Burns Supper

Originally published January 25, 2011.

 

If you’re not already acquainted, let me introduce you to the proud institution that is the Burns Supper.

A portrait of Robert BurnsRobert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Ayr, Scotland. He grew up on farmland leased by his parents, and wrote several poems and songs about that rustic life, hence his famous epithet, “the ploughman poet.” His first book of poetry, published in 1786, was an explosive success, and he was quickly accepted into Edinburgh society, becoming a Freemason and working as a tax collector.

His poetry was written in an old Scottish dialect, one that modern English readers find more difficult to understand than Shakespeare. Even so, you probably know some of his verses. He wrote lyrics to several Scottish folk melodies, including “Auld Lang Syne” and “My Luve’s like a Red, Red Rose.” The title of John Steinbeck’s short novel “Of Mice and Men” is from a Burns’ poem called “To a Mouse”:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane (you’re not alone),
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley (often go awry).

Newer editions of his poetry are thoroughly footnoted to guide the modern reader. Burns was a forerunner of the romantic movement, and his poetry is a very enjoyable read, especially if you read it aloud in a hack Scottish accent, as I do.

Burns died in 1796. In 1801, his friends held the first Burns Supper, in Greenock. I don’t know much about that first celebration, but the modern Burns Supper is an elaborate ritual. Dinners start with grace, usually the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat an’ canna eat,
An’ some wad eat that want it.
But we hae meat, an’ we can eat,
Sae let the Lord bethankit.

After the preliminary courses, a plattered haggis is piped into the dining room and set at the head of the table. (You can read about how we make the haggis here.)  A Burns poem called “Address to a Haggis” is read. Part of the poem describes a man wiping a knife, and plunging it into a haggis, and the reader usually does these actions in tandem with the poem. After the address the guests drink a toast of scotch whisky to the haggis. The haggis is usually eaten with mashed turnips and potatoes (“neeps and tatties”), which together are called clapshot.

After the main courses, a speaker delivers the Immortal Memory, a reflection on the life and work of Robert Burns. Later, there is another speech called The Toast to the Lassies. This was originally designed to thank the women who had prepared the meal, but today usually features the speaker’s view of women, generally. It is followed by the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, these days usually a woman giving her views on men.

Burns Suppers were once very common in Canada, especially down east. In the late 1700s Canada received thousands of Scottish settlers, many of whom became notable fur traders and merchants. Notable Canadians of Scottish birth include Sir John MacDonald, Alexander Graham Bell, and Donald Smith, better known in these parts as Lord Strathcona. Scottish immigrants established St. Andrew’s Societies as a way of preserving their traditions, and the annual Burns Supper was often the largest and most raucous event of the year.

Button Soup Burns Suppers

While my sister was studying in Edinburgh, I took a renewed interest in my Scottish heritage. (“Suddabys,” by the way, are originally from Yorkshire, but our other ancestral family names include “MacMillan” and “Airth.”)  My sister brought me a fantastic book called The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill, which has given me a respect for Scots cuisine. When I first read about Burns Suppers, I resolved to start hosting them myself.  The first supper was held in 2011.

Here is some footage from the 2012 supper, graciously filmed by Kevin Kossowan.

The program from that night:

Burns Supper 2012

Bill of Fare

Welcome

Grace

Barley-Broth: lamb and barley soup
A Scots Rabbit: hot cheese on toast

Address to a Haggis
Haggis: a gallimaufray of offal
Clapshot: neeps and tatties

Tunes for a Burns Night

Rich Eating Posset: curdled sweet cream
Shortbread

Closing

Little Scotch Eggs for Burns Night

Packing hard-boiled quail eggs in forcemeatScotch eggs are hard-boiled eggs that are wrapped in sausage meat, then breaded and deep-fried.  They’re eaten cold, ideal for picnics and packed lunches.  Actually if you watch the original British version of The Office you’ll see that Keith always has a Scotch egg for lunch.

Tonight is Burns Night, and we’re going to be serving little Scotch eggs made with quail eggs, instead of the traditional chicken egg, as savoury bar snacks.

Have a dram for the bard tonight.

 

Scotch quail eggs

Rarebit

A plate of rarebit, hot cheese and beer on toastThis dish is most commonly called either “Welsh rarebit” or “Welsh rabbit.” “Rabbit” is the original name, though no one knows the origin of the term. Some say it was originally derogatory, suggesting that if a Welshman went out to hunt rabbit, he would end up eating cheese for dinner.  The dish is currently experiencing a revival, and modern authors and cooks prefer to use the corruption “rarebit,” as it avoids the obvious confusion with the hopping mammal.

