Monday, February 16, 2009

Robert Burns Lunch - 250th Anniversary of Birth of Bard

It was Burns Night in Scotland on Sunday, 25 January, and not just any Burns Night, but one celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of their national bard, Robert Burns.

Haggis is the focus of the feast - the national dish. Across the country there were full-ceremonial Burns Suppers, while many restaurants and bars served a much simpler offering of the revered 'beastie', and families and friends gathered in homes for informal festivities.

Burns Suppers were started by friends of the Bard in 1801, five years after his death, at Allowway in Ayr where he was born and where the family cottage is now a national monument.

In Edinburgh the day before Burns Night we saw that the luxury store Harvey Nichols - known as Harvey Nicks - would be celebrating with a Robert Burns Lunch as part of their usual Sunday Jazz Brunch. Enticed by the mysterious-sounding haggis and clapshot, and cranachan, we went along to savour the celebration.

The lunch was in the Forth Floor Brasserie, whose name emanates from the views of the Firth of Forth. Set on the fourth floor, it is an informal restaurant with huge glass windows that give a magnificent panorama of the city.

And being Sunday, as we sat there we were accompanied by the soft swing of live jazz.

Scotch Broth was first on the menu. This was a delightful, lightly-coloured concoction of what seemed to be lamb stock with pearl barley, finely-chopped onions, carrots, and 'neeps' - the Scottish colloquialism for yellow turnips otherwise known as swedes.

Served in a small bowl, it was tasty and a much slimmer version of the traditional recipe being without mutton or lamb or as many vegetables.

The original broth is not extinct, however, for the website of Traditional Scottish Recipes says, 'In modern times many Scottish households still serve Scotch Broth as a main meal rather than a starter soup.'

But with our broth as a forerunner for 'haggis and clapshot', our attention soon turned to 'what is clapshot?!' Ye olde beastie with a relic of cannon shot? A uniquely preserved recipe handed down through the clans?

'Mashed potato,' said our friendly waiter, diffusing the romantic image that a piece of ancient Scottish tradition was about to appear before us in something more than dialect.

More particularly, Traditional Scottish Recipes describes clapshot as a 'traditional Orkney recipe of tatties (potatoes) and swede (yellow turnip) and is usually served with haggis', adding that it is sometimes called Clapshaw or Orcadian Clapshot.

Orcadian Clapshot sounds so much better than mash!

As for the haggis, the haggis in its full glory at a Burns Supper is an enormous entity heralded by a piper and carried high on a platter by the chef, with a bearer of whisky for the 'wee dram' following behind.

This is where the poet is honoured. Robert Burns' ode 'To a Haggis' is recited, and on the line, 'An' cut you up wi' ready slight,' the haggis is not only sliced into but on occasions, attacked. A vivid description of the capers of the ceremony is in Hugh Douglas' The Burns Supper Companion, which we picked up in a coffee shop earlier that morning.

But this was not a Burns Supper!

Our dish arrived, a smoothly whipped, yellowish round of mash atop an equally rounded, well-tamed offering of 'the beastie.'

At best, a large bagel of a beast that slipped in quietly to the strains of bebop without a note from a bagpipe.

Neither was the ceremonial Selkirk Grace, falsely attributed to Burns in the 1800s, said over it, a Grace that we used to read in a childrens' book of prayers and graces:

'Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thankit.'

In trepidation, I forked my haggis, for the contents of the original haggis are not for the squeamish. To Burns it was the 'great chieftain o' the puddin race', in other words, a sausage!

But what did they used to put in it? They raided the carcas!

Heart, lights - lungs - liver, beef suet, oatmeal and onions, all minced and sewn into the large stomach bag of a sheep.

Even the name tells you what it is, for 'haggis' probably comes from the old Scottish word 'hag' meaning to hack, says Hugh Douglas quoting from F. Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen.

Though he also quotes food specialist Clarissa Dickson Wright in her book, The Haggis: a Little History, who says that haggis was possibly taken to Scotland by the Vikings with the root of the name in Old Norse, Icelandic or even Norman French.

No-one knows for sure. But I had heard that these days a sheep's stomach bag isn't used, and as for the rest...

It was do and die?!

The haggis met my was sweet and spicy, light in texture, meaty and.....Quite delicious.

Looking up recipes afterwards, A Cook's Tour of Scotland by Sue Lawrence shows that today it can be made with lamb kidneys and shoulder, and beef suet and liver.

So there is hope, glorious hope!

The very interesting fact about haggis is that it is no longer made at home but bought in butchers, the Master of them being John MacSween who supplies superior haggis for formal occasions across the country.

And from then on, it was easy. Dessert of cranachan is another national recipe that features in the Scottish New Year and Burns Night Suppers. Also called Cream Crowdie, it is a sort of raspberry mousse made, in a recipe taken from Maw Broon on the Traditional Scottish Recipes website, from oatmeal, raspberries, cream, whisky and honey.

And accompanied by that great Scottish favourite, shortbread.

The meal was topped off with coffee and 'homemade tablet' of which show tablet to be little squares of toffee made with condensed milk, but which I would say here was an upmarket version of chocolate and nuts.

All for £15. And we left, without the crossing of hands and singing of the bard's most famous song, Auld Lang Syne.

For those of us not involved with Scottish culture and the full poetic versions of a Burns Night, where speeches are made and the bard's poems recited to preserve the Immortal Memory, the simpler lunchtime events contribute to the national day.

In Harvey Nicks, the food was excellent, the service friendly and efficient, the views stunning, the jazz great...but there was one detail missing...This was the 250th ANNIVERSARY of the BIRTH of their NATIONAL BARD - and there were no posters, pictures or was as if the store were on autopilot with their usual Burns Lunch on the annual calendar.

Where were the birthday banners and a piper for the special occasion?

Afterwards, as we walked up Princes Street, the heart of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland...not a sign of the Bard's birthday celebrations.

So the following day, I went back to Princes Street to investigate. See next blogs.

Pics of haggis and clapshot; cranachan; and coffee and homemade tablet, taken by Julie

1 comment:

Josh Lewis said...

Good on somebody to rave about the Scots! I have visited their land several times and their culture and Georgian architecture is worth the flight! Josh Lewis, Florida