Celebrated Master of The Quaich and Whisky Chef, Martine Nouet, was in Canberra recently to host Dinner with Whisky at the award-winning Konoba restaurant at Hotel Realm. The event was one of a series of whisky dinners held in capital cities across Australia in the lead up to the spectacular 'Whisky Live' shows.
A world leader in pairing whisky with food, Martine is one of the most respected people of her field. She has been dubbed La reine de l'Alambic (the Queen of the Still) and awarded a Master of The Quaich (a highly esteemed title, and a rare feat for a woman). Born in Normandy and having spent 40 years in Paris, Martine now lives and works from her home on Islay (EYE-lə), the windswept island home to eight of Scotland’s great single malt distilleries, where 'people are born with a smile'. A journalist with French national newspapers, Martine has written extensively on food and drink, including a book on single malt whisky, Les routes des Malts, together with publishing a Whisky Magazine. She also featured as ‘The Whisky Chef’ on an Internet TV channel.
I had the great pleasure of chatting with Martine before and during the Dinner with Whisky. Our conversation follows below.
Tell me, what was the highlight of your recent whirlwind tour of Australia.
It's always a great pleasure for me to visit Australia. My Tasmanian distillery tour was certainly the highlight of my trip. I met with passionate people who have a strong belief in their craftsmanship and who share a sense of belonging to nature and culture. I was surprised by the small size of the distilleries. I knew Tasmanian whisky was at the dawn of its history, however I was expecting a larger production. But the passion of each distiller and their determination to expand is a guarantee for a successful development.
What is your opinion of our Australian whiskeys and how do they rank against those from around the world?
Bearing in mind that I have not tasted them all, Australian whiskeys have great potential. They are still young, but the maturation conditions are so different from the ones in Europe. It means that a young Australian whisky will always taste older than its age. I have sampled some very well matured ones. I also have sampled "work in progress". I think that some distilleries are maybe a bit too keen to experiment and thus make it difficult to define a "house style". It is important to aim for a precise aromatic profile and then, after, do maturation experiments. Tasmania has proved that it was "the island of whisky", which makes me think of Islay where I live. I find a lot of similarities between the two. The important is to carve one's identity. Time will help getting there.
Do you have a favourite way of using whisky in your cooking?
The important thing is not to cook whisky. this is why I ban the "flambé" from my cooking with whisky. You lose the alcohol, but you also lose the flavours. I use whisky as a seasoning ingredient, like spices. so I add it in a sauce or deglaze the pan at the last minute, off the gas. And it brings out wonderful tastes.
What is the best-ever pairing of whisky and food that you have tasted?
This is difficult to answer, Liz, as I have quite a lot of fond memories. I especially remember an incredible pairing which resulted in a total fusion of flavours: a homemade gingerbread icecream, topped with grated dark chocolate and served with fresh oranges, accompanied by a Bunnahabhain 18 year old. You could not trace where the whisky was and where the food was in your mouth. That was a complete integration of flavours; very yummy indeed.
The whiskeys served...
The award-winning whiskeys showcased during the dinner were Laphroaig Quarter Cask, The Glenrothes Alba Reserve which was slightly chilled, Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera, and Maker's Mark 46 Bourbon. Diners were also treated to a very special tasting of The Glenrothes Vintage 1995 Speyside Single Malt, which was described as 'being like a peacock's tail... when you sip it, it opens up.'
Tasting whisky is interesting and complicated, yet pleasurable. And there is much to learn. Martine explained the origins and complexities as each whisky was served. For instance, the 'sweet, peaty and smoky' Laphroaig, which comes from the south coast of Islay, is known for its medicinal character and during the prohibition it was sold at the chemist as medicine. 'It's said to be a very good cure for pain and you can rub it on your shoulder,' said Martine, 'but the problem is that you get a very stiff neck because you want to lick your shoulder,' she laughed.
'When you are tasting whisky, first look at the beautiful colour. This one (Laphroaig) reminds me of sunrise on Islay. I'm a sensory person, so I like to rub the whisky on your hand and smell it, noting the nose of the whisky before I taste it,' she said, dabbing whisky onto her hands and then holding her hands to her face. 'Mmm, we are by the seaside with the smell of the ocean and burning peat, can you smell it too?' she asked. 'Now taste just a little and roll it on your tongue, and let your saliva dilute it.'
With Martine’s expert guidance, chef Fabien Wagnon, created a four-course meal to pair with four individual whiskeys. The dishes were designed to enhance the flavours in the whisky, and the whisky to enhance the flavours in the food.
Oysters with cucumber and ginger granita (above), paired with the Laphroaig Quarter Cask from Islay. Interestingly, the oyster was prepared the French way, that is shucked but not shelled. Martine explained that an oyster that's still alive produces 'second water'. With an atomiser, chef Fabien gave each oyster a 'little spritz' of whisky. 'So, have a little sip of whisky, then a bite of the food, then a little sip of whisky again to see how the flavours combine. And bon appetit,' Martine concluded.
