January 25 is Burns Night, a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796). The celebration is marked by a Burns Supper, an evening of food, toasts, recitals, and music in honour of the poet. The tradition goes back to the 18th century when friends of Burns gathered on July 21, the date of his death to remember his life. The first Burns Club to be founded in Greenock in 1801 began the tradition of celebrating Burns on his birthday, initially on 29 January until it was discovered in 1803 that Parish records were in error and Burns had been born on 25 January 1759.
The formal Burns Supper follows a traditional running order which begins with the host’s welcoming speech. Guests are seated and grace is said, most often using the words of the Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat an
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
Following grace soup is served, after which the ceremony of the Piping of the haggis takes place. All guests stand while a haggis is brought on a silver platter into the dining room by the cook led by a piper playing the bagpipes. The host, or an honoured guest, recites Burns’ Address to a Haggis, timing the slicing of the haggis with the words “His knife see rustic Labour dicht”. As the final line of the address, “Gie her a haggis!” is delivered the reciter holds the platter aloft to rapturous applause.
Following the recital the haggis is toasted and then served with mashed neeps and tatties and may be accompanied with a gravy or whisky sauce. A traditional Scottish dessert such as Tipsy Laird (a sherry trifle), Clootie dumpling (a fruit suet dumpling), or cranachan (a cream and oatmeal dessert flavoured with honey, whisky, and raspberries), follows the main course. Oatcakes and cheese complete the menu which is liberally lubricated with ale, wine, and of course, whiskey.
The meal is followed by the first entertainment in which one of Burns’ songs or poems is performed. The keynote speaker then delivers an Immortal Memory speech in honour of the poet, to which the host responds with thanks and comments on the points raised by the speaker. One of the men then rises to deliver the Toast to the Lassies, a humourous highlight of the evening which is designed to praise the role of women. The women then get the opportunity to respond with the Reply to the Laddies.
With the toasts concluded the guests may be regaled with renditions of Burns’ songs and poems before the host issues a vote of thanks to all who have contributed to the evening and the guests rise to sing Auld Lang Syne to bring the evening to a close
Haggis, Neeps and Tatties (serves 4)
For the Haggis
Option 1: Buy a 1 to 1½ pound haggis and follow the accompanying cooking instructions.
Option 2: Follow this recipe.
1 sheep’s pluck. i.e. the animals heart, liver, and lights (lungs).
1 sheep’s stomach (empty).
1lb lightly toasted pinhead oatmeal (medium or coarse oatmeal).
1-2 tablespoons salt.
1 level tablespoon freshly ground black pepper.
1 tablespoon freshly ground allspice.
1 level tablespoon of mixed herbs.
8oz finely chopped suet.
4 large onions, finely chopped.
(lemon juice (or a good vinegar) is sometimes added as well as other flavourings such as cayenne pepper)
Wash the stomach in cold water until it is thoroughly clean and then soak it in cold salted water for about 8-10 hours.
Place the pluck in a large pot and cover with cold water. The windpipe ought to be hung over the side of the pot with a container beneath it in order to collect any drips. Gently simmer the pluck for approximately 2 hours or until it is tender and then leave the pluck to cool.
Finely chop or mince the pluck meat and then mix it with the oatmeal. Add about half a pint of the liquor in which the pluck was cooked (or use a good stock). Add the seasonings, suet and onions, ensuring everything is well mixed.
Fill the stomach with the mixture, leaving enough room for the oatmeal to expand into. Press out the air and then sew up the haggis. Prick the haggis a few times with a fine needle. Place the haggis in boiling water and simmer for approximately 3 hours. When cooked set the haggis aside and keep warm until served.
For the Neeps
Some controversy rages over what exactly is a ‘neep’. Are they turnips or are they swedes (rutabaga to any American readers)? The jury seems to be out. As I much prefer swede to turnip I’m using them for this recipe. Replace them with turnips if preferred, or try a mix of both mashed together. Carrot and swede or carrot and turnip would also work equally well
1 swede weighing approximately 1½ pounds
3½ ounces of butter
Peel and chop the swede and place in a pan of salted water, ensuring the swede is covered. Bring the water to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes or until the swede is tender. Drain the swede thoroughly and set aside. Add the the butter to the pan and when it is melted add the swedes and roughly mash. Season with a little pepper.
For the Tatties
1½ pounds of potatoes, use a variety that are good for mashing
3½ ounces of butter
2 tablespoons of milk
A pinch of nutmeg
Peel and chop the potatoes into quarters and place in a pan of salted water, ensuring the potatoes are covered. Being the water to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes thoroughly and set aside. Add the the butter and half the milk to the pan and when the butter is melted add the potatoes and mash well. Add the nutmeg and stir in well. You’re aiming for smooth, creamy mashed spuds.
For the Whisky Sauce
17 fl oz double cream
1 teaspoon wholegrain mustard
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons whisky
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
½ lemon, juice only
Heat the cream in a over a medium heat being careful to not let it simmer or boil. Stir in the mustards and whisky and bring the pan to a gentle simmer and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper, stir in the chopped chives, and whisk in the lemon juice.
Cut open the haggis (you’re best advised to make a small incision first to release any pressure … just in case) and place a generous spoonful on each serving plate. Divide the neeps and tatties equally among the plates and spoon over the whisky sauce.
by Mike Dash
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