Islay, France & A Book
Immediately after my last blog I went to Islay to do my annual whisky dinner at The Port Charlotte Hotel as part of the whisky festival. A tough one this year as there seemed to be more menu challenges than ever. In the end, after some kitchen experiments of my own with the flavours, I decided to stick with my gut feel of what I’d jotted down at the start. All turned out really well and the diners enjoyed it. A lovely mix of nationalities there again this year. The menu, with whisky matches, was:
Duck liver parfait in barquette
Isle of Jura Turas Mara
Slow cooked young grouse breast set on wilted baby spinach & red chard with lentil & cumin puree and crisp prosciutto
Celeriac & apple soup with a hint of juniper berry
Bruichladdich – The Laddie Eight
Lasagne of Loch Fyne smoked salmon, nori & cream cheese laced with horseradish and keta caviar
Caol Ila Moch
Pink grapefruit, pomegranate & lemongrass sorbet
Oven cooked saddle of Argyll venison wrapped in sage & pancetta complimented by steamed savoy cabbage parcel filled with lambs’ kidney & puy lentils laced with carrot & caraway puree
Laphroaig – The 1815 Legacy Edition
Lemon soufflé with crust of meringue and marinated mango with balsamic vinegar & mint
Bowmore 15 Year Old Travel Retail Exclusive
Tea or coffee served with homemade whisky tablet
I decided to try for a travel theme this year and use whiskies available only in travel retail as we all have to travel to get to Islay, sometimes quite long distances. Unfortunately, there is no Caol Ila travel retail exclusive. Nor for Ardbeg but I went for Corryvreckan since that’s the name of the whirlpool in the sea off one end of Jura. Still a bit travel-related or stretching it too far?
Anyway, Jura Turas Mara had just the right touch of sweet and salt to match the canapé and the Ardbeg Corryvreckan, with its own rich flavours including coffee, dark chocolate and some salt, went nicely with the coffee and tablet at the end. The usual wisdom is not to match peat and smoke with smoked food but I reckoned the cream cheese in the smoked salmon and nori seaweed dish would help. It did indeed and the horseradish laced cream cheese brought out the creaminess in the whisky. Quite a relief as I probably used a bit too much seaweed in my home attempt and really never wanted to taste seaweed again for a while.
Bunnahabhain is often good with game and once I’d tried this one it seemed like a no-brainer to match with grouse and sweet, salt and bitter accompaniments. I urge you to get some from the airport shops when you’re going on holiday and try it. Sorry – no room for tasting note here but it’s really good.
The Laddie Eight – the first Bruichladdich expression from Adam Hannett since taking over from Jim McEwan – was a light and refreshing match for the soup. Main feature was meant to be Laphroaig – The 1815 Legacy Edition and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve been raving about it since trying it earlier this year and with this dish it was a fine match. Rich meat with salty ham, earthy kidney, herbs, spices and sweet vegetables – and rich, complex, smoky but sweet and malty whisky alongside it. My main worry all along had been the dessert. With lemon, mango, mint and meringue, a lot of bourbon cask maturation was required but vinegar is no friend to whisky. However, it wasn’t much to the fore here and this Bowmore was a fine accompaniment.
My thanks, as ever, to The Port Charlotte Hotel for hosting the dinner again with great food and to all of the wonderful distillers and blenders who were so helpful yet again this year, some of them helping me obtain certain whiskies not usually available in domestic retailers. No thanks to Calmac for a broken down ferry and a journey home without my car which came back two days later. Super port staff, though, at both ports.
And then on to France which was meltingly hot both in Paris and down south. Some readers may remember I helped a French writer, Joel Alessandra, last year with a graphic novel relating to whisky and my late friend and former business partner, the whisky writer Helen Arthur. Well, the book was launched in Paris at La Maison du Whisky (fabulous shop – a must visit for any whisky fan if you’re over there) on 13th June.
