flowing, and she makes work connections, “but I burn out.”

McAlpine’s accent is redolent of a Nancy Mitford era, until the odd Italian word creeps in, and you’re reminded that she is essentially half Italian, by geography at least. Her look is girlish. She favors vintage ’50s frocks that she sources from American dealers online. It’s not the high fashion she grew up with. Her mother, the famously beautiful Romilly Hobbs, who had married Lord McAlpine in 1980, was known as a chic political hostess with an eye-watering couture wardrobe, and would delight Prime Minister Thatcher when she stayed at Chequers by wearing only Vivienne Westwood. (The Thatcher and McAlpine families Christmased together long after Lord and Lady McAlpine divorced, in 2001.) Sotheby’s auctioned off her mother’s Givenchy, Gaultier, Hardy Amies, Saint Laurent, and many Westwood pieces in 2002. They didn’t suit Skye. “I love a bow!” she explains. “My poor mother! I love a fitted waist and a big poofy skirt!”

In addition to her late father’s affiliation with Margaret Thatcher, Lord McAlpine was an avid art and antiques collector and dealer, and founded a publishing company. “I didn’t think anything of it then,” she admits, “but now I am older and I think that [the way] I grew up, knowing the woman who was Britain’s first female Prime Minister, gave me the confidence to think I could be anything — and I’m really grateful for that.”

The recipe for the rose and cinnamon shortbread Skye is holding here came from her Scottish aunt Effie
Photo courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

When the McAlpines took up residence in Venice, the plan was to stay one year, enough time to allow the political threat in England to die down. But the year turned into an entire childhood. Skye, an only child (but with two half sisters from Lord McAlpine’s first marriage), ran through tiny streets alone and quite safe, traveled by traghetto to school, and learned her Latin at the venerable Istituto Cavanis attached to the Byzantine church of Sant’Agnese. She left Venice for Oxford, where she read the Greats, immersing herself in the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, in Greek and Latin language and philosophy. “It had to be Oxford or Edinburgh,” she says. “Otherwise, I’d have stayed in Italy.”

She “would love the boys to grow up there,” she says. “It is such a magical place to be a child. But my husband cannot work from Venice,” and so Aeneas is at a preparatory school in southwest London, and Achille is in nursery school. Day-to-day life is helped along by a “fantastic” nanny.

McAlpine’s entertaining streak started at Oxford. She began with throwing tea parties with crumpets, and by her third and fourth years she was trying her hand at dinner parties. Santospirito, who attended boarding school in Britain (his family are based in Europe more these days), was reading math in the same college and their friendship group became entwined at this early stage.

McAlpine learned from her parents a fundamental philosophy: serving food can be simple, almost effortless. Roast chicken with a crispy salad, a saffron or lemon risotto to beat the Sunday night blues, tomatoes and burrata arranged together on a vintage plate can all be both delicious and beautiful. A Table Full of Love is about just that: food as an expression of feeling — of love. In the book, love is experienced by the cook preparing the food, which connects further emotionally with the person who enjoys it — a child in need of comfort, a lover in need of wooing, a sick parent in need of tending, or, in McAlpine’s experience, as the daughter of a Conservative potentate, a glamorous, rich political donor.

Photo courtesy of Skye McAlpine

“When we arrived in Venice,” she says, “it was just the three of us, away from family. For my parents, being so gregarious, inviting people for lunch became a way to make friends. We had this association of food being about people rather than being about food. How beautiful everything looked was important — fresh herbs and fruit and flowers from the garden. It really shaped my aesthetic sensibilities in a subconscious way.” Although she studied for a masters, then a doctorate in classics at University College London, it was the nature of that childhood experience in Venice that led to her career as a food writer and blogger, her recipes somehow both English and Italian. “My father just loved to lay the table,” she remembers. “He loved beautiful things.”