At its heart, rabbit is hot cheese on toast. The best versions also include beer.  I borrowed a technique from Fergus Henderson’s book The Whole Beast. He makes a roux, then whisks his beer into it, creating what is essentially a beer velouté. The cheese is then melted into this sauce.

I made a Scots version using Pumphouse Scotch Ale.

A Scots Rabbit – hot cheese on toast

Ingredients

  • one tablespoon butter
  • one tablespoon white flour
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • one cup Pumphouse Scotch Ale
  • one pound cheddar, grated

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour, and cook until starting to colour.
  2. Whisk in the beer and bring to a simmer. Add the cheese. Stir the mixture until the cheese is thoroughly melted and a uniform sauce forms. Pour into a shallow dish and allow to set. This can be done the day before the meal.
  3. To serve, spread onto pieces of toast and broil until the cheese browns.

The rabbit goes very well with a glass of the beer you used to prepare it. Actually it goes well with alcohol of any kind.

Posset

…I have drugg’d their possets
That death and nature do contend about them
Whether they live or die.

-Lady MacBeth, in the Scottish play (fitting, no?)

 

Dark shortbread cookie and rich eating-posset

Posset is an old British drink of cream curdled with sack (fortified wine) or ale.  Nowadays the term usually refers to sweetened cream curdled so that it sets like a custard.

During the years in which liquid posset was declining in popularity and solid posset was rising, the term “posset” on its own was ambiguous. Qualifiers were added for clarity, resulting in terms like “rich eating posset.”

Anyways, this is one of the simplest desserts to make.  I often serve it at Burns Suppers with shortbread cookies. The idea is to dip the cookies in the smooth, set cream à la Dunkaroos.

 

Lemon Posset
from Bon Appétit Magazine, May 2007

Ingredients

  • 2 1/4 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp fresh lime juice

Procedure

  1. Combine the sugar and cream in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Simmer for three minutes.
  2. Stir in the lemon and lime juice, then pour the mixture in the serving vessels. Leave to set in the fridge overnight.
  3. Though it is in no way traditional, the surface can be torched in the style of burnt cream or crème brûlée, to make what I call a burnt posset.

Burnt posset and shortbread

 

Leftovers: Whipped Posset

Posset is a bit like crème fraîche: it sets up in a custard-like network, but once stirred it reverts to a viscous fluid.

You can whip this viscous fluid as if it were heavy cream.  And it’s amazing: Cool Whip on steroids.  It makes the best berries and cream.

Berries and Cream: saskatoons, raspberries, whipped posset, basil and thyme tips.

"Berries and Cream": saskatoons, raspberries, whipped posset, basil, thyme

Haggis and Clapshot

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

-Address to a Haggis, Robert Burns

 

A lamb's pluck: liver, heart, and lungsHaggis: unquestionably the king of the Scots kitchen. Rarely eaten, much maligned, completely misunderstood.

Haggis is made of a sheep’s pluck, which is a tidy term for the lungs, heart, and liver. Traditionally these parts would be boiled, ground, mixed with oats and onions, then stuffed into a cleansed sheep’s stomach, making what is essentially a large, round sausage.

Sheep are rarely brought to maturity in North America, so all the offal I used was from a lamb. Lamb bits are smaller and milder in flavour than sheep bits.

Most of the ingredients are easier to obtain than you might expect. Four Whistle Farm routinely brings offal of all sorts to the Strathcona market, so all you have to do is send a quick e-mail to Marius to confirm that the required organs will be there on the required Saturday. (The lungs, discouragingly, are not held in the “Lamb” section of the display, but the “Dog Food” section…)  More recently I have been buying whole lambs from Tangle Ridge Ranch, and they have been providing me with the offal.

The only real trouble is the stomach. I have approached a few vendors. Most give excuses, citing, for instance, “regulations” or some such nonsense. Others say plainly that the abattoir doesn’t like to do weird things like that. Apparently harvesting the stomach requires extensive cleaning and blanching that most abattoirs aren’t set up for.

As such I use a beef bung instead of a sheep’s stomach. A beef bung is a long, dead-end portion of the cow’s intestinal tract. Once stuffed it is about five inches across and a few feet long. It is the traditional casing for mortadella and cappicola. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the images of haggis I came across during my research were actually made with beef bung.

The details of the preparation follow.

