My friend Skye McAlpine has a PhD in classics from Oxford, which might seem like a bit of a paradox considering that she’s best known as a cookbook author and hostess (par excellence). Not that the latter requires any less intelligence or seriousness, just that the former has, let’s say, dry and stuffy associations. But once you know that her specialization is Latin love poetry, you begin to understand Skye beyond her (admittedly exquisitely curated) Instagram feed.
As her posts from her homes in London and Venice convey, Skye’s is a romantic view of the world, but it’s tempered with intellectual rigor. She strives for beauty in the everyday, and to create an atmosphere of love for both her friends and her considerable following. This is someone with an acute and innate understanding of cultures, an extraordinary transportive eye and a mind like a steel trap. I often say at PRIOR that it is our job to not only show the reality of a place, but the fantasy of it, too — a balance of romance and rigor. It is this lesser-known aspect of Skye that I love. Her recipes are not only plainly delicious and full of generosity, but have integrity and a sly sense of history and research.
For complex reasons of history, Skye and her family decamped to Venice when she was just six and, until very recently, she was known as this kind of Merchant Ivory throwback wandering through the magical city, visiting the Rialto market and then creating dishes, first with dishes of pure Venetian origin and then, slowly, more English and contemporary cooking. Now living predominantly in London with her husband and two boys, she has become a true bridge of cultures with two tables, one “in Venice” and another”for friends” at home.
David Prior: We’ve known each other for quite some time now. Even though you’re associated with home and being home — either in London or your amazing palazzo in Venice — I think that people probably don’t realize quite how worldly and well-traveled you are beyond those places. You grew up traveling. Where are some places that had a big impact on you?
Skye McAlpine: My parents always traveled, and when I was very little, we spent a lot of time in Australia as well. I think my mother says that this is very much to her credit, that when she went to change my first passport, when I was three, we’d been to Australia and back 18 times, which is a tribute to her.
It’s where you got your good sense of humor, I think. No?
Yeah, exactly. Australia, in a way, feels like home to me. I have so many happy memories. We dodged around up in Western Australia in Broome — all over, but there and Sydney predominantly. I think because I was an only child and my parents traveled lots, their general parenting attitude was that I would just basically fit in with them. Before we moved to Venice when I was six, we used to come to Venice a lot on holiday and then travel around in Europe. If they went to Paris, I went to Paris.
Then from the ages of 9 to 12, my parents were really into doing road trips across the States, because at the time my father loved Western movies and he was also collecting a lot of Navajo jewelry and random bits and bobs. So we spent quite a lot of time in Santa Fe, and he was really into vintage clothes or vintage Mickey Mouses. So we’d drive across the States to various dealers or whatever to buy vintage whatever it was, whether it was Hawaiian prints, guns, or cowboy hats.
He’s one of the most famous collectors that’s ever existed, I’d argue. A true English eccentric. Have you picked up the collecting gene?
Yes. Not as badly as he had it. As a child, I used to collect loads because he obviously loved collecting. So for example, the vintage Mickey Mouses, because I liked Mickey Mouse. He found Mickey Mouse himself quite boring. But the idea of buying original ones from the fifties and sixties was appealing to him, so I had a huge collection of those. But we’d also collect puppets, antique dolls, costumes, and little Russian wooden dolls, the Matryoshka dolls, things like that. So I definitely started an interest young, and I’ve tried to curb it because it is quite addictive and takes over your life. I still have a tendency: I’ll buy lots of something rather than one or two. Buying one or two of something never quite feels like you’re fully committed to it.
Traveling with children and then collecting pieces from all over is a really interesting doorway into giving a young person an education of the world, right? You mentioned dolls. I imagine that all the differences are a real cultural immersion through frills!
I think it is a really good way of engaging their minds because you give them a point of focus and then you become obsessed with finding these things. So then you explore the whole world that surrounds it. It’s like going to the museum and looking for pictures with flowers in them. You’ll explore the whole museum, but because you have this interest in pictures with flowers and you know something about it, it draws you in and you engage with it more. Ultimately, I think travel is just another form of collecting. It’s collecting memories or impressions, really. It’s just more portable than traditional collections.
Do you travel with your boys? Are you taking that same approach?
Yes. Not this year, but we do travel with the boys. Aeneas now is eight, and he is at such a great age because you can see he really absorbs and is super interested. The little one, Achille, he’s actually pretty easy, so he comes with us. This time last year, for the New Year, we went to Marrakech and that was an absolute dream. Everyone there loves children. It is good to go to places and cultures where they love children because it makes it a lot more relaxed.
Marrakech at New Year’s is its peak moment, in my view. We always have an event there at that time. There is something magical in the air around that time. The chill in the air on the rooftops of the riads with a blanket and lamps, the winter light on the pink city…
It’s the dream holiday. We were so smug about it last year. We were like, “We’re going to do this every year. It’s perfect.” Because it feels far and it feels foreign when it is really not. It has that kind of magic where you step off your plane and you’re like, “I’m somewhere really different from where I started out.” But from London or Venice, it’s a three- or four-hour flight. So it doesn’t kill you. The weather’s beautiful. The colors, the food.
