Dram after dram

Dram after dram

Please forgive the long silence but I have been awa’ in Scotland, exploring a number of my favourite whisky distilleries. It has been a delightful week conducted in the varied but stimulating company of 20 people who bid on this adventure at Gold Medal Plates events across the country last fall. We were invited to rendezvous last Saturday at the premises of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Leith, near Edinburgh, a gracious stone building close to the docks with the grand, old-fashioned feel of a gentleman’s club. I was late, alas, thanks to a long delay on my Air Transat flight from Toronto to London Gatwick—some bozo decided to get off the aircraft just as it was pulling away from the terminal so his bag had to be found and removed. The eventual flight would have given some new ideas to Torquemada in terms of induced physical discomfort. By the time we got to Gatwick, I had missed my connection and was keenly aware, as the taxi finally carried me in from Edinburgh airport, that the rest of the group were already enjoying their first drams at the SMWS. They had saved some for me—a generous gesture that was to prove typical of the merry group.

The days that followed were full of adventure, driving north in a convoy of rented SUVs. Our first scotchfall was the delightful Edradour, near Pitlochry in Perthshire. It’s Scotland’s smallest distillery, run by only three men and producing in a year what most distilleries produce in a week. We couldn’t have asked for finer weather—warm sunshine bathing the little fold in the hills where the whisky is made in a cluster of pretty whitewashed buildings. The smallness of scale and very low-tech equipment served as a fine example of what distillation was like 150 years ago.

Eventually, we wound our way onwards to Muckrach Lodge, a former hunting lodge in the wilds of Strathspey, and our base camp for the distilleries of the Speyside region. “Don’t worry,” I advised the group as we passed lochs and castles, forest and meadow and moor, the gorse and broom spectacularly golden yellow in the sunshine, “we will soon have proper Scottish weather—fog and tempest and rain.” We did not. Joseph Cassidy, whisky guru and manager of Via Allegro restaurant, was in our party, and he, it turns out, is a powerful talisman against rain. He has been coming to Scotland for 35 years and the weather is invariably fine for his visits.

Fine enough for croquet, indeed—on Muckrach’s challengingly undulating, long-grass lawn. Croquet brings out the very worst and most ruthless aspects of the human psyche. I found myself brutally seizing victory from one charming companion (sorry, Maggie from Halifax) only to be humbled by another (next time, Maie from Edmonton). Late that night we all learned the chant that was to become the theme song of our journey, taught to us by Boris and Tom, who usually sing it as a spirited accompaniment to the play of their local soccer team, Toronto FC. The lyrics—“here we go, here we go, here we go,” repeated ad nauseam to the tune of a Sousa march—will not quickly be forgotten.

Next morning, some of the party went off to check out the Glenrothes distillery while others went clay pigeon shooting and still others drove up to Elgin, where Denise from Edmonton was able to replenish her wardrobe of cashmere clothing. We met up again at The Macallan for a private lunch and tour, which took the whole afternoon and finished with a fascinating tasting of many iterations of the famous whisky from raw new spirit to the 25-year-old sherry wood version. Back at the lodge for dinner, local Gaelic musicians set susceptible feet a-twinkling until the evening dissolved into poker and spirited conversation.

Next morning we proceeded to Glencoe, pausing for a picnic lunch by a loch (the weather now matching the south of France for sun-drenched splendour) and an encounter with a highlander who filled us in on local history, reminding the two MacDonalds in our midst about the sufferings of their forebears at the hands of the Campbells. We climbed Ben Nevis (okay, we went up most of the way in a cable car) and reached the dour glen in the early evening, where our resident beer expert, Michael from Ottawa, was able to guide us toward some excellent local ales.

Driving southwest, next day, over mountain and moor to the ferry to Islay, I was gratified to find fog and roiling black cloud, but the sun had returned from a forget-me-not sky as we disembarked at Port Askaig, on the island’s eastern shore. I had talked up the bleak and desperate landscape of peat bog and heath, dangerous mud to suck you down and preserve your anguished body for millennia. Unaccustomed to even a five-day drought, the wilderness was cracked and dry and no more frightening than an English paddock. The distilleries, however, were just as I had imagined them—Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg—low white buildings along the southern shoreline of shimmering schist and Jura quartzite (thanks, Chris from Calgary, for providing the geological perspective). These are the most phenolic of all whiskies, their aromas and flavours a continual inspiration. “Halfway between hospital medicine and a burnt-down house,” was one happy verdict.

