It is the middle of a quiet Tuesday's service prep. The air in the kitchen is full of the familiar rhythm of chopping, blanching and cooling and the extractor fan is sucking the heady fumes out into a damp Dublin afternoon. There is nothing good on the radio and no one knows any jokes. The question is posed: if you could only ever eat the meat of one animal ever again, which would it be? Silence for a moment: 'Chicken' pronounces the junior commis and we all scoff. 'Make tea' says the head chef shaking his head. 'For me it would be beef- a juicy rib eye', the head and sous chef quickly agree on this point. I don't hesitate: 'Pork'. Heads slowly nod as fingers continue to peel ribbons of carrot and de-stem mushrooms. There is a moment where you can almost see the cogs whirring, the implication of giving up pork revealed. Opinions are quickly revised. We all consider the versatility of the swine: silky wedges of black pudding, smoky rashers, thick cut ham, crubeens bobbing in a flavourful broth, belly cooked long and slow so that the fat renders and the skin crisps. The commis returns laden down with cups, 'battered sausages!' he emphatically adds. We are all in agreement now, we couldn't go without pork.
It is this versatility that positions pork as the perfect pairing for a variety of whiskeys. Other flavours can be incorporated into the meat through glazing, curing, smoking or fermenting. At Whisky Live London, I paired Four Roses Yellow Label with smoked bacon panfried with seville orange marmalade and dipped in spiced almonds. The rich warmth of the almonds complemented the toasted oak vibrancy of the whiskey and the citrus of the marmalade cut played up the whiskey's zestyness. The bacon brought the whole thing together, acting like a fatty smoky platform for the flavours to play on.
At the same pairing Black Bush was matched with black pudding made by Sir Jack McCarthy, a Cork Butcher 'knighted' by the prestigious La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin (the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Black Pudding). I like to fancy the knighting ceremony included red velvet capes, a parade and if my phone calls to order meat from Jack hold any indication, a rousing ballad or two from the man himself. Last week he serenaded me with a charming ditty set to the tune of 'Black is the Colour', though with the words rewritten as an ode to his beloved black pudding. The rich denseness of the pudding complements the sweet sherry spiciness of the whiskey. It is no coincidence that when they are in season my preferred less boozy accompaniment to Jack's black pudding is cherries that have been poached in sherry and nutmeg until they are fat and plump with syrup. In this instance Black Bush took the place of the cherries and mirrored the same contrasting flavours.
The most universally popular porky pairing at Whisky Live London was bacon jam matched with Monkey Shoulder. I make the jam using smoked streaky rashers from TJ at Crowe's Farm, a family run pork farm in Tipperary. TJ's pork is rare breed and organic and when uncured is sweet and mild. The smoke he uses is from chips and sawdust of local wood. The result is a smoke that is rough hewn, earthy, guttural. It doesn't mess about. No elegant whisps or hints of ephemeral char here. It is punchy and in your face. I soften it by studding the jam with plums, their citrus tartness pocketed throughout and balancing the sweet prevailing smoke while echoing the soft citrus of the whiskey.
Bacon and Plum Jam Paired with Monkey Shoulder, Toast & Vanilla Sugar
Use the best quality bacon you can find, preferably from a smokehouse. You can omit the plums if they are not in season, and add a drop of water to make up for the lost liquid. Adding smoked whiskey would take it in a different direction.
This makes quite a lot, and while you could halve the recipe, I recommend making the whole lot and sharing with friends in little jars. You will be popular.
2L pot (bigger is fine, smaller will result in an unholy mess)
Food processor (optional)
500g smoked bacon
1 small onion, the ones we get from the fruit market are monsters, about 300g is plenty
5 cloves of garlic
100g (1/2 cup) brown sugar
125mL coffee (I use french press but instant is grand also)
20mL (4 teaspoons) honey
15mL (3 teaspoons) balsamic vinegar
15mL (3 teaspoons) dijon mustard
Dice the bacon and cook it in a heavy pot over medium heat until cooked through, but not crispy.
In the meantime dice the onions finely, and mince the garlic. It is fine to use a microplane grater for the garlic if you like. It can be our wee secret. Don't bother with a garlic press, they are useless and you lose half your clove.
Transfer the cooked bacon to a bowl using a slotted spoon, draining off most of the drippings.
Saute the onion and garlic cloves in the remaining drippings for 15-25 minutes, until soft and starting to turn golden. Do not scrimp on the onion cooking time, it takes time and is adding flavour. Keep and eye on them and turn down the heat if the edges are turning brown too quickly. We are aiming for gold, not char.
In the meantime stone and dice the plums and set aside. Have a dram, the onions are probably still softening.
Once the onions and garlic are a beautiful burnished gold, return the bacon to the pan, along with the diced plums.
Add the brown sugar, coffee, honey, vinegar and mustard and give everything a good old mix with a wooden spoon.
Cook over medium heat for half an hour, or until deep golden and thickened to the consistency of jam.
Remove from heat and cool, at this stage you can pulse it in the food processor, or leave it chunky. Do not over process. It should retain a reassuring bacony appearance.
Serve cold on toast, or warm with a fried egg, or as I eat it with a healthy glug of Monkey Shoulder on the side.