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.