A bridge further

Whisky chef Martine Nouet looks at some extreme pairings
By Martine Nouet
A bridge further… but not a bridge too far. I have been experimenting with food and whisky pairings for more than 10 years now and though I am convinced I am far from having explored every avenue of that fascinating world, I sometimes have the feeling I come across the same ideas/style of food and whisky/explanations.

Well, whisky and cheese, whisky and chocolate, whisky and seafood, whisky and puddings… it is not easy to repeat the experiments. But it is possible to push these experiments a bit further.

This is what I decided to do for The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show last October in London. Sukhinder Singh wanted to focus on food pairings and devoted a large hall to the concept, giving me carte blanche to organise the space. I could not be happier.

The event took place in Vinopolis on the Thames left bank. The location has a serious asset when it comes to finding the right food only a few yards from Borough Market, one of London’s oldest and most renowned markets. The diversity and quality of British and International produce is amazing. Letting me loose in such a food heaven is dangerous as I stop at every stall, tasting, asking questions and buying! That is what a couple of colleagues and I did, when we met a few months ahead the event to do some research. They were surprised to hear me spontaneously naming a whisky each time we took a bite.

Sausage and whisky

Did you say rustic?

Exquisite Deli is a small company which specialises in unusual specialty cured meats from the South Tyrol – a region located in the Italian Alps. The smoked sausage and speck have an enticing rustic style combined with Italian sophistication. Full of character, dry and spicy, they call for a full-bodied whisky with some “animality”. Balvenie Peated Cask offered these characteristics. The hint of peat/smoke in the whisky was the perfect bridge with the sausage whose rustic character changes Balvenie profile. A rich, hearty combination.

Cheese and whisky

Heavenly perfection?

The pairing which can’t go wrong. The wide scope of possible combinations makes it harder to find the perfect match. When you step into Neal’s yard dairy, a few yards from the market, you are even more puzzled. “It is all good” as Bob Dylan sings. No wonder I lingered a while in the shop, tasting as many cheeses as I could.

I had to find the right partner for Cragganmore 12 Years Old. It had to be a medium matured cheese with a good fruity core. The Cheddar Lincolnshire Poacher was the answer. The combination enhanced the fruitiness of both cheese and whisky on a dry and bitter tonality.
The second pairing was more classic. A blue cheese and a peated whisky. Energetic, with the cheese creaminess toning the smoke down. Perfectly illustrated by Crozier Irish blue cheese and Caol Ila 12 Years Old.

Chutney and whisky

Matching on the terroir

Our stroll in the alleys of Borough Market took us to a tiny stall displaying Indian delicacies. Spices, popadoms and chutneys, all prepared by a very small family company. The date and tamarind chutney attracted my attention. An absolute delight. A perfect spicy and fruity balance, with the cumin dominating… I immediately thought of Amrut to play “l’accord de terroir”. I know it is not as much relevant in whisky as it can be in wine but yet, I was convinced that the smooth fruity character of Amrut would find its way through that intricate array of flavours.
But I felt the matching would not work with just the chutney and the whisky. We needed something to bring them together. I chose a creamy greek yoghurt. The idea was to take a teaspoon of yogurt and add half a spoon of chutney. Then we reached the level of extreme pairing I was aiming for. The chutney spices gave Amrut a kick, the whisky creaminess echoed in the yoghurt.

Mango and whisky

Journey to the end of exotism

Don’t we often find exotic fruit notes in whisky? Especially old ones. It is obvious that exotic fruit should not be reserved to rums only. All aged spirits may match with them.

Matching whisky and fruit is not easy as the fruit has to reach the perfect ripeness. If not the whole harmony is broken.

I wondered whether we would obtain that excellence. The fruit merchant we saw on the market in September assured us the small mangos he got from Brazil were second to none. He was right. Juicy but firm with this odd (but pleasant) turpentine note which Tyrconnell Madeira Finish 10 Years Old paired well with.

One would think that a more natural matching could be obtained with Amrut single malt. Well, no. I tried it but the two ignored each other. Whereas the typical fruitiness of the Irish malt, enhanced by the madeira finish, performed a sensuous marriage with the mango. It was like a festival of exotic flavours.

Chocolate and whisky

The salty trick

The Rabot Estate Café and chocolate shop is the kind of place where you come in to spend 15 minutes and you stay two hours, especially if you chat with Ben Leask, the store manager. Difficult to choose between all the chocolate tablets from Carribean Santa-Lucia Rabot single estate.

After tasting a few dark and milk chocolates, I chose two, fairly rich in cocoa, dark chocolates, one of them had small grain salt incrusting on the tablet. I could not resist such an original feature.

My first thought was to marry it to a “mild” islander and try the other one with a sherried whisky but not 100 per cent sherry cask, which would bring too much bitterness.

We opted for Scapa 16 Years Old and Aberlour 18 Years Old.

The Scapa and the salty chocolate just ignored each other but the Speysider immediately got the gist of the harmony, the salt acting like a flavour enhancer. On the other hand, Scapa and the 66 per cent dark chocolate made an elegant combination, soft and harmonious, the chocolate giving the whisky an extra length and the whisky bringing in sweet notes which balanced the bitterness. The fruit was the bridge.The harmony came where I did not expect it.

Olive and whisky

Sherry or bourbon?

You have never eaten “real” olives if you have not tasted the Fresh Olive Company ones at Borough Market.

Take the Gaeta (Spanish ones), with an incredible fruity profile releasing dark cherries and redcurrant notes. This put me on the sherry track. I tried them with Dalmore 15 Years Old. It resulted into a rich, oily, sensuous marriage. The olive fruitiness tamed the whisky oaky profile. There was a medicinal edge too. The whisky brought out lots of new flavours in the olive. A stunning pairing.

The green olive I preferred was citrussy, fresh, fleshy and crunchy. The Bella di Cerignole comes from Italy. I favoured Islanders, looking for a peated profile with some creosote and tar and also an oily texture.

With Caol Ila 12 Years Old, the textures harmonised perfectly and the whisky fully respected the olive’s delicacy.