By Ghillie Basan, writer, broadcaster and food anthropologist, and ‘Original Spice Girl’
When I wake up in the morning with a view to hills that I can see from my bed, I feel very lucky to be living in a remote glen in the eastern fringes of the Cairngorms National Park. Little has changed in these wild hills where the golden eagles nest and hunt, where the wind-blasted snow can form twenty-foot drifts, and where the whisky smugglers hid their illicit stills. I feel I have always been in this part of Scotland but my life actually began in a very different part of the world – in the red dust of East Africa, cooking in the bush amongst the wild animals, and learning about spices.
Unzipping the tent in the cool dawn air, the steam still rising off the elephant droppings deposited only a few feet away, I would embrace the African morning with the sight of my father stirring the porridge over the camp cooker. His fond tales of porridge in his youth and the kilted highlander on the box of Scott’s Porage Oats led me to believe as a child that this was Scotland’s national dish and, in the African bush, the warm sweet aroma of the oats simmering in the pot never failed to lure me out of the tent, just as it would draw the baboons out of the forest. Lacking fresh milk the porridge was different every day – drizzled with melted golden syrup or honey, served with coconut milk and tropical fruits like mangoes, bananas, and pineapples, and there was always a bottle of whisky to splash over it. Back home in Scotland in my teenage years, my father reverted to the porridge purism of his boyhood when it was still left to set in the kitchen drawer for the piece on the hill – after simmering the oats in water with a little salt, he would dip each spoonful of porridge into a separate bowl of cold milk so that the porridge remained hot, the milk remained cold, and they only mixed in his mouth.
Apart from the safaris and wild animals of East Africa, I was fascinated by the cooking of different tribes and by the dishes prepared by the wives of my father’s Indian and African colleagues. From the Indian households, I learned how to strain yogurt and clarify butter, how to make carrot and cardamom halwah, and I was fascinated by the gummy splodge of hing pressed into the underside of the pot lid to flavour the biryani. In the Kikuyu households, I loved the use of colourful baskets and banana leaves as serving vessels, the local stews containing plantains and peanuts and pineapple cores, the clusters of sweet baby bananas still attached to the branch cut from a tree in the garden, and the stalks of sugar cane that I chewed to suck out the sweet juice. In the Maasai villages, I would swerve the traditional offering of a fly-covered gourd containing sun-warmed milk combined with the fresh blood of one of the cattle, which had just been pierced with the end of a spear, and head for the smoke-filled mud dwellings to investigate the cooking utensils and the fires prepared with the dried dung of elephants and zebras. In fact I spent so much time in the houses and villages of different cultures and tribal communities that I became very aware of the importance of kinship and marriage and, aged nine, managed to reduce my mother to a state of giggles when I blurted out that I didn’t want to marry the Scottish boy in my class. When asked why on earth I thought I should marry him, I replied with great concern that he was the only one of my tribe!
After school I gained a Cordon Bleu diploma and a university degree in social anthropology and then hit the road for years, working as a teacher, journalist, and food writer, focusing on the culinary cultures of Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa, India and Southeast Asia. During the Reagan-Gorbachev-Thatcher years, I was based in Istanbul covering the whole of the Middle East. It was a fascinating period to be involved in journalism but I soon learned that I didn’t really have a head for politics and that my real interest lay in culture and food so I moved from writing about summit meetings and the terror tactics of religious fanatics to the new wave of tourism, travel and food – not just the food on the plate, but the story behind it. Years of travel and research written up on old fashioned type-writers and spools of film developed in makeshift bathrooms led me back to the country of my birth, to the solitude and sanctity of a remote glen in the Scottish Highlands.
I came back with a husband but soon after our second child was born he moved to pastures greener, or so he thought, and I have raised my children on my own while writing more than 40 books on the food of different culinary cultures to keep the roof over our heads. Money has often been tight and the snowy winters can be wild with blizzards creating drifts over the fences and gates so that the track to my house is only accessible on foot or on skis. When my children were small I carried them everywhere in a backpack and when I had to research and photograph books I would take them on journeys abroad. At home they soon learned to adapt to skiing three miles a day to get to the car to go to school and even they will tell you that they had a magical childhood - they had freedom to roam and explore and to just be kids. As a result they have both become independent and adventurous young people.
Having encouraged my children to follow their hearts and create their own journeys, I am now often home alone. Apart from looking after my elderly mother who has dementia, I am learning to adapt – not just to the long periods of an empty house but to the pressures of making my work relevant to the demands of social media and to carving out new branches to my career to keep it fresh and interesting for myself. I am also aware that I could easily become a hermit and divide my time between the remote hills of Scotland and the wild bush of Africa so I am forcing myself to push my work more into the public domain, often way out of my comfort zone. We all have to find our own ways to survive and to keep our lives interesting so I feel lucky that my childhood in Africa opened my eyes to many fascinating things and that my mind absorbed them like a sponge.
Now that my children are away so much and I no longer have the school run and the endless mileage to sports training and matches, I run cookery workshops to which people come from all over the world, I work as a presenter on Radio Scotland, and I have started a catering business, Mezze on the Move, which involves taking a spread of interesting buffet-style dishes to different rural locations, or to hosting groups at my home. As hospitality is at the root of everything I do, I enjoy welcoming people and sharing what I have. With my own podcast on the horizon and two new books in production, I am beginning to adapt and have set myself many goals to aim for in the future but, no matter what I do, I feel my greatest role so far and, perhaps my only real achievement, has been that of raising my children on my own and equipping them for life.
Ghillie Basan runs international cookery workshops and whisky experiences for which she won the Highlands and Islands Award for Innovation in Tourism 2017.