Author of food and lifestyle blog From My Dining Table, daughter of the late British politician Lord McAlpine, and the writer of new recipe book A Table in Venice, Skye McAlpine shares with Good Food her memories of a childhood spent in a Kimberley beach town, where her love of cooking blossomed under a mango tree.
One of my most powerful childhood memories is of my mother making ice-cream. She would make it on really hot days – which, in Broome, WA, in a house with no airconditioning, was pretty much every day. She made it in the ancient, rather cumbersome ice-cream maker we had – one that purred and whirred as it slowly but steadily churned in our kitchen. I loved that thumping sound it made because that was the sound of afternoon tea.
Vanilla ice-cream, two scoops, poured into one of those cones with the flat bottoms then drenched in chocolate sauce, the kind you squeeze out of the bottle that goes rock hard the moment it touches the ice-cream. Magic Sauce, I think it was called. It certainly seemed like magic at the time.
I remember it as if it were yesterday. It's funny the details that stay with you from childhood. How sweet the cream tasted, like sugared clotted cream; how it would drip all over me, no matter how fast I licked the cone – though it mattered little because, when in Broome, I lived in nothing but my swimmers and it was easy enough to hop in the pool to wash away any stickiness.
If I were to pinpoint a single place in the world and call it home, that place would probably be Venice, Italy. I wasn't born there – my family are from England and we moved to Italy when I was six – but that is where I spent the lion's share of my childhood, where I grew up and where I went to school. And still now it is where I live, if only for half the year (I divide my time between Venice and London these days).
It is the food and life of Venice that are at the heart of my new cookbook, A Table in Venice. Yet for a chapter of my life, until the age of nine or so, I called Broome home, too. And while the two towns are in many ways polar opposites, they both played a defining part in shaping who I am today, and how I came to love food the way I do.
It has been more than 10 years since I last made it back to that beautiful, northernmost corner of Western Australia, yet my love for Broome lingers and I can't ever imagine quite shaking it. It's the little triggers, like the sound of cicadas on a hot summer's night or the smell of charcoal on an open barbecue, that spark a longing for my childhood haunt, so strong I can feel it in the pit of my stomach.
My parents first came to Broome by chance before I was born: they were on their honeymoon travelling around Australia, and made a detour up north to meet with a friend of a friend who said they absolutely should go. My mother spent the day at Cable Beach, and my father took a tour of the town. By sunset they had fallen in love with this place that was like no other they had been to before. They bought the ramshackle house with the corrugated iron roof and the wooden lattice work walls that was to become our family home – my father signed the deeds for the house on the back of a beer mat that night in the local pub.
I loved life in Broome. The beaches, sandy, white and never-ending; my treehouse, where I would hide away for hours; the mangos, which you could buy by the boxload, sugar sweet, impossibly juicy, unlike anything I have ever eaten in Europe; and the incredible feeling of freedom. In those days, Broome was wild and ruleless. You could walk around town and into the supermarket barefoot – no one would blink an eyelid; there were no traffic lights in the town and certainly no traffic jams. I remember driving everywhere in the back of my mother's open top jeep, never even thinking to wear a seat belt, singing along to the chorus of an Elton John song that belted out from the car's little tape player.
While we never lived in Broome fulltime (we commuted back and forth to our homes in Europe), for me it was perhaps the first place that felt like home – and in a certain sense still does. Like your first love, that is something that stays with you.
I am the kind of person who remembers life through what they ate and how it was cooked; breaded veal cutlets on our wedding night, chocolate souffle on the night before my son was born. My childhood recollections of Broome are no exception to this way of seeing the world, though perhaps my memory – a mix of Australiana and childhood nostalgia – is not the most authentic depiction of the local cuisine, which boasts an intriguing fusion of Japanese and Malaysian influences, as well as local flavours to reflect the town's extravagantly multicultural heritage.
My recollection of Broome is fluorescent Twinpole icypoles, a very special treat from the ice-cream shop by the beach, Cherry Ripes (I still long for a taste of Cherry Ripe) and mango and passionfruit flavoured soda after a particularly promising tennis match, banana smoothies served over ice in a tall, clear glass and drunk through the straw, sitting out on the verandah at the ice creamery in the centre of Chinatown, as I watched the world go by; it was peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cut into miniature triangles and wrapped in clingfilm for our picnics on the beach.
Every meal felt like a party: we never ate alone.
Most vividly, I remember the chicken satays my mother used to make: she would serve them with the creamiest peanut sauce that had little but a shadow of authenticity about it, but was laced with condensed milk and tasted beyond sublime. And I remember the grated carrot salad she used to make for lunch almost every day, which she peppered with plump raisins and dressed with nothing but a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon – and I remember so vividly as a child marvelling as to why carrots never quite tasted so good anywhere else.
Everything tasted good in Broome, at that long wooden table under the shade of the mango tree. We would sit there for each and every one of our meals, my father at the head beaming from under his wide-brimmed suede hat and my mother, an elegant figure swathed in a cotton sarong, hopping up and down from the table bringing out more and more colourful dishes from the kitchen just behind. We didn't have a proper dining room in that house, or rather, there was a dark room at the back haunted with a feeling of formality – but we never used it. Instead, we always ate outside in the garden, al fresco. Food tastes better outdoors though I couldn't tell you exactly why or how, I just know that it does.
What we ate was always simple – a mish-mash of brightly coloured salads, hastily thrown together, meat from the barbecue, ice-cream and fresh fruit; but it wasn't so much what we ate that touched me so profoundly – though it was, of course, all very good – but how we ate. Every meal felt like a party: we never ate alone, my parents and I. There were always friends to join us – the neighbours, a few guests visiting from England, my father's colleagues, friends of friends passing through town, girlfriends of my mother's, whoever. My parents ran our place like an open kitchen – and as a result, it was a happy kitchen. Our meals were simple, abundant, blissfully relaxed – and all the more fun for the glorious cast of characters we were lucky enough to share them with.
Food, for me, is more than nourishment: it's memories and nostalgia, the most profound way to connect with those who surround us, and much in between. It's an excuse to enjoy the company of old friends and the very best way I know how to make new ones. That is why I cook, and more importantly, that is why I love to cook.
I treasure the recipe for spicy peanut sauce and creamy (the creamiest!) vanilla ice-cream that I have held on to long since we left Broome, but it is the memory of the lazy long lunches under the mango tree that has truly stayed with me. That is what I treasure most. That is my culinary legacy from our time in Australia – and I can't think of a more precious one.