Food writer Ghillie Basan runs cooking courses and "whisky safaris" from her Cairngorms home. Ailsa Sheldon discovers the delights of foraging, fine dining and Scottish hospitality

ARRIVAL at Ghillie Basan’s house is by a pair of muddy Land Rovers: no seatbelts, a door that swings open and someone sitting in the back on a toolbox. The rough off-road track is heavily rutted by snow melt so an ordinary vehicle wouldn’t stand a chance. Clad in walking boots and waterproofs, we’re en route to one of Scotland’s most extraordinary food experiences. It’s 10am and we’re welcomed into Ghillie’s barn with a dram of Glenlivet 12 and a plate of perfectly sticky flapjacks, still warm from the oven. I can think of no better welcome as we steady our nerves from the drive. 

The barn has an old cobbled floor, a roaring fire and a collection of motley sofas and armchairs, both atmospheric and very cosy. From an old whisky barrel Ghillie’s son Zeki pulls out spare wellies and extra layers for anyone who needs them. It’s instantly like being at a friend’s house.
From her remote home in the Cairngorms National Park esteemed food writer Ghillie Basan runs cooking courses and ‘whisky safaris’, giving guests a chance to come together in a beautiful place to learn new skills, and drink in the tranquillity. 

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Ghillie bought her house as a ruin 30 years ago and has built a home, raised two children alone and built a career as one of Scotland’s most prolific and respected food writers. 
Ghillie’s earlier cookbooks focussed on the food of the countries she has lived and worked in, including Turkey and Morocco, and The Middle East. Her most recent two bring the focus closer to home. Soon to be re-released, Spirit and Spice (2019) explores the fusion of culinary flavours in the food she cooks at home and for guests. In Seafood Journey (2023) she turns her journalist’s eye to the stories and people of Scotland’s coastline and shares delicious ways to prepare and enjoy seafood.

We’re a good distance here from the coast, but never far from good things to eat.
Zeki Basan has built his own career in wild places. Today he’s supporting Ghillie with her courses. At other times of the year he’s found leading survival skills workshops in Greenland, stalking deer in Torridon or working as a tree surgeon. He clearly always has a project on the go: a deer skin is stretched on a rack and venison salamis hang from the ceiling. Ghillie’s daughter Yazzie also runs outdoors courses: sharing skills and their home turf is very much a family affair. 

Today we’re merging two experiences, Ghillie’s Whisky Food Safari, and Ghillie and Zeki’s Off the Beaten Track experience. This isn’t unusual as Ghillie is adept at adapting activities for different groups and many distilleries bring visitors here for special days out.

Zeki leads us first on a foraging walk. To the untrained eye there’s not much to eat in this landscape. We’re here before the wild garlic and three-cornered leek and long after the berries and mushrooms. Instead, Zeki shows us how to dig up a root of wild garlic. He knows where it will appear in a few weeks.

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“That’s when it’s really important to know your terrain,” he says. 

By looking at the root we can see how recent temperatures have affected the plant; periods of growth in the warmth then dormancy as temperatures fell. For a recipe to come later we harvest green juniper berries (only legal on private land), finding the female berry-producing plants and sampling the unripe fruit. Zeki has us nibbling on muddy sweet cicely root and looking at this landscape with fresh eyes. He then hands us small knives to cut sheaves of rush grass which we weave into a thick mat. 

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Returning with our produce we’re put to work in Ghillie’s kitchen, pounding herbs and spices in huge pestle and mortars brought home from the family’s travels. The whole house seems built of stories. It’s a wonderfully global affair. A huge pan of long aubergines sizzle on the stove as we cook, filling the air with cinnamon, turmeric and coconut. We learn to make harissa, hazelnut dukkah and green chilli zhug, a Yemeni spice paste. Combining spices with whiskies is Ghillie’s passion and she cleverly picks up and builds on complex spicy notes in the spirits when planning her recipes.

Outside Zeki has been tending a fire for a pit oven. When it’s hot enough he digs out the fire, keeping large hot stones aside and clearing the earth. The hot stones are placed back in the pit, followed by a leg of roe deer. It’s been marinated with juniper berries, bog myrtle, black pepper, garlic, rowan raisins and a splash of whisky. 

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More stones are carefully placed directly on the meat followed by sticks and our woven rush mat. Finally, the pit is covered in earth, so no smoke escapes. The rush mat stops the soil from falling on the meat, an ingenious and ancient system. While the meat cooks we sit on the deck with our spread of canapes and paired whiskies. From here there are no other houses or farms in sight. In winter,  skiing in and out is the family’s main mode of transport.

The foraged green juniper has been pounded to a cream, served with smoked salmon on oatcakes made from whisky grist, and paired with Glenlivet Captain’s Reserve. Our harissa is mixed with homemade labneh and piped inside rose and lemon poached apricots, skilfully expanding the smoky spicy notes of the paired Benriach 12. Saffron and cinnamon poached pears with blue cheese prove an excellent match for Glenfiddich 15. 

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“Whisky has so much spice,” Ghillie says, and with these flavour combinations the palate soars.
After 30 minutes the venison is brought from the pit oven, tender, smoky and rich. Ghilie’s kitchen island is piled with dishes to accompany: the Keralan-style aubergines have taken on all the flavours of their slow cook, accompanied by honey and lime yogurt. Slow roast beetroot is topped with our hazelnut and pistachio dukkah. There are haggis dolma wrapped in beetroot leaves, caramelized sweet potatoes with the zhug and a hot hummus with pul biber butter. It’s an incredible feast, each dish a revelation.

As we reluctantly leave in the Land Rovers, a family friend arrives. I’m immediately jealous of all the delicious leftovers he’ll find in Ghillie’s welcoming kitchen . . . and start plotting my return.

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