A not so auld

Did our Mystery Visitor really call Speyside a catering desert? Martine Nouet reports on a restaurant
By Martine Nouet
If he’d been told 10 years ago that he would be living in whiskyland where rain and dampness are welcomed as blessings by those who mature the golden nectar there, French chef Eric Obry would have burst into laughter.

That open, loud and cheery laughter that says: “Are you kidding? I am having a fab time here in sunny Port Camargue, by the Mediterranean. Why should I move to... what do you call the place? Dufftown? Never heard of it...”

Dufftown may pride itself as being the ‘capital of whisky’ on the signposts in Speyside, but it would rather have sounded like cloud cuckooland to a young headchef in a sunny resort luxury hotel.

But then Mandy came into his life. She was a young student from Bournemouth Catering College. She had been sent by her school to Port Camargue for summer work. The two soon made a pair and started thinking about opening a restaurant.

Another good luck sign came to Eric when he won a tidy little sum at horseracing. Enough to give a kick to a new business.

Whisky being a regular tipple, Scotland quickly came to their mind.

“In fact, I came to Dufftown thanks to Glenfiddich,” Eric Obry explains. “It was the only single malt I knew. So I looked for its location. Mandy and I were attracted by Scotland for two things: nature and whisky. So when we arrived in Speyside, it was obvious we would settle there.”

In Dufftown. Just opposite the famous clocktower and close to the renowned Whisky Shop. No better place than a town built on seven stills when you are a whisky aficionado.

Eric Obry decided to call his restaurant La Faisanderie (the pheasantry), as a tribute to his mentor, a Michelin star chef who taught him his art. He was established in Arras, Eric’s native place as well, a quiet city from the north region whose most notable attraction is its belfry. Would Dufftown clocktower be a reminiscence of those early days?

No wonder the pheasant is a constant reminder in the restaurant’s decoration and in the plates as well. A keen hunter, Eric has made the game – fowl as well as venison or hare – his speciality.

“We have deer all year long,” he explains. “I think whisky matches that meat superbly. I cook with local produce, exclusively fresh ones, like Speyside lamb, lobster and langoustines from Morayshire, locally hunted game or cereals like the pinhead oatmeal from Halford Mill near Aberdeen, which I serve in a risotto style.

“But I cook them my way. I also find similarities between Scottish fare and some of my own country like the kippers that we also eat at breakfast in the north. But we call them bouffis.”

The French touch is obvious on Eric’s menus. But not only French cuisine. Gastronomy from the north of France, though not as well known as cuisine provençale, boasts fine ingredients and rich recipes. Eric Obry is proud of his Ch’ti origins. The word is the common nickname given to the northerners by the southerners.

Eric Obry has adopted it with humour in his email address, having paired the word with the nickname we froggies give to the English. Which reads: chtiroastbeef!

The French chef takes the same care in using whisky in some of his dishes. Not on a regular basis though. He favours special events such as tutored whisky tastings by Fiona Murdoch followed by a dinner or during the Speyside Whisky Festival.

“I started with a sweet selection, offering three whisky desserts a day, such as a bramble ‘beignet‘ served with a crème anglaise laced with Mortlach, a roasted pavé of rhubarb and strawberry with a passion fruit syrup and Auchroisk, or a baked camembert wrapped up in a wine leaf on a bed of curly endives with a sherry vinegar dressing and Bunnahabhain 12 year old.

La Faisanderie chef does not stick to Speyside malts only. He brings in outsiders. Which does not seem to upset the local distillers. We all know that even if running a tough competition, distillery people are very friendly with one another.

La Faisanderie is often seen by the surrounding distillery executives as the place to take customers and special guests. Then of course, Eric sets up tailored whisky menus.

More recently, Eric enjoyed working with two Benriachs, the 16 year old and the heavily peated 10 year old Curiositas.

The latter immediately appealed to strong flavours: cumin and horseradish were the answers. “I mixed whipped cream with horseradish, which I seasoned with cumin and Benriach. I spooned the preparation over a buckwheat blini and served it with a thick homesmoked breast of salmon. That malt also inspired a pudding. With an ingredient dear to my North of France roots: chicory. I made a chicory crème brûlée with raisins marinated in Benriach Curiositas.”

On top of that wee Ch’ti touch, Eric generously added a Scottish one with a chocolate fudge shortbread.

The Benriach 16 year old, with its complexity and depth, proved more adequate with the main dish. He came out with noisettes of lamb presented in a millefeuille with a layer of haggis and neeps in between and served with caramelised endives in the tatin style and laced with a grain mustard and Benriach sauce.

Eric and Mandy don’t seem to regret the delights of the sunny French riviera. Apparently, the word has been well spread by visitors and the 30 seat restaurant is often fully booked. La Faisanderie and his chef were nominated last year in the finale of ’the Rural Chef Awards’ alongside 10 Scottish restaurants. They were highly commended and the award was well-acclaimed in the town.

Eric and Mandy feel fully integrated in the community. They like to take their Dufftown friends to French vineyards in winter, when Speyside hibernates.

They will very soon throw themselves into the busy season, especially the last weekend of April as the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival attracts malt whisky freaks from all over the world. This year, Eric will be the chef for the ritual Aberlour whisky dinner which takes place in the distillery visitor centre, on April 28.

A good opportunity to taste new whisky inspirations.