Few foods have had a whole ode dedicated to them, but Rabbie knew a good thing when he spotted it. LAURA ROWE looks at the Scottish tradition of Burns Night, and its most famed celebratory dish – haggis
For a man who only lived to the age of 37, and some 250 years ago at that, the Scottish poet Robert Burns has had a lasting effect on his country – and on the wilder world. A politician, Romantic and womaniser, our Rabbie was also a big fan of food – haggis, mainly – and it’s for that that we love him the most. Each year, on the anniversary of his birthday, poets, patriots and foodies celebrate his passing.
The original Burns Night was held in Ayrshire at the end of the 18th century by ‘the ploughman poet’s’ friends on the anniversary of his 21 July, 1796 death. Nowadays, though, it usually held on 25 January or thereabouts (the Bard’s birthday), and some key traditions are always followed.
First, let’s talk food. (Of course, as we would!) These nights are a celebration, so expect three courses, minimum, kicking off with a Scottish soup like cock- a-leekie. A warming broth of leek, chicken and stock with the addition of veggies and prunes (depending on how authentic you’re going), it’s a happily light beginning, because the meal gets very hearty later on. Alternatively, you might get offered Cullen skink, a dish that originated in the town of Cullen in North East Scotland: think a Scottish chowder, but better. This is a more creamy affair, with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions.
The centrepiece of the meal – and the night – is, of course, the haggis. Subject of Burns’ Address to a Haggis, it’s fair to say that this savoury pudding isn’t to everyone’s taste. (More fool the haters, we say.) Talk to a Scot and they might try and convince you that a haggis is a wee lopsided beastie that roams the Highlands. And, depending on how much Scotch whisky you’ve indulged in, you might even believe them. (Indeed ‘haggis hunting’ is almost a national sport in some parts, designed for unsuspecting American tourists.)
But, of course, the “great chieftain o the puddin’ race” that Burns was whittering on about is really a surprisingly delicious combination of sheep’s pluck (that’s heart, liver and lungs), coarse oatmeal, spice and suet, all sealed inside a sheep’s stomach. It sounds a bit gross, admittedly, but it’s one of those foods that has to be tried to be believed. And, actually, us Southerners shouldn’t turn our noses up too much. Haggis is very similar to a hog pudding, something we regularly used to enjoy in the West Country, which was basically a pig’s heart mixed with cereal. (And, let’s be honest, it’s not exactly much of a leap from this to the black and white puddings you find sliced and fried on your traditional full English every weekend.) Leading haggis maker Macsween uses a combination of lamb and beef offal in their version, and makes 350 tonnes of the stuff each year, largely to satisfy the demand for Burns Night alone. That’s more than 1.5 million portions – so it can’t be all that bad.
Some say the very first haggis originated with the Romans, others with the Scandinavians, and some even with the English – a few years ago it was claimed that an English cook book referenced the dish at least 100 years before any existing Scottish record of it. But a common idea is that the first recipe arose when hunters returned with a kill and needed to use up the offal straight away. The stomach provided a ready-made container.
Nowadays, your haggis is just as likely to be deep-fried – or made into a burger or pizza topping – as traditionally served, and there are rumours that haggis pakoras will hit our supermarket shelves next year, thanks to a Greenock meat processing business.
But back to Burns! Often the haggis will be brought out to the sounds of a piper, on a silver platter, and sliced from end to end by the host at the end of the ode. It will be served with neeps and tatties – turnips (actually, what us English lot call swedes) and potatoes. A dram of Scotch is bound to feature in there too, in a glass on the side and/or for spiking the gravy.
It could very well feature in your dessert, too. How does cranachan sound? If we were to compare it to an English pud (something we’d do very quietly) it’s a bit like an Eton Mess: think folds of pillowy double cream, with sweetly sharp Scottish raspberries, toasted Scottish oatmeal, Scotch whisky (yep, more of the stuff ) and, if you’re lucky, some authentic fragrant heather honey. Or perhaps you might have tipsy Laird, a whisky trifle-style dessert.
Even more traditional is the Clootie pudding, which is a rich fruity suet pud, often served with cream and yet more whisky on the side. And, of course, the cheeseboard is sure to be served with Scottish oatcakes. (If not, you have our permission to properly kick off.)
There are other conventions, too, such as the Selkirk Grace (so called because Burns was said to have once delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk), which is said before the meal starts. Sometimes there’s Scottish dancing, toasting of the ‘lassies’ and a reply. And you thought Auld Lang Syne was just for Hogmanay? Think again! This classic gets sung at the end of a good Burns Night too.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Now you just need a place to take part, and guess what…?
From 7pm. Expect a piper and drinks around the torchlit baths, before a feast in The Pump Room with a recital by Leonard Pearcey and Ceilidh dancing to the Dalriada Scottish Country Dance Band at this unique venue with a traditional menu. £55pp.
The Kilted Chef
The clue is in the title with this Bath restaurant – it’s home to Scottish chef Dougie Bonar. He’ll be making his own haggis for the night and keeping things truly authentic. £60pp.
Menu Gordon Jones
He’s Birmingham born, with a Welsh surname and a Scottish accent. Confused? Don’t be. He’s one of the city’s top chefs, and if you are after something a little bit different and unexpected head to Menu Gordon Jones this Burns Night. Keep an eye on the website for details.
Bristol Marriott Royal
Get a warm glow from whisky, and the knowledge that your night of Scottish revelry is in aid of The Prince’s Trust. Enjoy four courses, a raffle, disco, band and a bagpiper. £400 per table of 10.
Hotel du Vin
Can’t make the 25th? This Bristol hotel is hosting a Burns Night supper and Scottish whisky tasting on Friday 24 January instead. Appetites will be lubricated before dinner with the whisky, before a three-course traditional menu is laid on with house wine. £75pp.
If you like the sound of Scottish grub but don’t fancy the full Burns Night fanfare, then this Clifton eatery is simply adding a few of the classics to its a la carte menu, and chef assures us that even with three courses it will still come to around the £25 mark. Bargain!
Double Michelin Star winner Martin Burge has designed a four-course menu for this luxury hotel’s Burns Supper on 21 January, which will also include a canapé reception using ingredients from the Rannoch Smokery and a selection of whiskies presented by Adelphi. Be sure to wear black tie or traditional Scottish dress. £98pp.
The Golden Cross Inn
This Cirencester boozer is keeping it traditional on 25 Jan with neaps, tatties and haggis and Cheltenham performer and proud Scot Johnny Wright who will be on the pipes. The question is though, will head chef Justin produce the deep-fried Mars bar like he did at last year’s Burns Night… £40pp.
Make like the royals do on Friday 24 January and join fellow guests for a candlelit Burns Supper in the Orchard Room at Highgrove. It kicks off at 7pm with Champagne cocktails, and will be followed by an authentic four-course dinner with piper, Address to the Haggis and more. £95pp.
Kings Head Inn
After the success of last year’s Burns Night at this pub in Bledington, the team are hosting another, this time on 25 January with a piper coming all the way down from Scotland especially. Enjoy three courses, including a haggis for only £25pp.
The Inn at Fossebridge
If you like the sound of Scottish grub but don’t fancy the full Burns Night fan fare, then this gastropub on the outskirts of Cirencester is simply adding a few of the classics to its a la carte menu.
If there’s a big gang of you, why not head to this converted ox barn in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside. A special Burns Night is being hosted by the team, with McBaile Exclusive caterers in the kitchen, on Saturday 25 January. Expect three courses, drinks on arrival, a disco and fireworks. £45pp.