On or around 25 January, we Scots celebrate the birthday of our nation’s favourite poet, Robbie Burns by getting really drunk reading poems, eating haggis and drinking whisky with our friends – lots of fun and my annual dabble in whisky drinking (watch for “sare heeds” the next day).
For those who don’t know, haggis is a delicious, spicy meal made with mutton (don’t ask where exactly), spices and oatmeal, served in the sheep’s stomach. Don’t be squeamish – if you like offal/sausages, you’ll love haggis. We eat it with neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes). It should look a bit like the plate below and is DELICIOUS (honestly – I have served it to many dubious non-Scots who’ve loved it). McSween’s is the best type of haggis to buy – in London they sell it in Selfridges, health food shops and most butchers – here’s a list of stockists. They also do veggie versions which are very nice too.
Men normally wear kilts (and look very good – avoid handstands) and women can wear a tartan sash.
Traditionally, the guests mingle and then the host will invite them to the table and make a traditional grace (the Selkirk Grace) . Then, if you want to follow the traditional pomp, a piper will pipe in the haggis in a formal procession, with the haggis carried behind by the chef (you). If you’re in a one-bed flat in Brixton then you can possibly do without the piping/procession but maybe get some bagpipe music on. It’s Scottish tradition that the chef and piper then have a whisky toast (any excuse).
Then, the person with the most Scottish accent at the table (my tradition) will read the Address to a Haggis , an ode to how nice haggis is and a little dig at the French, he! When the poem says “His knife see rustic Labour dight, An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight” that’s the cue for the chef to slice the haggis open in a ceremonial stylee. The poem then goes on to say “Trenching your gushing entrails bright..” at which point the meat should spill over – yum.
Everyone then eats, laughs and drinks a lot of whisky. You should try to buy a good Scottish whisky - El G is a bit of a whisky fan and has kindly given me the info below (also check out this great whisky blog):
- If you are already partial to the odd drop, then try the Highland Park 18 years old. “Toffee sweetness with a full smoky after taste”, apparently. The Highland Park distillery is the most northerly distillery in the UK, based on the beautiful island of Orkney (and well worth a visit if you make it that far north).
- El G’s final suggestion is for the expert or the brave whisky drinker. The Laphroig Quarter Cask is a “beast of a dram“. Hailing from the home of strong peaty flavours, the Island of Islay, it epitomises the uber-smoky characteristics associated with this part of Scotland. Be careful though, it packs a punch and is best served with a splash of water to open up the flavours and save you from a very warm gullet.
After that, if you’re a traditionalist, a speaker will deliver the Immortal Memory address which is a consideration of the life and art of Rabbie Burns followed by yet another toast; a Toast to the Lassies where one of the blokes gently mocks the women there followed by another toast; and then the Reply from the Lassies where the women slag off the men back, followed by more toasts. All in good humour (Burns was definitely a ladies’ man). Its good to read some of Burns’ poems - I love A Man’s A Man For ‘A That and A Red, Red Rose but there’s also great elogies to booze and women, and you can end with Auld Lang Syne.
If you want a traditional Scottish dessert, try Cranachan (recipe here) – really simple with cream, raspberries and oatmeal, and of course more whisky (phew). Put in glasses and keep in the fridge until your guests are ready.
Finally, make sure you end the night with 2 pints of water and an aspirin (not tradition but necessary – 25 January is a Monday…), and finally, thanks to H & S for inviting us to their Burns’ supper for the second year in a row