As anybody who has ever been to a dinner where hundreds of people sit down to eat at exactly the same time will know, it is no easy task. When the diners are there not for some secondary purpose such as an awards ceremony or to watch entertainment, but specifically to celebrate the food and drink on offer, the stakes become far higher – no pun intended.
And when the drink you’re celebrating, and liberally tasting, is whisky – well there are all sorts of potential pitfalls to negotiate, and woe betide you if the meal doesn’t come up to scratch or arrives late to the table.
So these are just some of the challenges facing the organisers of the annual Spirit of Speyside festival which takes place every May Bank Holiday and which has grown into a major event on the Scottish calendar. As recently as three years ago the festival was a messy patchwork quilt that had no cohesion or recognisable theme.
Now it includes a gala dinner that attracts about 300 people and last year counted Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond among its guests.
Diners are invited to taste the final Speyside whiskies short-listed by a panel of judges at March’s Whisky Live London event before they sit down to dinner. So they have already tasted the finest the region has to offer on the drink side. How do you match it for food?
This year that’s the task of Graham Harvey and Sheila McConachie of the Craggan Mill Restaurant in Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire. But if anyone should be prepared for the scale of the task, it’s them – after all, Graham has been playing with food and whisky combinations for nearly 30 years and the couple have been featuring pairings at the restaurant on a daily basis since they took over two and a half years ago.
Add that to the fact that they’re in the hot seat this year on merit, having won a competition to earn the honour, and it should guarantee that the dinner will be a rip-roaring success. They beat off stiff competition at Moray College to earn the praise of a judging panel headed by top food writer Sue Lawrence and Whisky Magazine’s French Editor Martine Nouet.
The couple showcased their winning dishes at a stylish reception lunch at whisky Live in London, but the real thrill of catering for the Spirit of Speyside Festival is an honour.
“We’re delighted to be involved because we have long held the view that whisky and food work well together,” said Graham, who is 49 and started experimenting with whisky and food pairings in his teens, years before he took up hospitality professionally.
“Speyside is blessed with some of the finest food anywhere, with top quality game, beef and lamb and fresh fish from the coast and obviously the region produces great whisky so why not combine them? The French cook with wine and brandy, so it just seems logical to use whisky in cooking to me. And I find that the different whiskies of this region are ideal for cooking.”
The restaurant puts great store in local produce, and the menu is changed daily to ensure that only the freshest is used.
“Our aim is to provide the very best in dining in an informal dining environment. By only using fresh produce available on the day it means we can keep wastage down to a minimum too. And it gives us the chance to produce great variety.”
Craggan Mill is Speyside through and through. An 18th century building that was restored to a fine dining restaurant 30 years ago, it includes a range of traditional Scottish dishes given a distinctly modern feel. And the building also plays host to an art gallery which exhibits work by local artists, adding to the overall sense of belonging.
The restaurant menu, which not only changes daily but changes from lunch to dinner, is a mix of standard offerings such as haggis, neeps and tatties and cullen skink to more elaborate dishes.
Among Graham’s favourite dishes is guinea fowl with wild local mushrooms in a white wine and whisky cream, made using Aberlour 16 years old. But for the competition to provide the menu for the Spirit of Speyside Festival it was a case of combining an exciting and stimulating choice of dishes but at the same time keeping it relatively simple so the food can be delivered on the night.
The dishes chosen were a veloute of haggis – effectively haggis soup – roast salmon in a whisky and orange jus, and a chocolate truffle torte served with a raspberry coulis and a basket of summer fruits.
“We’re thrilled to be able to play our part in showcasing our region,” says Graham. “It’s great that people recognise the region for its food and whisky.”
Roast Spey Valley salmon
With Aberlour 16 year old and orange jusServes 4INGREDIENTS
For the Sauce
- 4 fillets fresh salmon 175g each skin on, scales removed
- Plain flour
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
- Olive oil and unsalted butter for frying wild salmon roe
- 100ml Aberlour 16 year old
- 100ml fish stock
- 100ml vegetable stock
- Juice of 1 orange
- Pinch of orange zest
- Honey to taste
- Salt and pepper to season
Wash and dry the salmon and dry with a kitchen towel.2.
Dust with a little seasoned flour and pat off any excess.3.
In a non stick pan heat a little oil and unsalted butter over a medium heat Place the salmon skin side down and fry gently until the skin has browned.4.
Seal the salmon on remaining sides and transfer to an ovenproof dish and place in oven for 8-10 minutes at Gas 5 (190ºc) The time will vary according to how you like your salmon cooked.For the sauce1.
In a heavy based sauté pan reduce whisky by half2.
Add fish stock and reduce by half3.
Add vegetable stock and reduce by half Add orange juice and orange zest and reduce by half4.
Add honey to taste (balances bitterness of whisky and reduced orange)5.
Whisk in a little unsalted butter to emulsify the sauce just before servingTo serve
Serve with dauphinoise potatoes and baby asparagus, garnished with nuggets of Stuart Grant’s black pudding.
Veloute of Iain Moir’s haggis laced
With Glenfarclas 15 year old malt whiskyServes 4INGREDIENTS
- 400g haggis, choose a quite spicy haggis without too much barley content
- 750ml good beef stock, preferably home-made
- 100ml Glenfarclas 15year old
- 1 tbsp heather honey, or to taste
- 250ml double cream
- Handful of chopped parsley
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
Over a high heat reduce the whisky by half2.
Add stock and reduce by half3.
Add haggis broken into small pieces Add honey to taste4.
Add 200ml of double cream5.
Season to taste6.
Add half of the parsley just before servingTo serve
Pour into bowls and garnish with a sprinkle of parsley and a swirl of cream.