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A project combining one of Britain’s most lauded chefs with Scotland’s bestselling single malt is destined for success. Kate Ennis chats to Tom Aikens about whisky and food matching with Glenmorangie
Pinning down one of the busiest and most talented chefs in the country for an interview was always going to be difficult. But it proved even harder to claim a slot in Tom Aikens’s diary recently as he was having a well-deserved break away from the kitchen to get married.
Congratulating him on his nuptials when we finally meet, he says how enjoyable the day was but, considering how much time and care had gone into the event, it was over far too quickly. The same could be said of tasting a well-crafted whisky that has spent so much time reaching perfection – you savour every last drop and don’t want the experience to end.
A perfect marriage is certainly something Aikens has been cooking up in his kitchen, teaming up with Glenmorangie to explore the ultimate food and whisky pairings. It’s a suitable match when you consider the Gallic influence upon each: French-owned Glenmorangie distillery has achieved great success by experimenting with wine casks from Bordeaux’s revered Sauternes and Margaux for the final maturation of its whiskies. And Aikens’s cooking style is renowned for its distinctly French touch.
It’s certainly a coup for whisky to be championed by such a high-profile chef. It’s well documented that Aikens was the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars at the age of 26 (at Pied à Terre in London’s Bloomsbury). But the more recent success of his eponymous restaurant, which opened in Elystan Street, Chelsea, in 2003, has strengthened his enviable reputation for original, subtle and intense cuisine.
Aikens first got involved with whisky last summer when he was asked to host a dinner and launch party for Glenmorangie’s Margaux finish. This limited edition malt comes into being when the young whisky from selected casks spends its final few months in specially sourced wine barrels that had previously been home to Margaux.
Aikens was invited to the Highland distillery to take a look. ‘I was a little wary about whisky at the beginning as it’s a drink I associate with my grandfather and I’d never really touched it before,’ admits Aikens, who is now partial to a wee dram or a well-made whisky sour himself. ‘Once I’d been taken through the whole process of how it’s made and how to taste it properly, I began to understand the complexity of it all,’ he says. ‘The way the whisky takes on so many flavours in the barrel is ingenious, particularly the wood finishes.’
Having spent over a quarter of a century exploring the effects of wood and maturation on the flavour of whisky, Glenmorangie is renowned for its work with these special cask finishes. It mainly uses white American oak casks that have previously contained bourbon, but its new Extra Matured range uses hand selected port, sherry or wine barrels from the leading vineyards and châteaux of Europe. This range comprises four core expressions. The Glenmorangie 10 Year Old, now named The Original, remains the distillery’s quality benchmark. This is accompanied by Lasanta, a sherry wood finish; a ruby-hued port wood expression called Quinta Ruban; and Nectar D’Or, a permanent edition of the previously popular whisky extra matured in Sauternes casks.
All four offer a kaleidoscopic range of intricate flavour profiles, aromas, tastes and textures, and that complexity made the challenge of creating ideal food matches all the more appealing for Aikens: ‘With the Quinta Ruban, for example, you get notes of chocolate, nuts, Turkish delight, orange and mint, so there were lots of ways the pairings could have gone,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to keep things light and fresh with lots of mousses and jellies, but also to give them plenty of flavour to stand up to remarkable depth of the whisky.’
Four savoury amuse-bouches were created to complement the range, a red pepper tuille; flaked chicken with parsley jelly and truffle dressing; crab with carrot jelly; and duck consommé with jerusalem artichoke soup and chervil foam. Aikens aimed for ingredients with a natural sweetness as he felt that bridged the food with the whisky most successfully. ‘The flaked chicken is from the wing which is the sweetest meat, and the pepper and carrot are again quite sweet.’
The menu of dessert-style morsels also makes an enticing read: apples and nutmeg with butterscotch sauce plus coconut and almond pudding goes with The Original; chocolate and mint with black pepper and white chocolate mousse pairs with the Quinta Ruban; caramel mousse with fudge, apricots and pistachios matches the Lasanta; and a ginger mousse and sponge with passion fruit jelly for the Nectar D’Or.
Aikens believes such food pairings are an accessible way to broaden people’s imaginations and to get a younger generation interested in whisky. ‘The great thing about whisky is that there are so many flavours, ages and finishes, you can tailor it to different people,’ he says. ‘Whisky is not just an after-dinner drink; you can equally enjoy it with a main course.’
Food and whisky weekends are certainly something he is mulling over now things have settled down since the launch of Tom’s Kitchen, his casual brasserie on Cale Street just down the road from Tom Aikens. Tom’s Kitchen already hosts regular food and wine pairing events but whisky and food matching offers something different, while still appealing to discerning consumers. Aikens knows customers would love Dr Bill Lumsden – Glenmorangie’s entertaining and charismatic master distiller – to give a talk and tasting on whisky.
But he may be a bit preoccupied elsewhere this autumn with the opening of his third restaurant, Tom’s Place, on Markham Street, again in the desirable part of Chelsea.
Tom’s Place will be his own take on traditional fish and chips, with a menu of five or six breaded and battered fish, and other seasonal seafood. The focus will be on sustainability – both of the restaurant’s own operations and the fish. A film of Aikens meeting the restaurant’s fish suppliers and being at sea with the fisherman will be shown on loop in the dining room to highlight the traceability of the main product. With whisky having its own strong sense of provenance, could there be any pairings on the cards at Tom’s Place?
He hints at plans for an array of homemade ice creams that could slip down a treat with the whisky. But a dish of rich, succulently sweet scallops accompanied by a dram of Glenmorangie would also be a boon as it turns out Aikens’s scallop supplier is just a short trip from the distillery itself. Surely a marriage made in heaven?
Editorial feature from Square Meal Whisky Special 2007