Spirit & Spice by Ghillie Basan – a book review

How many writers or authors do you know who have penned over 40 books yet still remain under the radar?  Not many, I’m hear you reply.

But Ghillie Basan is just one such author and I want to shout loud that it’s time we all got to know this very understated, talented and modest cook and writer.   Check out her new book, Spirit & Spice, and book your ticket for Afternoon Tea with Ghillie Basan (Monday, 19 August) at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival.

Ghillie Basan - author of Spirit & Spice (Photo: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media)

Ghillie Basan – author of Spirit & Spice
(Photo: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media)

I first met Ghillie when I visited her remote, Highland retreat to take one of her bespoke cookery courses, Mad about Mezze.  I was surprised that I had never heard about her, despite her obvious and prolific talent for churning out as many cook books as she has, which came as much as a need to earn a living in her rural retreat and feed her children, rather than a yearning to become famous.

Spirit & Spice takes readers on a culinary journey

Ghillie’s newest book, Spirit & Spice take readers on a culinary journey around the world and back again – to Ghillie’s home in the Highlands, combining global flavours with the whiskies and natural larder of Scotland.

Combining global flavours with the whiskies and natural larder of Scotland is the subject of Spirit & Spice by Ghillie Basan

Combining global flavours with the whiskies and natural larder of Scotland is the subject of Spirit & Spice by Ghillie Basan

Ghillie’s a natural storyteller and this book is as much a recipe book as it is a book that you will want to cosy up on the sofa to read with a wee dram. She’s up there with my other favourite cookery writer, Elisabeth Luard, whose book ‘Family Life; Birth, Death and the Whole Damn Thing‘ is my all time favourite read. They both have a certain talent in conjuring up the tastes and smells of other cultures with their fabulous storytelling and recipes.

Bringing it all back home

The author of more than 40 cookbooks, Ghillie grew up in Africa and has travelled extensively throughout Turkey, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, researching the links between culinary cultures forged by trade routes, colonisation and migration.

A plethora of Ghillie Basan's cookbooks

A plethora of Ghillie Basan’s cookbooks

Learning from locals in remote villages, she has ground coconuts and pineapples on a stone in Kerala, stuffed pounded pork, ginger and spices into the hollows of bamboo stems in Saigon and picked argan nuts out of goat droppings to be pressed for oil in the Sous Valley.

On returning to Scotland, Ghillie moved to a deserted croft in the wind-battered hills of the Cairngorms.  Here she brought up her two children, grew vegetables, foraged for fungi and berries and cooked wild rabbits from the glen, while using the flavours, spices and techniques picked up on her travels to shine a new light on Scottish produce.

With expert insights on pickling, preserving, smoking and outdoor cooking, Spirit & Spices features beautifully presented recipes detailing Ghillie’s fascinating life story and painting an inspirational, heartfelt picture of her family life in one of Scotland’s wildest and most beautiful corners.

Taking inspiration from the notes of spice lingering in the air from nearby distilleries, she has become an expert in identifying which whiskies enhance the flavours and spices of her recipes and in Spirit & Spice she explains how to pair the perfect dram to a dish.

Ghillie Basan's latest book Spirit & Spice will take you on a culinary journey

Ghillie Basan’s latest book Spirit & Spice will take you on a culinary journey

The book is split into six distinct chapters, which explore Flavour and Spice – how to concentrate and enhance flavour in spice mixes, preserves, pickles and flavoured spirits; Breakfast in the Bush – inspirational ideas for cooking outside whether you’re camping in the glen or hiking through the mountains (this one’s probably not for me!); Wild Food & Foraging – making the most of Scotland’s natural larder; Feeding Family & Friends – family favourites to savour and share (now you’re talking); Sweet Contentment, Sugar and Spice – treats from all over the world, from Ghillie’s kitchen to yours; and my favourite chapter, Spirit and Spice – a user’s guide to pairing food with whisky (now you’re really talking my language)!

Her story comes from one of hardship and heartbreak

Ghillie’s story and the need to write this book comes from one of hardship and heartbreak.  Two years ago she almost lost her home – the very heart of this book – as she had given up everything to look after her mother who has dementia. To buy a bit of breathing space with the bank she sold her jewellery and any items of value and then sat on her deck with a dram to draw inspiration from the view – a view that has always reminded her of Africa.  However on this occasion it dawned on her that here she was in the heart of whisky country and she had never done anything with the spirit, apart from drink it!

As hospitality costs nothing and is at the root of everything she had ever done, she linked up with Chivas by opening her doors to welcome international groups to experience food and whisky in a remote smugglers’ glen. By breaking down the flavours in whisky and building them up again in the food, working with flavours from different culinary cultures, the foundation for Spirit & Spice was set and has put her on the right path to save her home.

The magnificient view from Ghillie Basan's rural retreat help to inspire her new book

The magnificent view from Ghillie Basan’s rural retreat help to inspire her new book

Ghillie will be at this year’s Edinburgh’s International Book Festival in Afternoon Tea with Ghillie Basan.   This is just one of the Book Festival’s Afternoon Tea events, which are part of a wider themed event from The World on A Plate.

Created with author and food and drink entrepreneur Nikki Welch, the food strand at this year’s Festival has a wonderful series of events with internationally-renowned chefs who’ve written down their culinary secrets so that we can reproduce them at home.

Alongside this, authors discuss the challenges around food production and distribution. Earth’s capacity to produce the food we enjoy is being undermined by our failure to protect biodiversity, according to a new UN study – an alarm bell we’d do well to listen to.

With photography throughout Ghillie Basan’s book, Spirit & Spice, by Christina Riley and Zeki Basan (Ghillie’s son), Spirit & Spice is published in hardback by Kitchen Press and costs £25. Kitchen Press titles are distributed by BookSource.


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About Kerry Teakle

Working in communications during the day, by night, Kerry is a self-confessed culture vulture and foodie, and can be found lapping up anything culinary or to do with the arts.

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