Two days on Islay allows a fairly thorough exploration of the island. On Friday we left for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, where we stayed in the whimsical splendour of Roman Camp hotel in Callendar, a 1625 hunting lodge on the banks of the River Teith. It proved an ideal denouement and gave us almost the finest dinner of the week, starring a perfect fillet of wild trout, the moist flesh lifted by a delicate risotto and crowned by a plump local shrimp, and a main course of local lamb loin cooked rare with crunchy fennel, unctuous aubergine, a purée of sun-dried tomato and a striped drum of firm, juicy zucchini. Dessert was a fantasy on a theme of rhubarb and pistachio, the most delectable element being a shot glass of rhubarb jelly topped with rich white single cream. The only meal to cap it was the dinner some of us prepared in the “frat house” cottage on Islay, to which the party element had been banished. Boris and Tom dazzled even the most sophisticated palates with their butter-poached local scallops, basted roast leg of lamb, barbecued langoustines, sausages, steaks and garlic potatoes while Maggie and I whipped up spaghetti bolognese and house salad.

Did I mention the breakfasts? They were splendid, especially the pre-departure feast at Glenegedale House on Islay, a crowded plate of fried eggs and bacon, sausage and potatoes, haggis, grilled tomatoes and butter-fried mushrooms. Or the jokes—which ranged wildly from the erudite to the surreal to the most groanworthy puns (thanks to Drake from Edmonton for them all). Or the strange coincidence of finding that my taste in movies is exactly the same as that of Jennifer from Montreal via Vancouver. (We were a long way from Grosvenor Square, were we not?)

And now the treats are over and I’m on the train south to London. I fear I will not be back in Toronto in time to attend an extraordinary event taking place at the Drake Hotel on May 21 in aid of the James Beard Foundation. Bonnie Stern is hosting a dinner cooked by five Canadian chefs whose names will certainly be familiar. Here’s how the press release describes the evening:

“Drake Executive Chef, Anthony Rose, leads the reception with a menu that includes Niagara Prosciutto and smoked pork shoulder with small batch maple syrup and wild strawberries.

“Diners will then have a rare opportunity to savour a course prepared by Vancouver celebrity chef Rob Feenie (Food Concept Architect, Cactus Restaurants), giving Torontonians a taste of the west coast with Qualicum Bay scallop tartar with Kumamoto oyster, caramelized onion foam, micro cilantro and vanilla scented trout roe. Tobey Nemeth (Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar) will prepare Lake Huron trout and Montreal’s Fred Morin (Joe Beef & Liverpool House) will dazzle with suckling pig from Quebec’s renowned St. Canut Farm
in the lower Laurentians, prepared in conjunction with French master chef Martin Picard (of Au Pied Du Cochon).

“Next, savour a selection of fine Canadian cheese, including Thunder Oak Gouda, prepared by Toronto’s Cole Snell (Provincial Fine Foods). Rounding out the meal, artisans David Castellan and Cynthia Leung (Soma Chocolate) will present their micro-batch truffles, blending cocoas from Madagascar, Ghana and Conacado, in the Dominican Republic.

“These stellar chefs will be joined by some of Ontario’s finest wine makers including Martin Malivoire of The Malivoire Wine Company, The Speck Brothers from Henry of Pelham and Debbie Pratt of Inniskillin, all from the Niagara Wine Region; as well as Norman Hardie of Norman Hardie Winery & Vineyards from Prince Edward County. All will contribute rare vintages that will make this James Beard Dinner a culinary tour de force…

“A limited number of seats are available for this gala event. Tickets are $295 including wine pairings, taxes and gratuity.

“For reservations and ticket information, please call 416.531.5042 ext. 113. Drake Hotel—1150 Queen St. West (Between Dovercourt and Dufferin). www.thedrakehotel.ca