Portrait of Ghillie at home
Ghillie Basan at home in the Braes of Glenlivet

We sent out our intrepid intern Nicola Torch to find out a little more about Ghillie Basan and the background to her new book, Spirit & Spice.

  • In Spirit & Spice, you talk about growing up in Kenya and then travelling around India, America and Turkey. What is it about the remote Scottish hills that made you eventually settle in the Cairngorms? The experience of growing up in East Africa has been at the root of all my travels and all my decisions– something to do with a thirst for inspiration and space. The remoteness of my home feels normal to me but the space and the view around me are essential to my sanity. 
The view from Ghillie's house, looking onto a sunlit and empty valley
  • What would you say is the best part about raising a family in such a remote location as the Cairngorms? Freedom. Freedom to explore. Freedom to have adventures. Freedom to be children. That is priceless. And freedom can lead to common sense and curiosity – two fundamental tools for survival the world.
  • How do you think your outdoorsy upbringing and subsequent travelling has affected the ways in which you cook? Nothing phases me. I’ll cook in primitive conditions and I’ll cook in luxurious ones and the food will still taste good in both. I’ve just learned to adapt  – to ingredients, to cooking equipment and to my surroundings. At the end of the day that is just life, if you allow it to be.
Ghillie's children, Yazzie & Zeki, building a fire to cook on outside
Ghillie’s children, Yazzie & Zeki, building a fire to cook on outside
  • You also mention in your introduction that you attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School and then studied Social Anthropology. How do you think these two experiences have shaped your cooking? The Cordon Bleu was not my choice and most of the time I felt a little bit like a fish out of water. I’m not a ‘chef’ at heart – I’m just a fan of good food, hospitality, conviviality, and I love learning tricks and flavours from different culinary cultures. But I did learn importance of organisation and preparation and found the confidence to tackle all the culinary hurdles that I encountered over time. The university degree in Social Anthropology was more of a natural progression from my childhood in Africa. It is at the root of my interest and understanding of the different cultures I have written about.
  • How did you come about writing Spirit & Spice? I had recently hooked into the whisky market, which is on my doorstep, and I was beginning to get a reputation for food and whisky pairing. Then I had a chat with Emily at Kitchen Press who thought there might be mileage in such a book. She had big brass balls though as she took an enormous risk by signing me!
Ghillie talking to a group of whisky ambassadors in her garden
Ghillie talking to a group of international whisky ambassadors in her garden
  • Spirit & Spice is all about local Scottish produce and your expert spice and whisky knowledge. What would you say is the biggest link between whisky and spice? The journey. The aroma and taste of whiskies take you on a journey  – on your palate and in your mind – and spices do the same. All whiskies exude a spice element, even if only very subtle in some. But the connection is there and you can enhance that or contrast that to emphasise it and savour the pairing.
A dish of spiced stuffed mushrooms, with a dram of whisky by the side
Spiced stuffed mushrooms, with a dram…
Photo © Christina Riley
  • There is a chapter in the book about wild food and foraging. Is this an important part of your culinary life? It is, I am happier outdoors than in and so are my children. Foraging is just a part of a walk or a picnic and is very much part of our seasonal table. But we are careful to only forage for what we need; we don’t exploit the land but appreciate the riches it bears.
Wild trout, cooking on sticks over a campfire
The finest way to eat freshly caught trout, Ghillie Basan-style
  • What was the most challenging part about writing Spirit & SpiceWriting about myself. I have written 40 books and never mentioned myself. I always regarded my books as an introduction to a culture and a cuisine so it was important to get facts and recipes right. But now people want to feel they are experiencing something, the more ‘authentic’ the better, and I suppose the ‘Ghillie Basan’ life story, my home and my food is an authentic experience for some!
  • Do you have a favourite recipe from the book? No, I don’t. Because the book is about the food we cook at home, they are all recipes we eat all the time. It’s more about mood and what’s in the fridge that day than having a preference. If food is flavoursome and made with love it is always delicious.
Ghillie in her kitchen, a whirlwind of warmth and hospitality
Photo © Christina Riley
  • What do you hope readers take away from Spirit & Spice? I hope they will feel inspired – but inspired in different ways. Some might just be inspired to play around with spices and create different flavours; others might be inspired to pair food with whisky. A few might be inspired by the life story of living remotely, of reliance on inner strength and coping. Or they simply might see it as a story of hope. We all need one of those!
whisky being poured into a glass
Slàinte!
photo © Christina Riley