Food and drink pairings are – or should be – a part of our everyday lives. This wine goes with that fish, this port with that cheese, and those Bloody Marys for that regrettable Saturday morning. What we don’t know of unfamiliar pairings, we leave to our taste buds to decide. Failing that, we turn to sommeliers, and all is well with the world.
Now, imagine turning things up a few thousand notches, and picture those taste buds as a three-Michelin-star restaurant, and the sommelier as the maker of one of the most celebrated whiskies in the world. That’s right, El Celler de Can Roca is working with The Macallan for just six exclusive dinners that will send your senses into overdrive, and it’s all for a good cause.
The Masters of Taste project is a new initiative by The Macallan, and follows in the footsteps of the previous Masters of Photography series by partnering with true geniuses in the field. And it couldn’t have found a better fit than El Celler de Can Roca. The famous restaurant, based in the Catalan city of Girona, earned the top spot on British magazine Restaurant’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list last year, breaking the monotony of previous regular wins by Noma and El Bulli. But it’s not just parallel acclaim that makes this a beautiful pairing; it’s the fact that a majority of The Macallan’s wooden casks – the flavour-imparting heart and soul of every whisky – comes from the forests and cooperages of Spain.
A seat at one of these dinners will cost US$10,000 ($12,500), and the proceeds, along with a further contribution from The Macallan, will go to a charity that will be decided at a later date. Each dinner, which will host about 150 guests, will feature 10 “snacks”, 10 dishes and two dessert items. While the snacks will be accompanied with cocktails, the subsequent courses will be paired with 14 rare Macallan whiskies, some of which were previously unreleased. Guests will also have a chance to chat with the chefs, visit the kitchen or marvel at the 60,000 bottles resting in the wine cellar. Of course, $10,000 is still a hefty sum for a whisky dinner and a restaurant tour, so we went to Spain to see just why this is worth every last cent.
A KINDRED SPIRIT
The Macallan has long been a household name in the upper echelons of whisky appreciation, and is now the third-largest premium malt Scotch by volume in the world, and sold in over 70 markets. Its popularity stems from the insane effort that goes into making a single bottle, such as the use of sherry-seasoned oak casks (which cost up to 10 times more than bourbon casks, which are the industry standard) for more complex flavours, the absence of artificial colouring, and the fact that only 16 per cent of the spirit collected from stills end up in casks for ageing.
So prized are the liquids that come from this distillery that its collectible editions often come out tops, in terms of auction prices. Just this January, a 6-litre bottle of the “M” Decanter, a special edition housed in Lalique crystal, sold for US$628,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, breaking the world record for the most expensive single malt ever sold. And the legendary Macallan “M” is just one of the whiskies that will be served at the dinner.
Other expressions include The Macallan 1986, 1998 and 2007. If you’ve never heard of these before, it’s simply because they were never made into individual bottles. Although they’re obviously good enough to stand alone, such spirits are reserved for contributing to the Macallans we see on shelves. And we have the Roca brothers to thank for letting these unreleased liquids see the inside of a glass.
Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca are the main forces behind the restaurant, and hold the positions of head chef, sommelier and pastry chef respectively. Flying to Scotland whenever they could afford the time, the culinary siblings have nosed almost a thousand whiskies for over a year to select which ones they could bring back to Spain for experimentation with food. “You cannot imagine what it was like for me, a sommelier, to open the distillery doors and see everything set up for you, ready for you to play,” enthuses Josep.
And it was fun for the other party too. Says The Macallan’s whisky maker, Bob Delgarno: “It was a completely different experience for me, since I got to see how a chef defines the flavours of a whisky, compared to how I would. They were looking for all sorts of specific flavours, like sweet vanilla, crispy bacon, wood notes and earthy notes. We were really working together on this, exchanging views and suggestions.”
A MAGNIFICENT MENU
Working with aromas is a concept that’s close to the hearts of the Roca men, as they have deconstructed numerous famous perfumes, from Eternity by Calvin Klein to L’eau D’Issey by Issey Miyake, into food recipes. “There are many reasons for us to work with The Macallan,” says Joan. “A respect for tradition, commitment to innovation and so on. But aromas form both our key creative processes.”
And whatever the trio have gleaned from the fragrant spirit has been expertly realised in their dishes. The St George’s mushroom brioche is like a cream-stuffed pillow. The langoustine, steamed with Macallan that was poured over it onto hot rocks in a dish below, is a crowd favourite. The goose a la royale is topped with a foam they call “air of earth” which, if you can get over the trend of “air” in posh food, actually manages to recall the memories of fresh, damp soil on a rainy day.
Joan’s dishes are familiar, but never tired; beautifully plated, but never for the sole sake of looking pretty. The simple dish of turbot is presented with smears of olive oil, orange, apricot, pine nut and curry sauces – artistic and tasty.
Jordi is no slouch in his part of the kitchen, either. His sheep’s milk toffee with pear foam, liquorice and truffle sorbet leaves you with the immense satisfaction that comes with good desserts. The “cream of chocolate with milk and Earl Grey, bergamot granite and lemon sable biscuit, and spice-bread ice cream” is just many words and ingredients strung together to describe what a lovely English tea session would taste like if the English excelled in the kitchen.
But credit must also be given to El Celler de Can Roca’s suppliers, the Carpier Culinary Centre, where Catalan chefs go to sample and experiment with quality produce. And the farmers here take as much care in growing and cultivating their food as much as chefs do in preparing them. Cheese, smoked meats, seafood, vegetables and, of course, Iberico ham come in at stellar levels here. The pigs, for example, come from a farmer that slaughters only 25 pigs a week. One variety of ham comes from pigs that are allowed to live for two years (some live no longer than five months), given 2ha each to roam around in, and fed a diet of acorns. The curing process can take up to three years.
There is also a smoking station that lightly smokes everything from eel to octopus. One delicacy is salmon nose, and fishermen have to bring in tens of kilograms of salmon to get just a small bag of fatty slivers of noses not much larger than your thumb. Even something as simple as a small bowl of boiled peas here holds as much flavour as something with a dozen ingredients.
With raw materials like that, El Celler de Can Roca deserves its ranking and reputation. And together with The Macallan, you can expect the dinner to be a sensorial tour de force; every bite and sip will make it ever clearer why these two are at the top of their respective worlds.