It's hard to think of anyone who could have created 'The Grammar of Spice' with its seamless weaving of decoration and reference, poetry and history. As a designer, Caz Hildebrand has worked on books by some of the people most responsible for broadening the vocabulary of seasoning in western cooking, notably Yotam Ottolenghi, and Sam and Sam Clark of Moro. And, as we shall see, she has had her own journey through the understanding of global cuisines, which has tied into her own work.
Inspired by – and using some of the copious patterns from – the 1856 The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones, Caz Hildebrand has woven the knowledge that has come from this into a book that is a sensory delight in its own right. We wanted to know what drew her to this topic, and how her understanding of spice had evolved before, during and after its creation.
Have you always been a food obsessive?
Oh yes. What more important thing in life is there than eating and drinking?
Did you grow up with particular cuisines?
I come from an Ashkenazy Jewish background, and the food is particular – not always delicious, but particular. And I grew up in North London, so there’s a lot of Cypriot, Greek and Turkish influences, lots of French and Italian food. And then of course Indian food has always been massive, so growing up those were the things I learned about first. Now, like everyone else, it’s a little more wide-ranging.
And what drew you to spice in particular?
I travelled to India as a student, and I began to sense how important it is: going to spice markets, it’s mind- and tongue-blowing to taste these amazing things fresh and see them used so much more excitingly than we’d understood they could be. Suddenly it’s not just hot curries, but the refined possibilities and opportunities of using spice. And as I learned more, a particular thing that fascinated was using the same spice for totally different ends: for example, dill is so extensively used in Scandinavian cooking but also in Turkish cuisine. Two wildly contrasting places and cuisine, but the same spice. And the history of spices is the history of trade and commerce and diversity and exploration, so it’s a pretty inexhaustible subject.
Did you always want to do a project that joined the dots between cuisines, then?
When you think as a designer you make visual links first, then you try and harness other things to this idea. Finding The Grammar of Ornament, a big dusty tome in the corner of the library of the art school I was at, was the original seed: a taxonomy, a documenting of visual arts of many countries and cultures, a crazy and amazing endeavour. I felt the world needed to know this wonderful work a bit more, and because I was working as a designer with these great food writers, it began to mesh in my mind. Many of these beautiful designs came from places in the world where spices are grown, and it made sense to me to link the decorative art with the spices and flavours that evoked those places and have a sensorial link.
What have been your own personal favourite discoveries of spices that you now love to use?
There are some spices that are just romantic and intriguing – even just in their names, like Grains of Paradise – and you just need to taste them. There are others where it’s surprising and exciting to find out it’s even considered a spice, like Anardana: ground pomegranate seeds. But actually the excitement is often with something like Sumac, which is not so unusual now, but I think people should use much more. It’s so fantastically astringent and lemony and fresh, which works so well with so many things beyond dishes you’d expect, and I never knew that. It’s those sort of discoveries, about how much more diversely useful something is than you knew, that are the great ones. Even something mundane like celery seed, if you open your mind to applications you hadn’t thought of, is a more amazing, wonderful, useful spice than you’d ever think. So my big lesson is don’t overlook things, don’t leave them at the back of the cupboard to get stale!