You truly don’t have to be Scottish to celebrate Burns Night on 25th January, the poet’s birth date in 1759. Yet for many of us its origins remain mystifying. Whether you are partial to haggis or not, the rituals that surround its consumption on Burns Night each year make for a gloriously rich dip into Caledonian history and culture.
The first Burns Night was celebrated in 1801, but held on 21 July when a group of Robert Burns' friends came together at his childhood home in Ayrshire to celebrate his life on the fifth anniversary of his death. Now, it is marked on his birthday.
If Rabbie Burns were alive today, someone on Twitter would likely to accuse him of cultural appropriation. They would have a point, too, because there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that haggis – sheep’s offal pudding – is originally an English dish, even though it has been perfected and made famous by the Scots. It was first mentioned in the 13th century by a knight from Hertfordshire and the earlier recipe was recorded in Lancashire, 350 years before Burns penned his address to the haggis.
Long before today's chefs started to celebrate 'nose-to-tail eating', Scots were putting it into practice with haggis. The ‘pluck’ of a sheep which couldn’t be salted or dried for preservation – that is heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal and spices – needed to be cooked immediately. They were put into the handy natural casing, the animal’s stomach, and steamed for several hours. The bulbous shape of a haggis looks rather unappealing like a bulging balloon, yet haggis has a subtle, savoury, aroma redolent of nutmeg and allspice when cut open.
The Address to a Haggis
The more squeamish can opt for Chicken Balmoral stuffed with haggis and served with lashings of creamy whisky sauce. There are now plenty of vegetarian haggis recipes blending grains and pulses, porridge oats, carrots, mushrooms, allspice and nutmeg. For Burns, haggis was a food fully worthy of rising from its humble roots. His famous Address to a Haggis celebrates how it is finer fare than many a fancier plate, belittling any who would choose ‘French ragout’ or ‘fricassée’, or dare ‘looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view/On sic a dinner’.
The epicentre of Burns Night is the host reciting Address to a Haggis. He or she should have a knife ready when saying the line ‘His knife sees rustic Labour dight’. When the moment comes, the haggis is opened along its length, so that diners can see what Burns describes as ‘trenching your gushing entrails’.
Neeps & Tatties
The traditional accompaniment to haggis are potatoes and swedes served boiled and mashed to a smooth purée that makes a good antidote to the rough, oaty, full-on taste and texture of the haggis. Neeps are swedes, not turnips, and served smashed or as the Scots put it, bashed. Skirlie mash comes with toasted oats on the top.
A Scottish soup dish made with peppered chicken stock, leeks and thickened with barley. Traditionally, shredded prunes are added, too, for comfort and sweetness.
Cranachan & Clootie Dumpling
Another option is Clootie Dumpling, a steamed pudding with dried fruits including apricots and currants, oatmeal and suet plus all manner of spices such as cinnamon and ginger. It is traditionally boiled in a clootie or cloth, hence its name.
As well as the distinctive food, there is invariably whisky to toast the haggis. Some like to pour a wee dram of whisky over the haggis on their plate to creat their own impromptu sauce.
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