Skye McAlpine: ‘Some couples have songs, but we have recipes’

Whether for a friend or a partner, for Skye McAlpine cooking is a form of love. She chats to Katie Wright about how her passion started, her new book and why she thinks Venice is magical

Wednesday 15 February 2023 07:00 GMT
McAlpine met her husband at university – and also started her love affair with cooking
McAlpine met her husband at university – and also started her love affair with cooking (Skye McAlpine)

Skye McAlpine was studying classics at Oxford University when she started getting serious about cooking.

“My parents cooked a lot, so I always felt comfortable in the kitchen, but it was that transition from being asked to peel a potato or chop something, to the whole production of creating a meal,” says the food writer.

“I was always planning supper – who I was going to have over, or what I was going to cook – when I probably should have been more focused on my studies.”

Born in London, she moved to Venice with her parents (her father is the late businessman and politician Lord McAlpine) when she was six, enrolling in a local school and picking up Italian within a year.

Fast forward to Freshers Week at Oxford. After a chance encounter in the college bar, the then-18-year-old began dating the man who would become her husband, Anthony Santospirito – and that wasn’t her only burgeoning passion at the time.

“That’s when my love affair with cookbooks really started,” says McAlpine, who now splits her time between Italy and the UK. “I bought a couple to learn to cook, and just loved reading them. Then I started collecting them, and spent a lot of time cooking.”

Completing undergraduate and master’s degrees in classics, she was partway through a PhD, focusing on English translations of 17th and 18th-century Latin love poetry, when she became pregnant. And it was while on maternity leave that McAlpine started a food blog.

“By the time I’d completed my PhD a year-and-a-half later, the blog had gained momentum, and I’d been commissioned to write some freelance pieces. I also had my first cookbook commissioned.”

Now the proud author of three titles, the 38-year-old hatched the idea for her latest book, A Table Full Of Love, during lockdown in 2020.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about why we cook, and wondering what makes it feel like a worthwhile investment of time, when time is such a precious commodity.

“We cook for people – I do anyway – and that’s why it matters. You make a plate of pasta, then you sit down and eat it – it’s the rituals around it.”

Inspired by her academic work, she originally wanted to title the chapters using Greek or Roman words for the different types of love, such as eros (romantic love) or philia (familial love). However, she had to rethink that approach: “When I was tackling mania, which is intense stalker-type love, it felt quite forced. So, I thought, ‘I can’t do that’.”

Instead, she settled on five themes to illustrate why we cook: comfort, seduce, nourish, spoil and cocoon.

“The first chapter is about friendship,” she explains, which is where you’ll find recipes for gooey macaroni cheese, warming chicken soup, and her mum’s saffron and lemon risotto.

“It’s this idea of cooking to lift someone’s spirits, whether that’s because they’ve had a tragedy, or they’re having a rough day, or you just want to show them you care.”

In the seduce section, McAlpine shares the recipe for Anthony’s Special Pancakes, made by her husband in the early days of their courtship.

“Some couples have songs, but we have recipes or dishes,” she says.

“I remember being blown away by how delicious Anthony’s pancakes were.”

The couple’s sons – Aeneas, 10, and Achille, three – are pictured in the nourish chapter, helping mum make “polpette” – ricotta balls. And the spoil theme is all about the joy of edible gifts – for both the recipient and the giver.

“When there’s nothing you can do to help someone, you can make a phone call, you can bake a tray of brownies, or you can make them a cup of tea,” McAlpine says.

“Being able to do something that visibly makes someone you care about happy is a precious thing.”

The final chapter, cocoon, celebrates self-love with dishes perfectly portioned for solo dining, such as roast poussin with lemon potatoes, AKA “the joy of a chicken lunch, but for one”.

Featuring sumptuous photos taken in the author’s magnificent Venetian apartment, the book is beautiful to behold, but McAlpine wants to stress the dishes aren’t as elaborate as her decor.

“There are so many shortcuts and a lot of simple recipes. It’s not about cooking something amazing or fancy or impressive, it’s about doing something, no matter how small, because sometimes these things can bring so much pleasure.”

The Venetian cookery influence is obvious, with the plethora of vibrant pasta and creamy risotto recipes.

“It was a magical place to grow up,” she says of the city famous for crisscrossing canals, gondola rides and incredible architecture. “It’s a bit of a fairy tale city. It’s deeply impractical, but it kind of lives in its own time capsule.”

After more than three decades as a part time resident, McAlpine has watched Venice strain under the weight of millions of visitors.

“The volume of tourists is high, and I’d say it has been for the past 15 years. That has had a big impact on the fabric of the city, but it’s still magical. It’s a magic, magic city.”

‘A Table Full Of Love’ by Skye McAlpine (published by Bloomsbury, £26; photography by Skye McAlpine), available now.

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