Whisky is a serious matter in Belgium. Whisky clubs number their members by hundreds, not by dozens. A new distillery has even started operating on old-looking pot-stills in Grâce-Hollogne, a village located in Flemish Belgium.
With a peculiar name, PUR-E distillery, it intends to produce 200 casks in 2005. It may be tiny but owner Etienne Bouillon has high hopes it will be profitable. He has already started selling a few bottles of the new make (reduced to 40% abv).
When you think about it, there is nothing surprising about a beer producing country going that little bit further and making whisky.
So no-one should too surprised to discover that whisky dinners make for quite popular entertainment.
Bob Minnekeer is a great advocate of whisky in the plate. He owns and runs a very special place, The Glengarry Scottish Pub, in Gand. A whisky bar in the cellar and a whisky shop on the ground floor display more than 1,200 different whiskies - quite a good selection to quench the thirst for knowledge of the 1,400 members of his whisky club.
Tasting sessions, lectures and classes are given downstairs. Bob also organises whisky dinners. He remembers having invited a celebrity chef to cook for 80 guests.
“We had an eight course menu and sampled nine whiskies. We had to put up and take down a full professional kitchen just for one single day! It was great fun.”
Bob Minnekeer has run these dinners for a good 10 years. He loves cooking with whisky himself.
“When you cook with whisky, you need to find a way of getting rid of the alcohol fumes, but not the taste,” he says.
“I do not like to flame food, I prefer to inject whisky into meat or fish flesh. I use an ordinary syringe. When the meat starts braising, the whisky evaporates and conveys its fragrances to the whole dish.”
Bob has worked with a lot of great chefs over the years, and convinced all the celebrity cooks that single malt brings a fantastic bonus in cooking if well chosen and well used.
He presents the conclusion of all this work in a superb cookery book called Whisky à la carte, which has just been released in Dutch and French. This is much more than a recipe book. In it he not only mention quantities of whisky but recommends a particular one for each recipe, mostly a Scottish single malt but sometimes an Irish whiskey, a bourbon or a Japanese whisky. For each recipe, the whisky is presented with short but accurate tasting-notes. This is a real first.
Among all the mouth-watering creations, you will find Macallan Fine Oak 12 year old for baked saint-jacques; Chivas Regal 12 year old for Flemish asparagus; Bruichladdich 10 year old for a seafood casserole in a saffron sauce; Glenfiddich 15 year old for a veal cultlet and celeriac lasagna; and Bowmore 12 year old for a summer fruit mousse on a speculoos base.
It is so rewarding to find that whisky has its own identity as a major ingredient rather than being hidden under the anonymous vague mention of ’whisky’ which immediately makes me think of those horrible cheap flasks especially aimed at (so-called) cooking that you can find in supermarkets.
I like the way Bob Minnekeer approaches the art of cooking with whisky. This has always been my philosophy in my cooking classes or writings. ‘Call a cat a cat’, as we say in French.
Whisky à la carte is not the work of a single person. Three inspired chefs have provided recipes, one of whom did about two thirds of it - 30 year old cook Stef Roesbeke. He has a cosy bistro in Ertvelde-Kluizen, a small city outside Gand. He particularly enjoys cooking with whisky.
“Whisky is the only drink which offers such a wide range of flavours,” he says. “Such a rich diversity excites the cook’s creativity. I always start working out my recipes by brain-storming, trying to sort out different combinations. Then I experiment.
“I think it is the same working method as a master blender’s. I have developed a sort of reference frame over the years which is now my basis when I set up a recipe. My simple motto is: ‘less is more’.“
He does not think that cooking with whisky is so difficult. He is right.
“It is definitely a well of surprises and still an unexplored territory. What is more important for me is that you have got to like whisky to come out with good dishes.“
Stef Roesbeke has just hiked a long whisky trail, visiting 10 distilleries in Speyside and the Highlands with Bob Minnekeer who, in addition to being a whisky expert (he has done working weeks in a few distilleries over the years) is also an accomplished bagpiper.
He often takes his band of 30 musicians, The Flemish Caledonian, on tours in Scotland - more evidence that whisky and music go together.
English speaking whisky aficionados will have to be patient before they can find that inspiring book in an English version. As a nibble in wait of the full menu, why not enjoy one of Bob Minnekeer’s tips. Before you bring your dish on the table, walk round the table holding burning peat on a plate; the smoke and fragrance will put your guests in condition. And if you have a bagpiper to pipe the peat in, it is even more delicious.
Recipe from Stef Roesbeke
Crispy tuna strips with herbsWith Glenturret 10 Year OldINGREDIENTS
- 600g red tuna
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
- 1 tbsp chopped basil
- 1 tbsp chopped chives
- 1 small sage leave
- 1 tbsp chopped chervil
- 1 1/2 tbsp sweet vinegar
- 3 tbsp walnut oil
- 3 tbsp Glenturret single malt
- 1 tbsp Provence herbs (thyme, rosemary, savory)
- crushed pepper
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds
Brush the tuna piece with oil, dip it into the mixture of Provence herbs, pepper and sesame. Seize it on a warm pan. 2.
Blend the chopped herbs, the rest of oil, the vinegar and the whisky together.3.
Spoon the sauce on a plate.4.
Divide the tuna into strips and place on the sauce.5.
Use fresh herbs for decoration.
Glenturret 10 Year Old Tasting notes
Oaky notes with a touch of honey, vanilla and light caramel. Malty, hay with a hint of juniper. Creamy finish.