The hotelier offered me eggs, bacon, black and white puddings and haggis, and inquired whether I would like anything with it. I knew he did not mean HP Sauce. He produced a bottle of single malt - it was Lagavulin - and generously moistened the haggis. The peaty, seaweedy flavours of the whisky aroused my appetite even more and cut into the fattiness of the meat. I spent the rest of the morning trying to walk off that feast.
Ever since, I have thought of haggis and whisky as a breakfast dish, rather than the fare for Burns' Night. It is not quite a daily indulgence, but I shall require something less routine when I toast the passionate poet on Wednesday.
A dish has to be robust to withstand Scotland's wine-of-the-country, whether as an accompaniment, a condiment or even an ingredient, but I have enjoyed some great success in marrying the two.
The first was a formal dinner in a spectacular location, amid the sphinxes in the archaeological museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It is at this university that the anthropologist Professor Solomon Katz developed a theory that seemsto suggest that civilisation began with drink. He argues that when human beings first gathered in organised societies, they did so in order to grow grain for the production of alcohol. Inspired by this notion, it was decided to hold a series of dinners in the university museum, featuring the two grain-based drinks: beer and whisky.
I was invited to collaborate on the menus. For the first whisky dinner, we tried something classically simple. Our starter was smoked salmon, marinated in the salty Oban single malt and garnished with seaweed. The accompanying whisky was the lightly pinyIsle of Jura, served in a small sherry copita. There was also plenty of Highland Spring bottled water on the table. Some guests chased down their whiskies with water, while others splashed a drop or two into the copita.
The main course was venison in a sauce made from a reduction of stock, the fruity Blair Atholl whisky and Perthshire raspberries. This was served with the spicy Royal Lochnagar.
The dessert was a butterscotch flan, flavoured with the honeyish Balvenie and served with a sweetish, nutty Macallan 18-year-old.
The powerful flavours of the whiskies did not dominate the dishes. Nor did the guests drink so liberally as to fall face-first into the flan. Emboldened, I accepted an invitation to conduct such a meal in an even odder situation: among the quickie wedding chapels and casinos of Reno, Nevada. This was as a fund-raiser for research into heart disease. "Does the American Heart Association approve of such indulgence?" I asked. "Dear boy," came the reply, "scarcely a day passes without a new report into the benefits of moderate drinking."
We moderately began with an aperitif of the light, grassy Glenkinchie Lowland Malt. The starter was Muscovy duck with a raspberry-orange coulis. I thought the raspberry-like fragrance of Knockando might help the sauce, and the peachy Glenlivet be a suitable accompaniment.
Pancetta-wrapped prawns with baby greens in balsamic vinegar were washed down by the peppery Talisker. A veal chop in lemon herb broth with pine nuts was accompanied by the herbal-tasting Cragganmore.
A bread pudding laced with the Scotch whisky liqueur Drambuie was served with The Singleton, noted for its suggestions of licorice or anis. As a digestif, we had an unusual choice: Chivas Royal Salute, a particularly good blended Scotch.
Scotch whiskies are very full, complex and varied in aromas and flavours, and some are natural accompaniments to food. While being matured in the cask, many coastal whiskies pick up a briny character that goes well with salty fish dishes. Glen Scotia, Bunnahabhain and Old Pulteney are good examples. If the malt bears witness to grains dried over peat, it will highlight smoky foods. Ardbeg has a leafy smokiness, while the aroma of Bowmore has a more lavender-like tinge.
Where water flows over heather on its way to the distillery, the subsequent whisky often has a honeyish character. This is particularly true of malts from Speyside. Glen Elgin is a good example. In some malts, the action of yeast during fermentation creates a fruity note. The marmalade-like character in Dalmore is probably heightened by the use of sherry casks. There is a distinct sherry character, too, in Glenfarclas and Aberlour.
If you have a bottle or two left from Christmas, perhaps they will inspire a dinner next week. It is hardly the sort of thing one can do every evening, but it is fun once in a wee while. There may be more malt in my saucepans on the Glorious Twelfth. Andagain on St Andrew's.