Pan-fried scallops, sweet corn puree, confit chicken wings and bacon veloute (above), paired with The Glenrothes Alba from the Speyside Region in the Scottish Highlands, which was introduced by Dan Hutchins-Read from Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd. 'Seafood is a perfect combination with The Glenrothes,' Martine noted. 'This dish has all the delicate colours of Spring.' Martine advised that she asked that this whisky be put into the freezer to be chilled before it was served because she 'wanted to demonstrate that when chilled the texture is thick and velvety and, as the glass warms up, you get the aromas of vanilla and coconut in layers.'
Duck confit, roasted Aylesbury duck breast, beetroot puree, root vegetables and jus (above), paired with Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera Reserve from Scotland, which was introduced by the delightful Laura Hay, whisky specialist from William Grant & Sons. 'Glenfiddich has a smooth silkiness, rich character and, from the oak, has a much darker colour,' noted Martine. 'Whisky and root vegetables, such as beetroot, match very well,' Martine and Laura agreed. 'Fabien has prepared the duck two ways: the French confit, and roasted duck breast. So, we have two textures in this early Autumn dish,' Martine added. 'Slainte mhath, everyone,' toasted Laura.
Chocolate fondant, caramelised banana and salted caramel cream (pictured above & below), paired with Makers Mark 46 from Kentucky, which was introduced by Martine. 'This one is a bit special, the difference being in the maturation, resulting in sweetness, spiciness and oakiness on the palate. You can see the almost-amber, dark gold colour too,' Martine noted. 'Fabien proposed the chocolate fondant and I said I'd like some fruit with it, with the sweetness balanced by the salted caramel. We French love salted caramel, it's one of our weaknesses,' Martine added with a smile.
The verdict on the dinner? The food was excellent, with the finest quality fresh ingredients and a perfect balance of flavours on every plate. My favourite? Given my love of seafood, it's difficult for me to choose between the oysters and the scallops. C'est délicieux, très bon, Fabien and Martine!
Postcards from the evening...
The Executive Chef...
Fabien Wagnon was born and raised in Tolouse, France and has embraced our Australian culture. Previously, he spent two years working as Sous Chef at London’s Sheraton Park Tower Knightsbridge and then travelled to Brussels to work with the SAS Radisson Sea Grill Restaurant. In Sydney, Fabien was Head Chef at Star City, dedicating five years to the team before moving to Canberra. He says that he found his version of the Louvre at the National Gallery of Australia, where he worked as Executive Chef. After four years, Fabien moved next door to the Portrait Gallery and is now the Executive Chef at Hotel Realm. Fabien's cooking reflects an influence of modern European with an emphasis on fresh local ingredients.
I asked Fabien to tell me what inspired the menu for the Dinner with Whisky. 'I am accustomed to pairing wine and food, but I have never drunk whisky, so this was the first time for me teaming whisky with food. Drawing on my experience and knowledge as a chef, I followed some simple guidelines, as well as Martine's tasting notes. I also used my nose to open my imagination and tried to think what I would like to eat with those whiskeys,' he explained. Fabien, it worked!
The Whisky Live event...
Whisky Live shows are held across Australia, in Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from April through to August. Having attended the shows, I can highly recommend them.
The Canberra event will take place on the weekend of 30-31 May at the University of Canberra Refectory. Tickets for sessions can be purchased directly online. Now in its third year, Whisky Live Canberra is a hugely popular event giving attendees the opportunity to sample a wide range of whiskeys from around the world, while enjoying good food and atmosphere. Indeed, one of the features at Whisky Live is the fabulous food. This year will see special single origin chocolate flavour-paired with whisky chosen by Martine Nouet. The award-winning Wapengo Rocks oysters will also have a stand at the event. Buffet style food is served, including a carvery.
Australian whiskeys to be showcased at Whisky Live Canberra include Starward and Sullivan's Cove. A range of well-established brands will also exhibit including craft distilleries. The ‘Rare & Old Bar’ will showcase collector’s whiskeys open for attendees to purchase a wee dram. Some of the rare whiskeys are from from now closed distilleries.
And finally, meet The Whisky Chef, Martine, on her homeland, Islay...
In this video, produced by Rob Draper for Singlemalt.Tv, Martine visits Craigens Farm and treks out onto the Loch Gruinart flats at low tide in search of the perfect pairing of oysters and Islay whisky. Armed with several classic Islay single malts Martine joins the farmers, Craig Archibald and Tristan Jorgensen, and shucks fresh oysters, doused with a liberal amount of whisky for some out of this world flavour experiences. It gives you a good introduction to Martine, her love of good food and fine whisky, and her home of Islay. Enjoy xo
Note: Martine will publish her first cookbook towards the end of the year. She says she has always wanted to write a book, but has never had the time. This book is all about the pleasures of the table and will be a testament to my work over the last twenty years. It will explain the principles of pairing food and whisky and the 80 recipes will be presented along the seasons, with starters, main dishes and sweets, as well as suggestions for pairing whiskeys.
Disclaimer: The Good Things team attended Dinner with Whisky as guests of Whisky Live Australia. While I have been assisting with some behind the scenes media work for the event, this is not a sponsored post and opinions expressed are my own.
Tell me dear readers, have you ever been to a Whisky Dinner or Whisky Live show in your part of the world? Do you enjoy pairing whisky with food? What's your favourite drop?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.