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Issue 6 - O what a glorious sight!

Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


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O what a glorious sight!

The traditional supper to celebrate the work of Robert Burns tends to be a lively affair. Sue Lawrence looks at the elements that can help make the evening a success

There is no such thing as a quiet Burns Supper. No matter where it takes place – in a hotel, church hall or one’s own home – it will not be, by nature, sedate. Part of Scottish culture for some 200 years, the ritual was begun by close friends of the poet Robert Burns after his death in 1796 in tribute to his memory. And although the basic format of the evening has remained unchanged over the years (The Selkirk Grace, The Immortal Memory, The Toast to the Lassies, its response and so on), the food has moved with the times, while adhering more or less to the soup, haggis, Scottish pudding formula. And as for the drink – with obligatory whisky for all the toasts (of which there are many) – is it any
wonder that the event is a far from quiet affair?

Haggis is the centre point of Burns Suppers, not only because it is now revered as Scotland’s national dish (which is different from Scotland’s everyday fare – mince and tatties) but because of Burns’ poem To A Haggis.

During the third verse, the kilted reciter ceremoniously stabs the haggis and the euphoric guests look on admiringly as its “gushing entrails” are revealed. In the bard’s own words, “And then O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich.”

Rich it is, and oh so delicious. And if you are one of the squeamish “oh I couldn’t possibly eat bits and pieces from inside an animal” brigade, then just think of it as a sausage. A sausage with a long and glorious history. A good haggis – with a perfect balance of peppery spice and meaty, oatmeal texture – is truly one of life’s gastronomic treats. I rate it up there with white truffles or lobster, and I far prefer it to caviar. But then, you might have realised by now that I am Scots.

Haggis must therefore be on the menu somehow, whether in the traditional way with mashed neeps (mashed turnip or swede) and tatties, or in some new-fangled manner such as towers, stacks or terrines, as chefs now seem to favour. Soup is invariably served, and since the Burns Supper is a winter feast, one of Scotland’s thick hearty soups such as scotch broth, partan bree (made with crab and rice) or cullen skink (smoked haddock and potato) are ideal. And when you are thinking of Scottish soups, do not even consider thin consommés. Think rather along the lines of Robert Crawford’s poem about scotch broth : “A soup so thick you could shake its hand and stroll with it before dinner.”

Roast beef is always welcome as a main course, since it is suitably gutsy and hearty. As for dessert, we have some truly delicious puddings, from Scots trifle, redolent of whisky or Drambuie, to cranachan with a strong hint of both honey and whisky.

And even if you are serving a lighter ice or mousse, proffer shortbread or tablet (Scottish fudge) alongside, for fear of denying Scots the opportunity to appease that confounded sweet tooth as often as possible.

Then, once the plates are cleared and the glasses refilled for the toasts, you will very soon begin to appreciate why Burns Suppers are rather noisy affairs.

They are not only fitting tributes to the bard. They are convivial, entertaining and, hopefully, delicious. And above all, never quiet.

Serves 6 – 8
3 medium red onions, peeled, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 tbsp red wine
1 level tbsp dark brown sugar
24 baked tartlet cases
1 haggis

For the marmalade, sauté the onions in the oil for 15 – 20 minutes, until softened, then add the vinegar, wine and sugar. Increase the heat, then once bubbling, reduce to simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes – stirring occasionally – until thick. Season to taste and cool.

Place the pastry cases on baking sheets and heat through in a warm oven. Heat the haggis (I wrap it in foil and place in a medium oven for about 45 minutes or until piping hot). Slit, then spoon some into each warm pastry case, top with a dollop of marmalade and serve at once.

Serves 6 – 8
In Scotland we use turnips for the Orcadian dish of clapshot – in England turnip is referred to as swede: it is the one with the orange flesh.
3 – 4 ribs of beef, at room temperature
750g / 1 lb10 oz potatoes ( peeled weight),
peeled, cut
750g / 1 lb 10 oz turnip / swede ( peeled
weight), peeled, cut
75g / 2oz butter
2 tbsp freshly cut chives

Season the beef all over then place in a roasting tin without added fat. Roast in a preheated oven (230C/450F/Gas 8) for 15 minutes then reduce to 170C/325F/Gas 3 and continue to cook for 17 minutes per 450g/1 lb. Baste every now and then. Once the meat is done, remove to a carving board and cover loosely with foil. Rest for 15 minutes while you make gravy. For the clapshot, boil the vegetables until tender, then drain thoroughly and mash with the butter. Season to taste then stir in the chives. Serve piping hot.

Serves 6 – 8
The character of this ice cream alters depending on which whisky you use; I recommend a Speyside or Lowland malt, not an Islay one which is overpoweringly peaty for ice cream. Serve this with seasonal berries and some shortbread.

500 ml / 18 fl oz milk
300 ml / 10 fl oz double cream
2 tbsp honey (preferably heather honey)
4 large free-range egg yolks
100g / 3 oz golden caster sugar
2 tbsp malt whisky

Place the milk, cream and honey in a heavy-based pan and slowly bring to the boil. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until smooth then stir a little of the milk mixture into the yolks. Pour this into the pan and cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes, until slightly thickened. Don’t boil or it will curdle.

Leave to cool then stir in the whisky and churn in an ice cream machine until ready. Or freeze in a shallow freezer container and remove and beat madly every hour or so. Transfer to the fridge to soften up before serving.

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