We’ve all had a big year in different ways, but you’ve had a monumental year. You’ve released your second book, which is called A Table with Friends. Ironically, we haven’t been able to gather around the table, but you’ve been completely brilliant in the way that you’ve connected with people. Can you tell me, A) How the book came about, and then B) How you’ve been able to create that spirit when we haven’t been able to actually gather?
I think people cook for different reasons. Some people cook for themselves. Some people enjoy the ritual of cooking. For me, it’s really about the meal and sitting down with friends.
You’re the best I know. The best hostess of my generation!
It’s a true compliment.
Well, it’s true. Believe me, you want to be at that table.
It’s all about the people. But for my generation, I think a lot of people feel quite nervous about inviting people over. Anyone can cook. It’s not actually hard, but there is this anxiety that surrounds it. I don’t know exactly where that comes from, but there is that feeling. So the idea for the book was I wanted to try and demystify the process and show how really easy it is, that you can make it part of your daily life. You can have eight friends over on a Tuesday night after work and it’s not going to kill you. There is a way of doing it that is actually quite simple and not crazy expensive, and is very doable and can ultimately be really fun. The more you do that, the richer and the happier your life is.
I’ve just moved into a bigger place because I want that in my life again.
That’s what the book is about, the spirit behind the book. The irony of it coming out in the one year when it was effectively illegal to have friends over has not been lost on me, but what I’ve been incredibly grateful for is that all the friends that have come for supper over the years. Normally you’d celebrate a book coming out by having parties and invite them over again, and I really couldn’t do that. When the book came out, friends all around the world cooked or posted about it, and that just had a huge effect. I think I was incredibly lucky that whilst we haven’t been able to gather with friends this year, we’ve all realized how important it is. Maybe we can’t do it today, but as soon as we can, we’re definitely going to.
I cooked something for myself from the book in a one-burner fisherman’s cabin!
I do a lot of talking about what a privilege it is to cook for the people that you love and how having them with you makes your life richer. Thinking about the Christmas season this year, normally I’d have friends over pretty much every night of the week in the buildup to Christmas to celebrate together, but every year I’m kind of always knackered. I love it and that’s why I do it, but you do have your moments where you’re like, God, I’m so exhausted. I don’t really feel like it. But this year I haven’t been able to do that, so I realized what a privilege that is.
Most people ask you solely about Venice, but I want to ask where else in Italy you love to eat?
Well, Bologna for tortellini in brodo and bollito misto. It is worth a trip just for that. This summer we got away to the Amalfi Coast for a week. We had dinner at Lo Scoglio, which is obviously famous, but it’s a family-run restaurant and basically the father grows the produce and then his daughters run the restaurant and his son is in the kitchen cooking. I could basically live there for the rest of my life and would be really fat and happy.
Another spot a little less known?
A couple of years ago, we went to the Aeolian Islands in Sicily and we stayed on Filicudi for a week, which was absolute bliss. There’s a place called La Sirena, a really sweet, kind of quite retro hotel — although hotel feels like a really grand term. It’s one of those spots with fab colorful tiles, really Italian. We rented a villa up near the top of the island, but we did this thing where we walked down early in the morning before it got too hot, and then we’d sit and have breakfast at La Sirena right on the sea. They do this incredible breakfast, which I think is quite common in Sicily. For me, it was the absolute dream: brioche with gelato and with granita for breakfast!
Oh God, heaven. The other Skye [Gyngell] and I ate our body weight in that the summer before last in Sicily. But a few years ago I had a green mulberry granita on the Aeolian islands with panna. One of the top 10 tastes I have ever had. Oh fuck, I miss Italy!
I’m really into the fico d’India, the prickly pear.
I love. That’s my second favorite.
The idea of basically ice cream for breakfast and no judgment was a very happy one for me.
What a dream. You mentioned tourist spots and how they kind of strip the food culture of a particular place, and it can be quite mediocre. That happens in Venice, even though Venice and Veneto is one of the great gastronomic regions in the world. I know that you have your secret Venice, which is no longer a secret as you can buy your first book, A Table in Venice. But more broadly, what do you think the hallmarks of the kind of Venetian lagoon food culture are?
There’s a lot of seafood, obviously. The soft-shell crabs, which have a really short season. Certain types of shrimps, which again are really local to this lagoon and can’t easily be exported. Then what I really like—this is quite a personal thing—and you see it reflected in the architecture and the art in Venice, is that it’s a real melting pot of a city. Because Venice was such an important trading point and had so much contact with the East and then it was conquered under Napoleon and then onto the Austrians, and so it kind of had these multiple cultures that have been woven to make up Venetian culture. One manifestation is the spritz, which comes originally from Austria. Now actually over in Italy, it has become really trendy, but going out and having a spritz is like a real Venetian ritual.