The book has turned out beautifully. It’s a graphic novel called “Lady Whisky” and is published by Casterman but they’re still considering an English translation. I saw the initial proofs before corrections and it’s great to see the finished article. The launch was busy with over a dozen journalists and a local TV station to interview Joel who is very well-known in his field in Europe. True to his word, Jim McEwan (another old friend to Helen) did indeed make two bottles of what he thought would be Helen’s ultimate whisky bearing in mind her love of Islay whiskies and her fondness for sherry casked ones too. It used older whiskies from all Islay distilleries except, presumably, Kilchoman since it’s not been around long enough. The average age of the whisky was 28 – 30 years and strength was 59% abv. It really was a brilliant dram. One bottle was used for that launch night and my function was to deliver tasting notes and answer any questions generally about our trip and whisky.
Then came the move south to do tastings near Joel’s home and I must mention the French TGV trains. They are fast, they are clean and they’re on time. A good way to see the country. Also, the town of Uzès has a mediaeval centre and lots of cultural events and galleries. It really is a charming town and the people I met were so friendly and welcoming. One local pharmacist had a discussion with me about whisky and how much he liked Talisker. A love of Scotch helps make friends!
First up was a tasting at La Cave d’Uzès, run by young entrepreneurs Christophe and Caroline and also worth a look if you’re on holiday in that area. Christophe set up only about 3 years ago and is gradually building up the whisky side and taking a lot of care over it too. The wine selection is great and, given that you’re in the heart of rosé country down there, the range of rosé wines is excellent. I assume that balance changes with the seasons. He had selected 6 good whiskies including one Japanese with some nibbles to match like smoked fish and oysters. All really well chosen. He led the tasting and I pitched in with some thoughts and stories. It was a treat to meet some local whisky enthusiasts who asked good questions. It’s always good to get questions.
Friday night was my turn with a tasting of whiskies from the four distilleries Joel and I visited on Islay. It was held at the lovely Hotel Entraigues, the best hotel in Uzes. Turns out south of France time is a bit like Islay time. A tasting billed for 7p.m. got started after 8 when the last person turned up and no one but me seemed to worry! We tasted Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Bowmore 18 Year Old and Ardbeg Uigeadail. Thanks must go to people in the head offices of Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, Bowmore and Ardbeg for their help in supplying the whiskies, especially Gordon Dundas at Beam Suntory and his colleague Louis-Marie Weyne at Baron Philippe de Rothschild France Distribution. I asked people what was their favourite and there were votes for all four. Afterwards came an excellent dinner in the Hotel Entraigues’ restaurant and massive credit to the chef, Axel Grousset-Bachelard who delighted everyone with his creations, innovative and delicious. Huge thanks here also to Jo Charlot, co-proprietor of the hotel for all her event organisation and efforts in looking for appropriate glassware for the tasting.
Saturday we were on parade again, me in the background at Joel’s book signing in his local bookshop, Librairie Le Parefeuille owned by Monèle and Yves. Very little for me to do except chat and drink the glass of rosé wine given to me! It was Monèle who set up all the activity in Uzès and she did a super job with it all. The last event round this launch was another tasting in a wine and spirit store in the centre of town – La Cave du Suisse d’Alger. It looks small from outside but is long, thin and packed with good things once you get inside. Another set of interesting whiskies chosen by owner Colette – who had me being barman for the evening – and accompanied by cubes of different cheeses and squares of 90% cocoa dark chocolate. Each one a good match with one of the whiskies. Yet more lovely whisky fans to meet, talk about the distilleries and food matching with whisky.
I could then flake out after doing several events in French and feeling my tongue getting into knots each time, being nervous of making mistakes.
Speaking of tastings, I’ve received a number of new samples recently but I’ve rather run through my allotted space so we’ll do those next time. Some from Wemyss and some from Douglas Laing.
Keep looking for new whisky summer cocktails and mixers and have fun with it all. An interesting website to try is www.liquor.com . Loads of great ideas.
See you next month,