Scottish Culinary Musings
I was recently invited to speak at the World Whiskies Conference in Glasgow, Scotland – an invitation which I gladly accepted as an opportunity not just to hold forth on one of my favourite topics – food and whisky matching – but also to catch up with a bunch of fellow whisky-heads and visit some of Scotland’s wonderful (and picturesque) distilleries.
Getting to Scotland can be a long trip though - at least Emirates flies non-stop Sydney to Dubai then Dubai to Glasgow, saving time and hassles at Heathrow. I flew over economy class and was very unimpressed by the cramped conditions, finding it impossible to even use the tray table or view the TV screen once the seat in front of me was reclined.
I put up at the Glasgow Hilton, and decide from the menus to avoid the fine diner and opt for the more casual ‘New York-style Deli’, Minsky, which proves disappointing. The next morning’s breakfast buffet selection however is good, especially the superb freshly-squeezed orange and pink grapefruit juice and outstanding haggis.
The Hilton Hotel
1 William Street
Glasgow G3 8HT
Tel.: +44 (0)141 20455555
Day 1 involves an excursion to Bute, an island about 1½ hours SW of Glasgow. The drive down to Wemyss (where we are taking the car ferry to Bute) is quick and viewless (due to the fog), which thankfully lifts as we take the 15-minute ferry ride across to the lovely island. We lunch at the Colintraive Hotel, an out-of-the-way old pub in Argyll (a 2 minute ferry ride back to the mainland from the other side of the island) where the food is exceptionally good. It’s warm and we sit in the garden and ‘the Bakers’ a Harley Davidson group of about 50 bikes pulls up for a softdrink and a sandwich. Old farts in black leather they make me smile. Owner/chef, Patricia Watt, does an excellent job on pan-fried scallops, hand-dived by a couple of locals, they’re so fresh it’s amazing, and absolutely delicious. The Guinness and Beef pie is also very enjoyable and the crackingly fresh deconstructed Prawn Cocktail has great texture and a well-balanced creamy dressing. The local beer is good and the Laphroaig 10 superb.
The Colintraive Hotel
Argyll PA22 3AS
Tel.: +44 (0)1700 841207
The colourful old fishing harbour makes for a delightful afternoon’s site seeing, with a photo opportunity everywhere you point the camera. The downstairs bar at the Hilton proves the perfect place for a drink with fellow Aussie Graham Wright from the Odd Whisky Coy, one becomes many and the game of taking turns to chose a local beer with a Scotch chaser, becomes more amusing the more we drink. Eventually hunger or commonsense (take your pick) gets the better of us and we order a Haggis Spring Roll and Chicken Tikka Masala with pappadams, riata, bread and chutney. The chicken is good and, believe it or not, the crunchy, deep-fried pastry filled with excellent haggis actually works as well.
Day 2 starts with a superb flight out to the west-coast island of Islay to visit Ardbeg. A guided tour of the storage house, trying various malts along the way, with Distillery Manager Mickey Heads precedes a lunch of haggis and black pudding-stuffed chicken and a locally brewed heavy beer. Then more tastings, including the Almost There and a 31 y/o for the Italian market, a Kildalton 1981 and a 1976 single cask and a quick excursion to the island’s Kildalton Cross, for absolutely beautiful views and even wild deer so unafraid that I can photograph them before they run off.
Argyll PA42 7EA
Tel.: +44 (0)1496 302244
Dinner at Rogano, a very old-fashioned restaurant modelled on the dining room of the Queen Mary’s, is seafood focused. Rogano’s oyster bar (no bookings) serves freshly shucked oysters and a small selection of seafood dishes all day. The restaurant proper opens for lunch and dinner, serves old-fashioned dishes based on solid technique and fresh produce, in an opulent dining room and has an excellent wine list.
11 Exchange Place
Glasgow G1 3AN
For reservations call: +44 (0)141 248 4055
Day 3 marks the start of the World Whiskies Conference, the real reason I’m here. The opening address highlights the powerful position of the Indian market and the uncertainty of what will happen if this market is deregulated. I put the subject of my lecture, 1+1=3 - Matching Whisky and Food, into practice and serve each delegate a morsel of caraway-scented sourdough with lots of butter topped with sweet Parma ham and Icelandic smoked salt, paired to an Ardbeg 10 y/o. This is a sublime combination and from the smiles of the audience I can tell that the bribe works. Most ingredients are sourced from Peckham’s a local delicatessen.
The evening is spent with Scottish spirits author extraordinaire Dave Broom at the Gala Dinner at Òran Mór, an old church converted into a funky restaurant. Bottles of Aberfeldy 12 y/o Single Malt on each table keep me happy.