In the two decades since she graduated from Oxford, the burgeoning, increasingly sophisticated food scene in Britain, and the books that have come out of it, have helped her consolidate her view that food is just as much about feelings as it is about taste. Despite Britain’s rather sorry food reputation abroad at the time, fabulous female cooks were beginning to emerge in the ’90s, like Nigella Lawson, who wrote the kind of cookery books McAlpine wanted to read. Her mother had also gifted her Joanna Weinberg’s How to Feed Your Friends With Relish (which she still uses), followed by the discovery of such other female writers as Rose Prince and Skye Gyngell. “They were writing in a space that was not recipe related,” she says. “Nigel Slater is in that space too, but it is mostly women who tend to see food as a language, and who write in a really personal way.”

During her 20s in London — “and even then there would be at least half the year in Venice with my mother” — she was, and continues to be, drawn to the restaurants of female chefs: the River Café (cofounded by Ruthie Rogers and the late Rose Gray), and, more recently, Gyngell’s Spring. She started a food blog, From My Dining Table, out of which grew her first cookbook, A Table in Venice, in 2018. She describes it as “a book about Venetian home-cooking: “I wanted to shine a light on a different side of the city and its food culture than most people see when they visit.” Her second, A Table for Friends: The Art of Cooking for Two or Twenty, came out in 2020. She also contributes to Vogue, Vanity Fair, Tatler, Condé Nast Traveler, and Corriere della Sera, and writes a monthly column for the London Sunday Times.

Penning A Table Full of Love was “very emotional,” she confesses. “I had terrible writer’s block, which lasted six months. I wonder if it didn’t have something to do with thinking about and processing the emotions involved.” In it, she tells the story of her mother’s endometrial cancer diagnosis eight years ago, and the almost fatal septicemia she developed as a complication. It was touch and go for a while. Her mother was unable to eat in the hospital and it was only when her mother’s childhood school friend began delivering homemade chicken soup daily that Romilly McAlpine tentatively began taking spoonfuls and, in time, found her appetite restored. McAlpine credits “Sue’s Magical Chicken Soup” with saving her mother’s life. (The recipe is included in the book.)

THE MOUTHS OF BABES Skye’s sons Aeneas, 10, and Achille, 3, tuck into her Pasta alla Bibi
Photo by Skye McAlpine, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

McAlpine describes the crepes her husband made for her when they were first together at Oxford, rustled up in a little pink house, that was designated quarters for male students. And about how she seduced him in return with a tiramisu made from scratch over a student sink. She writes honestly about the sense of loneliness that cooking for young children can involve, and how she has found “comfort, optimism, relief even,” in making an occasion out of a meal-for-one, be it a spinach and lemon soup or an apricot, walnut, and halloumi salad.

The more than 100 recipes in A Table Full of Love include the fudgey, dense Chocolate, Coconut, and Cherry Cake; Pumpkin and Marscarpone Flan (copied from a delicious meal she ate in “an unassuming little trattoria in Venice called La Zucca, or ‘The Pumpkin’”), and Cheese and Marmite Soufflé, “a cloud-like concoction, pudding-like in the middle and golden crisp on the edge.”’ The soufflé more than earned its place in the book because the idea of it once intimidated her, she says. But a friend of her mother’s confided it was the only thing she had once cooked her husband when they were newlyweds to hide an otherwise lack of culinary skills. McAlpine gave it a go, “And now I urge you to do the same,” she writes in her book. It is exactly this kind of vignette that gives the book its charm.

“I feel we have moved to a place [these days] where the idea of love is very generic, like a blanket term,” McAlpine tells me. But in the classical world, ideas of love were much more specific. “I really wanted to write a book with chapters suggested by the different kinds of love in Greco-Roman culture,” she explains: “Eros” (the erotic), “Storge” (familial love), and “Philia” (as in friendship). But there was also “Mania” (obsessive love). But “that didn’t really feel like a chapter,” she laughs.

“So in the end, I settled on thinking about it more like chapters of my own life,” she concludes. “Because it is love — in some shape or form — that dictates how and why I cook.”

A Table Full of Love, by Skye McAlpine (Bloomsbury Publishing), is available online and in stores now.

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