Tasmania, From the Glass to the Plate

Dégustation with Martine at Nant Distillery
By Martine Nouet
When I accepted Nant distillery owner Keith Batt’s invitation to come and spend two days at the distillery last year, I was not expecting what I got: a complete tour of Tasmania’s fare in a parade of more than a dozen dishes, served one after the other over three hours! Not to mention the equivalent number of Nant whisky glasses. The reason for this culinary marathon was for Keith and his team to have my views on the best pairing for Nant single malt, as the brand has opened a few bars and restaurants in Australia’s biggest cities. When the wine is drawn, it must be drunk as we say in France. And so I went…

Tasmania is slightly smaller than Scotland, 45 per cent of its surface lies in reserves, national parks and World Heritage sites. With its fascinating (and tough) history, its rugged mountainous landscapes in the Central Highlands, ‘Tassie’ is reminiscent of the Speyside region. When I visited in August, it was the middle of winter and we indulged in a surrealistic snowball fight at the top of the pass on our way to Nant. I knew the chef would have prepared invigorating dishes; and I was also told he was adept at foraging and that he had spotted some unusual produce for me to taste. Hence a real voyage of discovery… and a few pounds added on the hips!

Nant distillery is located in Bothwell, just an hour from Hobart. The superb estate, which boasts a fascinating history was bought by the Batt family ten years ago. The boutique distillery uses the barley grown on the premises for one third of its needs. Maltings should be operating in 2014 and all the whisky matures on the site, in small casks. A lot of wood experiments are carried out, which offers investors a great diversity of casks to buy. But this does not make food pairing easy as each cask is different from another, what works with one will not necessarily be a success with the other, even one of the same style.

Nant was bathed in a stunning wintery light when I arrived. The stylish restaurant offers visitors a short but appetizing selection. In the kitchen, the chef Tristan Stephens was already busy cooking his own Tasmanian haggis, which he would serve later, as an appetiser, squeezed between two crunchy homemade crisps.

I am unable to detail all that I tasted. I will just mention the pairings which stood out and, by way of anecdote, some very unusual preparations. It’s not that they can’t be inspiring for pairings on this side of the world, but I would be surprised to see these appear on a restaurant menu in Europe, even an Australian one!

As a starter, we were given thin slices of smoked ocean trout with wood sorrel flowers and fresh Jersey cream cheese. I chose without hesitating Nant bourbon cask. Bottled at high strength (63 per cent) it needs to be reduced and served chilled. The combination offers a great balance, the smoky flavour of the trout meeting the whisky butterscotch toffee notes. There is also some sweetness in the cured trout to echo the whisky smoothness. The wood sorrel flowers give a pleasant sour note but the pickled onions were too pungent. For a contrast of textures, a melba toast would bring a pleasant crispiness.

The slowly cooked beef cheek served with tatties, mash and a beetroot juice made a perfect winter main dish. I tried the sherry cask which did not clash but was missing the oomph factor. The Nant Portwood finish bottled at 48 per cent got it. We got a rich, intense and deep match which played on the melting texture of the meat and the earthy note of the beetroot juice in the sauce. Tristan had foraged some nettles but they did not bring much to the dish. If they had been fried and served crisp, they would have added the flavour and perhaps shown through.

Tasmania rhubarb and apple crumble ended the parade. An absolute cracker that Tristan had enriched with a light vanilla cream. The tartness of the rhubarb and the sweetness of the apple found a perfect harmony with a whisky we had tasted in the bonded warehouse. Matured in virgin oak, that ‘work in progress’ revealed a creamy toffee profile which performed an aromatic fusion with the sweet.

Chef Tristan Stephens, a proud Tasmanian, who has worked in award-winning restaurants around the world has chosen to come back home and dedicates himself to promoting the best of Tasmania food.

For my visit, he maybe took it a bit too far when he served the ‘mutton bird rillettes.’ Mutton bird is a seagull which lives on the East Coast cliffs. I have never tasted such an oily and pungent food. Compared to mutton bird, anchovies are candies! I could not think of a single malt that could challenge that taste. Even Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist (the beastie) would have suffocated. The life of a whisky writer has its tough moments! Joking aside, all those calories are now a fond memory.

Tristan Stephens’ foraging passion resulted in an inspired and genuine cooking, showcasing the best of Tasmanian fare which achieved a successful harmony with Nant single malts most of the time.

Be prepared to discover more of Tasmanian whiskies. They are definitely making their way in the great circle of quality whiskies.