Irini Tzortzoglou: Scotch Malt MasterChef


We’re always on the lookout for fellow flavour enthusiasts. When we first spoke to 2019 MasterChef winner, Irini Tzortzoglou, we knew we had met a kindred spirit – especially when we found out that she was already pairing Society whiskies and using them in some of her dishes. We asked Irini to help us explore the flavours of Greece and to tell us about her own whisky journey

Born on the Greek island of Crete, Irini spent the first part of her professional life, not as a chef, but as a banker for the National Bank of Greece. “I moved to London with my first husband in 1981, working in a Greek bank and getting to know the British culture,” she says. In 2010, she swapped London life for the village of Cartmel. “After leaving banking I moved to Cumbria with my second husband, John, and it was he who suggested I should enter MasterChef. And the rest, as they say, is history – I was crowned champion in 2019.”

Since then, Irini says life has been one continuous whirlwind. “I wrote a book, appeared at food festivals, released eight Greek menus with a recipe box company. I also get invited to cook in top hotels, members clubs and restaurants, and give olive oil tastings after becoming an olive oil sommelier and delivered culinary retreats.”

ABOVE: Good company is a staple ingredient, says Irini

ABOVE: Irini won the coveted MasterChef award in 2019

Irini is passionate about sharing the flavours she knows and loves. “Greek food is very simple and yet delicious at the same time,” she says. “It relies on the use of olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon juice for most of its flavour.” This focus on local ingredients offers dishes that sing of seasonal flavours throughout the year. “Having sun-ripened vegetables and fruit means that a cook does not need to try very hard in order to create a delicious plate of food, the Greek salad proving the point.”

And while local is key, equally it is the quality of these products that makes these dishes. “Good extra virgin olive oil is the super healthy fat we use in all our cooking,” says Irini. “It imparts a lot of flavour to the ingredients it is used to cook, marinate, dress or preserve.” And all of this is connected to the resulting flavours. “The grassy, tomato, artichoke, green almond, herb and many other notes that characterise Greek extra virgin olive oil enhance our sweet and flavoursome vegetables, delicious dairy and meat from animals which have grazed those very same things.”

“When I was growing up the kitchen was the centre of family life. My mother was always cooking or baking for those members of the family who were working in the fields or with the animals and the family would come together at mealtimes”

The final element to a good meal? Great company. There’s a big sense of community and sharing at mealtimes in Greece – especially in Irini’s experience. “When I was growing up the kitchen was the centre of family life. My mother was always cooking or baking for those members of the family who were working in the fields or with the animals and the family would come together at mealtimes,” she says. “The community comes together for religious celebrations, particularly Easter, which is the biggest celebration in the Orthodox religion. Lamb is roasted, raki* is drunk and there is a general sense of community togetherness – it’s my favourite time of the year.”

With such a love of flavour, it’s no surprise that Irini has come to enjoy the flavours that whisky can offer. That didn’t happen until a trip to the Isle of Skye for Christmas back in 2010. “Christmas Eve was a thoroughly miserable winter’s day so we were seeking indoor activities and one of the few options was a visit to Talisker distillery,” she says “We did the tour, enjoyed a dram and the journey might have ended there had the manager of the hotel where we were staying not been a whisky enthusiast. He organised a beginners’ tasting in the hotel at which he explained the basic characteristics of the four main regions and then set us a ‘blind’ test – which we passed with flying colours. That convinced us that we had what it took to appreciate whisky, rightly or wrongly! Since then we’ve been amateur enthusiasts.”

Irini first came across The Scotch Malt Whisky Society through John, who had been a member for a few years. Although she usually brings a bottle of extra virgin olive oil as a gift for hosts when invited, you’ll now often find her bringing a Society bottle and glasses with her to share whisky with friends.

As to what is in the bottle, although John is partial to Islay whiskies, something sherry-matured is the clear winner for Irini. “I generally prefer sherried whiskies and although I’m not a huge peat fan I do find that the combination of sherry with gentle peat is a winner,” she says. “So when John buys a bottle – as he always seems to be doing – which displays those characteristics I’m always after a dram. We enjoyed a bottle from distillery 10 recently and it was a cracker!”

If you are looking to cook with a Society whisky or pair it with your next Greek-inspired meal, Irini has ideas for both. “I recently used a peated, non-sherried whisky from distillery 53 in a dish, prawn ‘saganaki’, which usually is cooked with ouzo, and the results were fantastic,” says Irini. As with choosing ingredients carefully, finding the right kind of whisky is key. “Greek food is usually richly flavoured so I look for a whisky which itself is bold and has a fulsome character. And some whisky has maritime notes which go naturally with seafood and shellfish – we have a lot of both in Greek cuisine.”

Most importantly, if you are looking to host your own Greek night in the future, don’t forget the whisky! “Always have a few open bottles ready to share at short notice. Don’t reserve your bottles only for fellow connoisseurs,” Irini says. “Offer them freely and liberally, and don’t be surprised if you find that you have more friends than you realise!”

* Raki (from the Arabic word arak) or tsikoudia in the Cretan dialect, is the spirit which is distilled from the residue of crushed grapes, skins and seeds left over after the grapes are pressed to be used as wine. Every home in Crete has a bottle of chilled tsikoudia to offer to guests who drop in or to be enjoyed at mealtimes.

Find out more about Irini at www.irinicooks.com, and follow Irini on Instagram @irinitzortzoglou and on Twitter @IriniTzo