AUSTRALIAN GOOD FOOD GUIDE - Home of the Chef Hat Awards

Interview with Prize Winning Author, Food Writer and World Spice Expert Eleanor Ford

By Laura Rancie.

As I stepped out of the icy-cold air-conditioned office at The Australian Good Food Guide, I knew I had just enough time to hit the surf beach before my upcoming interview with the London-based author, Eleanor Ford.
After all, it was a stinking hot and humid Summer’s night for us, but as soon as I met over zoom with Eleanor, I was reminded that in London it was a bitterly cold and wintry morning with a temperature still in the single digits. My interview with the world traveller and ‘gastronomic archaeologist’ as Ottolenghi himself described her, was as delightful as our balmy summer evening on the Gold Coast. 

The first thing I was curious to learn about the once food journalist/recipe editor was how she came to create this niche for herself. In her first book, Samarkand, she subtly introduces her love for spices in a section on 'Shopping for Spices under Solomon's Throne'. Now into her fourth book, we are deep into the fascinating journey of spice – after all, she is a Smithsonian lecturer on the topic whose writing focuses on ‘making world cuisines accessible and capturing transportive flavours in home recipes.’
Interview with Prize Winning Author, Food Writer and World Spice Expert Eleanor Ford

"I was particularly driven by stories of food and journeys of flavour. Looking at how food travelled through time, how flavours travelled, how they ascend the cultures that they’re from and yet how small tweaks of flavour can take you on geographical journeys or even journeys in your palette,” she explains.

When asked about her inspiration for creating A Whisper of Cardamom Eleanor answered:

"In the nutmeg trail what I was focused on was how spices had travelled, delving into history and journeys of spices and flavours and how spices had shaped the politics of our world. While I was writing it I had so much that I couldn’t include such as how spices were shaping our stories and myths.
"I wanted to discuss the more romantic side of history which is where this book came from. I was trying to include the human side and particularly how spice and sugar tie in with love and love stories around the world.” 

Peeking at Eleanor’s Instagram page you can see some of her world travels, which tally up to 80 countries now. She prides herself on going overland, taking the slow route. 

"I guess it’s something I’ve always been drawn to with the books I’ve written. I started in travel writing and went looking at how flavours move through journeys, but spice was such a common thread. In looking at the movement of flavours, I became interested in how spices came through different geographical origins yet had far-reaching impact around the world. 

"I became curious and my knowledge expanded into more than just this movement but into botany and really what I love is sharing how to get the most out of spices. I feel they’re an ingredient sometimes people are intimidated by.” 

When Eleanor describes that the use of spice can make your cooking sing, I am curious to know if there is an unexpected spice combination that she thinks we should know about.
Interview with Prize Winning Author, Food Writer and World Spice Expert Eleanor Ford
Images and text from A Whisper of Cardamom by Eleanor Ford, photography by Ola O. Smit. Murdoch Books RRP $49.99

"We think of spice as this generic cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove hybrid. I love it when you can pull back a bit and get more nuanced flavours by using one or two spices, so you can taste the characteristics. For instance, nutmeg and cardamom are great together. They both have a huge amount of fragrance, with a slight bittersweetness that plays off each other.”

I ask Eleanor to talk to me about the ancient spice routes, and with all the confidence of a world-renowned lecturer slash spice expert and author, she responds:
"The spice routes focus on the bloody period of history in the 17th Century where a lot of Europeans were fighting for spice, making it very valuable. It triggered a dark place in history, colonialism, a real start of globalism and capitalist trading. There’s a complicated period, but what I love is looking back millennia, when there was a peaceful trade of spices and with that movement of spices, came a movement of people and ideas.
"Ideas like language, world religions, dance and culture, but also culinary ideas and sharing of those. Strangers would stop at different ports waiting for the trade winds to change and those meeting points could become culinary melting pots where flavours were shared and ideas exchanged.”

It may seem obvious to the reader, but I was still amused and surprised at her answer when I asked what her favourite spice was. Can you guess?

"Cardamom! It is a personal favourite of mine. I am completely mesmerised by the spice. It has such a beautiful fragrance with real complexity, and I think it can do something wonderful in cooking because it can lift other flavours. Sometimes you want it to be assertive and come forward but other times you just want it in the background, a whisper of cardamom if you will.”
Hence, the name of her most recent book, A Whisper of Cardamom. "It can be a really brightening and lifting ingredient.” 

Eleanor’s final tip to us Aussies in our home kitchens, is sage advice:
"Don’t be afraid of spices. Baking is very often, tightly rimmed and you don’t want to alter the recipe, but what you can alter is the spicing. This is where you can be playful.”

Bringing it back to close to home now after getting your own copy of A Whisper of Cardamom, if you are wondering where to buy some fresh spices locally then it's worth looking at Spice & Co. Established in 2009, the range is blended and packed in Australia from pure herbs and spices, no nasties, no sugar or additives and gluten-free. Spice & Co is 100% Australian-owned and operated and been used on MasterChef since 2012. 
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