Matches made in heaven

Gillian Bell of Caledonian Connoisseur is pioneering whisky and food pairings with our very own Dave Broom. Dominic Roskrow spoke to her
By Dominic Roskrow
If ever a person was suited to the term ‘going with the flow’ it’s Scottish on-line food and whisky retailer Gillian Bell.

Her career path over the last two years is either the result of a series of happy coincidences or the product of some intuitive business acumen, depending on your point of view.

But no matter how she arrived at the position of running her own business, she has ended up intriniscally linked to the world of whisky and is now making a leading contribution to the promotion of whisky with food.

Gillian is the managing director of Caledonian Connoisseur, an internet-driven business promoting and selling the finest Scottish produce across Britain. The idea is that customers can order from a range of food and drink by a set time, perhaps early in the week. The food is then sourced, caught, hunted or killed, stored in chillers and then delivered chilled to its destination in time for the weekend, enabling customers to serve the finest and freshest Scottish food anywhere on the mainland.

It’s a simple enough idea in theory, but a hard one to pull off in practice. And the fact that Caledonian Connoisseur is seven months old and thriving is a tribute not just to Gillian and her partners’ hard work and dedication, but to her talent for spotting an opportunity and taking it.

So how did a young backpacker on a working holiday in New Zealand end up co-hosting food and whisky pairing masterclasses with Dave Broom at this year’s Whisky Live events in Glasgow and London?

In the first place, Gillian’s father was involved in food and whisky retailing, so catering wasn’t a new departure for her. But in the main it was as we were saying; she sort of literally went with the flow. For having fallen in love with New Zealand she ended up in Auckland. And if you end up in Auckland, then chances are you’ll end up on a boat.

“I was just enjoying life and thought that I wanted to come and live in New Zealand,” she says. “I wasn’t missing Scotland at all apart from the times when I’d meet up with other ex-pats and we’d moan about all that had gone wrong in Scotland over a few drinks.”

But she started doing some work for American Express, and that led her to involvement with the America’s Cup, the sailing challenge that New Zealand prised off the Americans and retained four years later, a sporting achievement for kiwis that is up there with the All Blacks beating the British Lions, as they’re set to do this summer.

“And from that I got the opportunity to go and work on one of the boats taking part in the Classic Malts cruise on Scotland’s west coast,” she recalls.

“I thought I’d go back and do it for a bit, but with every intention of coming back to New Zealand. But it didn’t quite work out that way.”

And that’s because it wasn’t any old Classic Malts boat she was on. She became the cook on the very boat that Diageo put their media guests on. So she was introduced to Dr Nicholas Morgan, the ideal tutor if you’re embarking on a journey of discovery around the Classic Malts, and to Dave Broom, who can spot a good story almost as quickly as he can a rare dram. Before you could say “Lagavulin 16 Year Old” she had written a feature for Whisky Magazine.

“I rediscovered how wonderful Scotland could be on that trip,” she recalls. “One night we moored up and I was given a sack of langoustine to cook with. I started experimenting with the food and whisky and discovered that each whisky had a radically different effect on the seafood. The Caol Ila in particular was a total delight.

“That got me to thinking about what great produce Scotland has to offer. You can sometimes forget that when you’re living there because a lot of the best food goes for export and it takes some finding. And that’s what gave me the idea for Caledonian Connoisseur.”

The company was launched in September of last year and is now a growing and respected business. Gillian and her team have put together an impressive group of suppliers and products. Specialities include diver-caught scallops, live lobsters, Islay oysters, a black bacon that is prepared in ale and treacle and could lay claim to being the best bacon you’ll ever taste, and other meats including venison, prime Scottish beef and fine pork.

While the idea behind the company may be a simple enough one, to put it all in to practice and gather fresh food to distribute to a wide mailing base hasn’t been without its problems. But the company took an early decision to overcome doubters by bringing in the very best people it could to support them.

Top chef Nick Nairn is the company’s food director, and his supportive postings in the company’s literature and on the website have played a major role in overcoming some initial customer doubts about buying fresh food on the internet.
Once a customer has tasted the produce, though, it’s highly unlikely they’ll turn away again. Outstanding quality is paramount throughout the operation and now that the company’s over the initial spell and has shown what it is about, it’s being spoiled for choice.

“We found a group of suppliers early on who agreed to work with us,” says Gillian. “But as time has passed more and more have wanted to get involved. Now we are being approached by small producers not just from across Scotland but across Britain who want to work with us.”

The emphasis on quality has been extended to whisky. The company – known as CaleyCo for short – approached Royal Mile Whiskies and now offers a surprisingly diverse selection of outstanding Scotch, many of them with descriptors linking them in to the food on offer.

And we can expect to see that whisky and food link developed in to the future.

Being Gillian, she maintained her association with Diageo, Whisky Magazine and Dave Broom. And just a few months on here she is, carving out a reputation for taking whisky and food pairings in to a whole new dimension.

Sure we know some malt whisky works with cheese. But what about the same whisky served with or without water added, working in a totally different way with two different cheeses? How about duck and Caol Ila?

And would you expect a home-made carrot and coriander soup and a Bruichladdich 10 year old to work together to create an oral firework display of spicy flavours?

Such experimentation is in its infancy but for Gillian and her team, already enjoying something of a rollercoaster ride as they deal with the obstacle course that seasonal and unpasteurised (and therefore unpredictable and ever changing) foodstuffs are serving up, the whisky and food challenge is driving the business forward.

“Taking great Scottish food and pairing it with our finest whiskies is such a great pleasure,” she says. “It is great fun and it is bringing forward some great combinations. Both the food and whisky are benefiting from the link as a result. It’s a great direction to be going.”

As I said, she’s going with the flow, and you could do a lot worse than to join her. After all, who knows where you might end up?