In Ireland, Spring officially begins on 1 February on Imbolc: the Feast of St Brigid. The day is traditionally marked by bitterly cold weather coupled with the first hopeful utterance of the phrase ‘there is a grand stretch in the evening’. The season really starts to gain momentum after the equinox, which falls around St Patrick’s day, when the first potatoes are put in the ground, the smell of wild garlic hangs in the air and the first shoots of the year unfurl, bringing with them the heady scent of promise and possibility. In the kitchen the first young produce of the year begins to arrive: pea shoots, asparagus, vividly coloured rhubarb and dandelion. In the whisky cabinet, thoughts turn to lighter and fruitier drams, a reprieve from the spice and sherry of the winter warming whiskies. Whisky festival season also starts apace in Spring: Whisky Live in London, followed by Feis Ile on Islay and Spirit of Speyside in April, now in its 18th year.
My personal highlight of Spirit of Speyside is the myriad food pairing events. There is opportunity this year to try chocolate with Gordon & MacPhail, cheese with The Balvenie, steak with Aberlour and a dinner hosted by Martine Nouet celebrating the seasons. Novel amongst the cornucopia of food events is the annual bacon roll pairing hosted by the Whisky Shop Dufftown. Four malts are pitted against the mighty sandwich, with interesting results. Previous winners include BenRiach 20 Years Old, Singleton Sunray and The Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask. It is easy to see why each work with the trinity of salty pork, doughy bap and tangy sauce, but according to the Whisky Shop, it is always a tightly run race. Here are some tips for recreating the experiment at home, and some variations to try. My arteries have done the heavy lifting, so yours need not.
White bread is the traditional choice for a bacon roll, but the sweeter flavours of brown bread work well with the barley and sherry notes of Cragganmore 12 and The Macallan Fine Oak. Adding nuts or even fruit into the mix brings other flavours into play. Walnut sourdough would work well with the nutty notes in The Singleton 12, where dried fruit would pick up on the cinnamon and fruit tones in Aberlour 10. I am a traditionalist, and the floury blaa roll native to Waterford is my go-to for the ultimate bacon butty. Toasting to bring out a touch of char is essential for the pairing as the caramelisation echoes the toasted wood flavours in the whisky.
A word on butter
This is not the time to be health conscious. Spreading your toasted roll with plain, unsalted grass-fed butter will bolster the overall mouthfeel
and will help it stand up to the spirit pairing. Margarine will make it acrid and mayonnaise brings way too many flavours to the party.
Smoked or unsmoked
Bacon is the true workhorse of my food pairing arsenal. I have paired bacon jam with Monkey Shoulder, bacon wrapped prunes with Glenfiddich 15 and even candied bacon jerky with Craigellachie 13. Bacon carries so much flavour, but is also an excellent conduit for other additions: salt, smoke, honey, herbs and spices, so look for these in the whisky you choose to pair.
I usually plump for subtle smoked back bacon, though streaky brings with it a solid crunch and flavourful fat. Try a combination of both paired with Strathisla 12. The bold mouthfeel of the whisky plays well against the combination of umami and fat. For heftier smoke profiles, try pairing with a sweeter whisky as a contrast such as The Glenlivet 12 Years Old.
If you choose unsmoked bacon, griddle it on a pan or blast to crispy under a broiler grill, and pair with The Balvenie 12 or Cardhu 12. The toffee and honey sweetness of the whisky will be reminiscent of a maple-cure.
Choice of sauce to crown your roll will take the pairing in a different direction again. I do not intend to court controversy by advocating brown over red sauce, suffice to say that the chutney sweetness of brown will take the pairing closer to the fruity malts, while the tang of ketchup lends itself to spicier whiskies. Going off-piste with something like an apple relish will work with any whisky heavy on orchard fruit flavours such as Glenglassaugh Octaves Classic or Glenfiddich 12, while dijonnaisse opens up a whole new flavour spectrum. The gentle spice kick and zing of fruit in Glenrothes Select Reserve proves a worthy adversary.
My preference is to leave the roll unadorned and let the combination of smokey bacon, toasted bread and whisky marry on the palate. However, pairing is all about experimentation.
The ultimate bacon butty
Homemade bread rolls, butter and baconINGREDIENTS
- 300ml 38C water (it should feel neither cool nor warm to the touch)
- 15g white sugar
- 7g fresh yeast or 10g instant
- 500g bread flour
- 10g fine salt
- 10g butter, melted
Mix the water, yeast and sugar in a bowl and stand aside at room temperature for five minutes. 2.
Mix together sifted flour, salt and melted butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. 3.
Make a well in the centre and add in the water/yeast mixture. Mix with the dough hook for 10-15 minutes until it comes together and is slightly elastic. Leave to prove in a warm place for half an hour. Sprinkle a baking tray with flour. 4.
Split dough into 12 pieces and form each into a ball by rolling on a clean counter top. 5.
Leave tray of dough balls to prove again for half an hour. Dust with flour.6.
Preheat oven to 200C. Bake rolls for 10 minutes, rotate rack and bake for another 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack, dusting with more flour. 7.
Once coolish, split roughly with a bread knife and toast under a hot grill for 45 seconds. Lash with butter and top with your choice of bacon, alongside a large dram.