It’s around 200 years ago, and Robert Burns was about to set down in verse one of the world’s best known love poems.
The object of his true affection was not Clarinda or Highland Mary, of course, but that great chieftain of the pudding race, to be devoured steaming and with “gushing entrails bright”, groaning upon a trencher and washed down with a dram.
The spicy dish and its warming whisky chaser is a classic Scottish combination that has fuelled Burns Suppers around the globe for two centuries.
But what if Burns picked the wrong pudding to immortalise in his famous address? For, had he by chance encountered the ambrosial delights of a tot of whisky savoured alongside a luscious chocolate dessert instead, would Scots the world over this week be settling down to pay tribute to a very different, and much sweeter, pudding chieftain?
Highly unlikely, of course, since chocolate as we know it today wasn’t quite the dish of the day in Rabbie’s time.
Yet the notion that haggis is the sole dish to properly compliment a dram is being challenged by a culinary movement that insists Scotland’s national drink can be a versatile accompaniment to all manner of other – quite unlikely – flavours. And that includes, insists drinks specialist writer Tom Bruce-Gardyne, the bizarre-sounding combination of chocolate and whisky.
“They go together, definitely,” he stresses. “Where whisky comes into its own is when it’s paired with either a strong blue cheese or with the pudding course. Particularly chocolate puddings.
“There are actually very few pudding wines that can cope with being drunk alongside a chocolate pudding. They are swamped by the chocolate. Whereas one drink that does work well alongside a chocolate pudding is whisky.”
It’s a theory that has been put to the test at the Scotch Whisky Experience in the Royal Mile.
“Whisky is drunk traditionally after dinner but it’s good to experiment,” agrees manager and whisky expert Julie Trevison Hunter. “The easiest way is to pull it forward a bit in the meal and match it with dessert or cheese.
“Drinking whisky while eating rich dark chocolate might sound wrong but a rich sherry matured Speyside, like a Macallan or Dalmore, works extremely well.The reaction when people try it is usually fantastic.”
To prove it, the attraction’s whisky bar has its own organic dark chocolate, specially made by Edinburgh chocolatier Coco Chocolate, to compliment a dram. Every month, two fresh whiskies are selected to savour alongside the rich, dark treat.
But for those seeking to experiment with a broader range of flavours and accompaniments to their dram, diners at its restaurant, Amber, can try a selection of tapas-style dishes – including venison, pates, smoked fish and, of course, chocolate – selected to match the complex and often powerful flavours in their whisky glass.
“We also work with Humphrey Errington, whose Lanark Blue cheese has a super pairing with Scotch, particularly the more robust ones like Talisker and Lagavulin,” Julie adds.
Throwing whisky out of its “armchair by the fire” comfort zone is, insists Tom, author of The Scotch Whisky Book, a fun and often surprising exercise. But, he warns, don’t be too shocked if the often quite challenging demands of a powerful malt aren’t always the perfect accompaniment to what’s on the menu for dinner.
“I have an issue that whisky can go with everything,” he concedes. “It can go with certain courses extremely well, but it’s very hard to pair whisky right across a meal.
“Whisky works with haggis because haggis has very pungent flavours, it’s very mouth coating and wine can’t cope with that. Haggis needs a strong spirit. Besides, the gritty texture of haggis and oatmeal go really well together with malty flavours.
“I’d suggest a mid-peat whisky, not something as peaty like Ardbeg or Laphroig, but a moderate Highland whisky to give that smoky edge to the haggis.”
All that said, he admits he’ll dine on Burns Night with a Findlay’s of Portobello Asian Haggis – spiced with cumin, coriander and garam masala – washed down with, perhaps unexpectedly for a Scotch whisky expert like him, an Indian offering called Amrut –while raising a glass to the possibility of India relaxing duty on whisky imports and opening huge new trade avenues for the industry. The Scotch whisky industry is poised to invade India, and Indians could easily drain Scotland of the stuff,” he laughs. “And [Amrut] is actually a really nice drink.”
Besides, as Burns might have been tempted to say, a dram’s a dram for a’ that.
The Scotch Whisky Experience organises tastings and tours. For details go to www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk