Tough guys with tender hearts

Tough guys with tender hearts

Martine Nouet embarks on another culinary experiment with Islay malts, pungent yet sweet whiskies she describes as sharing the same character traits as the lleachs

Food | 16 Feb 2001 | Issue 14 | By Martine Nouet

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How many times have I heard my daring culinary experiments, such as cooking a full meal with Islay malts, mocked or ridiculed. "These whiskies are too pungent to allow other flavours to express themselves" people complain, or they even exclaim that attempting the menu is akin to "swallowing a full ashtray."

A dinner featuring a peaty and seaweed like Islay malt certainly has a higher aromatic profile than a fish and chips dinner but it is not exclusively for the aficionado's palate. Firstly, there is so much more than smokiness in Islay malts. Their aromatic spectrum is fascinating.

The character of Islay malts oscillates between pungency and sweetness. The best example of this duality being Ardbeg: on the nose as well as on the palate, one will find the strong presence of the sea and of the peaty earth of the island. But there is also the sweetness of the cereal, honeyish malty flavours and the smoothness brought through by maturing, especially when it involves sherry casks. The sweet proposed in my menu plays on that opposition. The citrus fruit brings a touch of acidity and bitterness which perfectly matches the sharp iodinic aromas of a Laphroaig 10-year-old. The sweet orange marmalade (note how little extra sugar is added) gives a little softness without weakening the freshness of that light dessert. Light but tasty. The south coast malts (Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig) and, for a milder taste, Port Ellen or Caol Ila, will perform better in this recipe than the other Islay malts.

For the main dish I would recommend the softer Ileachs such as a Bruichladdich 10 or 15-year-old, or even a Bunnahabhain. The former will enjoy the toasted notes of the spice and hazelnut's crust. Nuts, provided they are lightly toasted before being cooked, get on very well with single malts which have retained those toasty aromas from the casks. The selection of spices echoes that balance between roughness and delicacy: cayenne pepper is hot and fiery while sechouan and cubebe peppers are subtle but with a long aftertaste. Green cardamom has a balsamic and minty taste which evokes the bog myrtle, so fragrant on Islay peat bogs. The generous butter and lemon sauce draws together those extremes, apparently opposed but so complementary.


Artichoke hearts served with a black olive purée laced with whisky, a touch of creamy mascarpone and a light vinaigrette with balsamic vinegar, whisky and olive oil

Serves 6

Again, the recipe contrasts the two faces of Islay malts: sharpness, with the bitter taste of black olive underlined by the fishy tone of the anchovy used in the purée, and the sweetness of balsamic vinegar with the soft texture of mascarpone. A young Caol Ila or a young Bowmore is the obvious choice for this Italian inspired dish. Why not select three different Islay whiskies to accompany the menu for a walk on the wild side? Pungent and sweet, just the image of the Ileachs themselves: tough guys with a tender heart!

For the roast salmon

  • 6 Scottish salmon fillets (170g each)

  • 6 tablespoons hazelnut oil

  • 6 tablespoons malt whisky

  • 60 shelled and broken hazelnuts

mixed spices such as:

  • 15 cardamom pods

  • 20 coriander corns

  • ½ tablespoons sechouan pepper, cubebe pepper, ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin

  • 3 teaspoons sesame seeds

  • one big pinch ground cinnamon sea-salt

For the vegetables

  • A small Savoy cabbage (1/2 lb)

  • 1 tablespoon sea-salt

  • 2½ oz unsalted butter

  • 3 star anise

  • ½ tablespoon curry powder

  • ½ tablespoon allspice

  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce
  • 4 oz unsalted butter

  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 1 tablespoon peeled fresh ginger, finely grated

  • Salt, pepper

1. Toast the hazelnuts in a frying pan with the cardamom seeds (just open the pods to release the seeds) for 5 minutes. Put the nuts and cardamom seeds in a blender with the rest of the spices and roughly grind them.
2. Remove the skin off the salmon back. Take the bones off the flesh if needed (use tweezers). Brush the fillets with the whisky first, then with the hazelnut oil. Spread the mixed ground spices and nuts on a plate. Roll each fish fillet in it (on both sides). Place the fillets in a heavy pan. If there is some whisky and hazelnut oil left, pour them into the pan. Set aside. Preheat the oven (240°C - gas 8).
3. Remove the hard stalk from the cabbage and plunge the leaves into boiling water for 1 minute. Remove quickly and put straight into cold water. Drain the water immediately. Remove the heart in the middle of the cabbage leaves. Chop the leaves into large strips. Melt half of the butter in a large saucepan, add the cabbage and the spices with a glass of water. Let simmer over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the butter and set aside.
4. Put the salmon fillets in the oven and bake them at 240 °C for 6 minutes then reduce the heat to 180°C (gas mark 6) and cook for 5 more minutes.
5. Prepare the sauce. Melt the butter in a bain-marie. Add the lemon peel, the lemon juice and the grated ginger. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Place a bed of stewed cabbage on each warm plate, then the roast salmon fillet and spoon the sauce all around. Put a sprig of chervil on top of the salmon.

Citrus fruit salad with a "malt-tea" jelly

Serves 6


  • 2 teaspoons Earl Grey tea leaves (or seaweed tea)

  • 1½ oz sugar

  • Juice from 1/2 lemon

  • 4 leaves of gelatine (⅓ oz)

  • 6 oranges

  • 1 grapefruit

  • 2 limes

  • 4 kumquats

  • One pinch ground pepper

  • 2 tablespoons orange marmalade (thin cut)

  • 6 tablespoons malt whisky

  • 6 sprigs of fresh mint

1. Make the tea with 200ml water. Add sugar, stir and allow to infuse for 5 minutes. Pass through a sieve and add the lemon juice.
2. Skin the oranges, the grapefruit and the limes (do it over the bowl in order to collect the juice). Cut the kumquat (with peel) into thin slices. Season with pepper.
3. Let the leaves of gelatine soak for 10 minutes in cold water then press them tightly. Warm up the tea and melt three leaves of gelatine into it. Stir while bringing to the boil then set aside to cool down. Add five tablespoons of whisky. Pour two tablespoons of that preparation into the citrus fruit salad. Pour what is remaining into a plate so that it is approximately 1cm thick. Leave to set in the fridge.
4. Thin the marmalade in a pan over a low heat adding a ¼ cup of water. Then add the last leaf of gelatine, stir until perfectly melted. Pour into a plate and allow to set for one hour.
5. When the 'malt-tea' and the marmalade jellies are well set, cut them into small dice. Mix delicately with the citrus fruit. Just before serving, pour the last tablespoon of whisky on the salad. Serve chilled in a glass bowl, with the sprig of fresh mint.
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