I wasn’t going to ask this, but there’s the issue of Venice and what the future holds for it. From a food perspective, do you think that this kind of pause moment is disastrous, or does it mean that people go back to the more traditional recipes? How does very little tourism affect the food culture in the city?
It is really bittersweet actually at the moment, because it’s completely empty and it’s beautiful. I mean, the city is stunning. I’ve never seen it like this. Selfishly, it’s really, really incredible, but it is devastating to see the impact on businesses. What I will say is a lot of the good restaurants, like those really good gems, I think it’s a really tough year for them. It might even be a tough year next year, but I think they will survive because they are largely family-run businesses. In most cases, I think they own their premises so they don’t have the kind of extortionate rents of say central London or Manhattan. Also, there are enough Venetians who love good food from a good restaurant that they will walk over and go and have lunch. I think it will fortify the point that ultimately that sort of core client base is what will carry them through. Those are the people who really care and will call them out on the difference between a good risotto and, well…a not so good one.
I have two last questions. One, you and I both know that Italian Christmas is very different to English Christmas, but can you describe both of them? Because you absolutely bridge those two cultures. I often think that the perfect bridge of the two cultures is when you get the panettone and slice it, fill it with cream and then add this incredible meringue around it. That is the most festive, beautiful thing to behold. Because Skye, if we are being really honest, panettone is a bit shit by itself; it is just too dry. We’re all kidding ourselves that it is good as-is. And yes, gli Italiani can come for me, but deep down they know it’s true! I’m being silly, but my point is what you do is really a beautiful marriage of the two cultures and it actually makes the panettone a thousand times better. So back to the question: differences between Italian and English Christmas?
They already celebrate on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day. So basically the way we do it is we do the Italian Christmas on Christmas Eve and then the English Christmas on Christmas Day, just to have all bases covered. But food-wise, we do mix and match and choose the bits that we like from each culture and just kind of make it up as we go along, which is really nice. But on Christmas Eve, for Italians, they always have fish; they always have seafood. There’s usually some kind of pasta with a white truffle or truffle situation. There’s obviously panettone and pandoro. And so we usually do something like that on Christmas Eve. Normally we’ll go to midnight mass, though I think this year it’s not allowed. And it’s really nice because it’s a beautiful mass in a stunning church, ‘cause you’re in Venice. And then you walk home through the city and the bells are ringing and it’s cold and it’s dark except for the twinkly Christmas lights.
I would even make a church exception for that.
How could you not do this in Italy, DP? And then my mother always does a proper English Christmas lunch. So she’ll do turkey—or I think she wants to do duck this year—but some kind of bird, and then stuffing and roast potatoes, red cabbage, Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, sausages, et cetera. We usually also have, which I think is more of an Italian thing, roast chestnuts as well, to snack on before lunch, which I love. And then I’ll always do an English Christmas cake with dried fruits and brandy and marzipan. And then we usually also do brandy butter. And then the thing that I’ve discovered, which is amazing, is panettone with brandy butter. It’s a very, very good comp.
My grandmother used to virtually only eat the brandy butter. Another story for another time…
Naughty but so good. I really love it.
Oh maybe that’s my solve for moist richness with the panettone. I stand by that it really does need that something extra and I think you’re being too polite to say so—your recipe makes that point secretly, I know it! Ok, enough, that’s my dessert sorted. Thank you Christmas food Angel!
Where will your next vacation be?
I’m longing for some sunshine right now. This time last year, we were in Marrakech for two weeks, which was bliss: the colours, the food, the weather… I can’t wait to go back.
The thing you can’t travel without?
My phone (to take photos and call home), a good book and a pair of sunglasses.
When were you happiest while traveling?
In our last year at university, my husband and I took a trip round Turkey and Greece to visit all the classical sites. It was a blissful, carefree couple of months, filled with beautiful things.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be?
Claridges. Dream location, excellent bar and all round perfect service. Plus the lobster wellington is to die for.
The place/trip that challenged you most?
Varanasi in 2017. It was like nowhere else I had ever been before (or since!)
What is your room service indulgence?
A Club Sandwich. I never eat them anywhere else, but I really love a good Club Sandwich. I think you can really judge the standard of a hotel by their Club Sandwich!
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
A treehouse in Broome, WA
What is your favorite market in the world?
The Sablon in Brussels – amazing for antiques: large, small and everything in between.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
I love taking friends out to visit the islands around Venice: Pelestrina, Mazzorbo, Torcello, Burano, Murano, etc – there is so much to see out there and it’s really special to explore a different, more rustic, less tourist-y side of Venice.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
Sicily in the late 1800s – if only for the glorious food! Think: Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
In which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why?
A weekend: Il Pellicano – the dream for a glamorous but relaxed weekend away by the sea.
A week: Oxford – taking my time in the beautiful libraries and museums (especially the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean), and reliving my misspent youth.
A month: Arniano Painting School in Tuscany – living la dolce vita, eating excellent food and learning to paint.
A year: Paris – because it feels like a city that you need to live in to really get to know.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
Japan! It’s top of my list.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.