Cnr. Great Western Road and Byres Road
Glasgow G12 8QX
Tel.: +44 (0)141 357 6200
Day 4 sees a return to the conference and Mike Keiller, CEO of Bowmore, delivers a very stimulating talk about his distillery, then the Whisky Magazine’s ‘Best of the Best’ winners are announced and it’s great to see Tallisker DE 18 up there along with Suntory’s Hibiki and, although not a winner, Australia’s own Sullivan’s Cove fares well. During lunch I’m amazed to discover that Diageo’s Crown Royal has 10 continuous stills operating 24/7 and still can’t keep up with demand. Afternoon sessions are interesting with Swiss Marcel Gerber, explaining his whisky-investing scheme, and Dave Broom’s view of the global position of blended whiskies and their future acceptance by a younger population - pretty bleak stuff, brilliantly delivered.
I can’t believe that not one of Australia’s 11 distilleries saw fit to attend this conference. A crying shame! This was a chance to make a real difference!
Conference Director Ian Buxton says his thanks and officially closes the conference and the following visit to Ken Storrie’s famous Pot Stills, a whisky pub that has won ‘Best Whisky Bar’ two years in a row, is most educational.
154 Hope Street
Glasgow G2 2TH
Tel.: +44 0141 333 0980
Dinner at Pulcinella, an old-fashioned Italian restaurant with very Italian service and gigantic portions of traditional well-prepared food, is satisfying.
167 Hope Street
Glasgow G2 2TH
Tel.: +44 0141 572 0575
Day 5 brings a visit to Dr. Bill Lumsden and his team at Glenmorangie where he shows me around the distillery and we spend some quality time in the warehouse trying a few casks. What Dr. Bill has achieved with various wood finishes is groundbreaking and Glenmorangie’s whiskies are an absolute joy to sample.
The Glenmorangie Distillery Visitor Centre & Shop
Ross-shire IV19 1PZ
+44 (0)1862 892 477
Dinner at Glenmorangie House, a fabulous guesthouse in a superb location, is a grand affair and the food ranks amongst the best I had during this visit to Scotland.
Day 6 starts with a stroll around Glenmorangie House Estate, then down to the beach where I realise just how freezing it is, there’s even a trace of snow on the hills. Breakfast is very good indeed. I thoroughly recommend Glenmorangie House, which offers rooms to individuals or can be booked exclusively for company events or group get-togethers.
Fearn By Tain
Ross-shire IV20 1XP
+44 (0)1862 871 671
For my last night’s dinner I visit Brian Maule’s Le Chardon d’Or, a pretty cool restaurant, almost Sydney-ish in its simplicity and starkness. The bar is quite cosy, if the chairs are too narrow and constricting, and the concise menu and comprehensive wine list are good reads. Entrees of Foie Gras and Scallops and main courses of Guinea Fowl and Duck are good, although hardly stunning (the foie gras almost raw and the scallops overcooked), but the service is far too slow. The dessert menu sounds good (again) and the Baked Apple, like a tart tatin without the pastry, is good but the Meringue, full of chocolate mousse and hazelnut ice cream, is the winner of the night. It’s been a long night that reinforces how high Sydney standards are - in Sydney this would rate 5.5/10, but on a Glasgow scale it’s probably a 7/10 with terrible value for money (at least partly due to an unfavourable exchange rate).
Brian Maule at Chardon d’Or
176 West Regent Street
Glasgow G2 4RL
Tel.: +44 (0)141 248 3801
Day 7 starts with a final portion of Haggis and Cumberland sausages, both of which I will remember for a long time.
My upgraded business class flight from Glasgow to Dubai is great, with OK food and breathtaking views of Bulgaria’s snow-covered mountains.
In Dubai I stay at the International Airport Hotel (located inside the terminal ergo no passport control), with clean, spacious rooms and a comfortable bed. If you have to stopover in Dubai for more than a couple of hours, I recommend it. Book on-line at: http://www.dubaiairport.com/DIA/English/MainMenu/Passenger+Services/Dubai+International+Hotel
Day 8 brings the luxury of a Emirates first class cabin from Dubai to Sydney, and I am amazed at my ‘room’ in the sky, like a private cocoon, with mini-bar, totally flat bed, privacy (you can shut the door), a large tray table, a well-stocked make-up bar (not that I used it), oodles of space, very large screen TV, comfortable leather seat with more adjustments than a dentist’s chair and extremely friendly and proficient service. In-flight e-mail is easy to access and reasonably priced ($19.95 for the entire flight). AND they serve Iranian caviar; this is the way to fly!
Check out Emirates at http://www.emirates.com/au (but forget their economy class)
Arrival in Sydney is an instant return to reality - it’s cold, wet and dismal!