Haggis
Adapted from The Scots Kitchen

Ingredients

  • 2 lamb lungs, roughly 300g
  • 2 lamb hearts, roughly 300g
  • 2 lamb livers, roughly 400g
  • 300g chopped onions, gently cooked in butter
  • 150g lamb suet
  • 150g honeyed, toasted, rolled oats (you can use this recipe for granola)
  • 27g salt
  • black pepper, nutmeg, and allspice to taste
  • 1 beef bung

Procedure

Traditionally the raw offal is thrown in a pot of boiling water, but searing in a hot pan first adds some extra colour and flavour.

The seared pluck
Put the seared offal in a large pot. If you are lucky and your lungs are still attached to their windpipe, drape the windpipe over the edge of the pot so that any fluid expelled by the lungs doesn’t end up in your water. If you don’t have a windpipe, don’t worry. Cover the offal with cold water, then bring the pot to a boil. The lungs, as you might expect, want to float, so you’ll have to weigh them down. I used a plate and a tin can. Classy.

Simmer for an hour and a half. All kinds of ungodly brown scum will form on the surface, especially if you don’t have the windpipe as a purge line. If you are very diligent with the skimming, you may still be able to use some of the flavourful cooking liquid later on.

The simmering pluck, weighed down with a tin can
Chill the cooked offal thoroughly. Mix with the fat, onions, salt, and spices.

The cooked pluck with onions and suet
Grind the mixture through a 3/16″ plate.

The ground mixture
Add the toasted oats to the ground offal. Mix on a low speed, slowly incorporating a bit of the boiling liquid. If your boiling liquid was deemed undesirable, use stock. The forcemeat should become somewhat paste-like.

Mixing the forcemeat with toasted oats
Soak the beef bung for about an hour. Rinse thoroughly inside and out.

A beef bung
Roll up your sleeves and stuff the forcemeat into the bung. Pack it tightly, ensuring there are no air pockets. Traditionally the sheep’s stomach would be sewn shut (hence the line “Your pin wad help to mend a mill / In time o’ need” in the Address to a Haggis.) Working with the beef bung, I simply tied the open end in a large knot.

The stuffed bung
Simmer the haggis until heated through, about two hours. The beef bung, just so you know, is not usually consumed; it’s just a vessel.

Simmering the haggis
Clapshot: Neeps and Tatties

Clapshot is mashed turnips (“neeps”) and potatoes (“tatties”). I have no idea where the term comes from. The classic recipe uses equal parts of each, but since turnips are so much moister than potatoes, I prefer one part turnip to two parts potato.

Peel the potatoes and turnips and cut them into large chunks. Boil them in separate pots, as they take different lengths of time to cook. Simmer each until very tender, but not falling apart. Pass the vegetables through a food mill while still warm. Combine, then spread on a tray to cool thoroughly. This can be done the night before the meal.

To serve, heat the milled vegetables with a bit of lamb stock. Beat in cubes of butter, and season with salt and pepper.

This really is the perfect accompaniment to the haggis. The sweetness of the turnips compliments the savoury offal. The slightly fluid nature of the mash allows it to mingle with the haggis.
The finished plate: haggis and clapshot
You would expect offal boiled for hours to be tough and dry, but the grinding tenderizes the meat and glands, and the onions and stock-drenched oats give moisture. The final mix looks a lot like ground beef, but it’s much lighter and moister than hamburger.

Scotch Broth, or Barley-Broth

Roast lamb bones and vegetables in a stock potSome would think this is the inside of my compost bin, but it’s actually the inside of my stockpot: roasted lamb bones and vegetables, as well as all the darkly caramelized bits scraped from the bottom of the roasting tray. These flavours formed the soul of the Burns Supper, as the resulting stock was used not only in the soup, but also in the haggis and the clapshot. They were the mellow, earthy foundation of the entire meal.

Making a pot of stock the night before a large meal has become a very fond tradition. The house fills with the aroma first of roasting bones, then of the simmering stock, while excitement for the coming meal slowly accrues.

Some specifics on the stock. First I roasted lamb bones from Four Whistle Farm. It’s hard to come by good lamb femur bones, I think because of the popularity of leg roasts and shanks. A touch of tomato paste was smeared over the bones for the latter half of the roasting. Then onion, carrot, celery, and garlic were baked. The pans were deglazed with water, and bay and rosemary were added. Finally the whole lot was covered in cold water, brought to a simmer and left overnight.

 

Barley-Broth, with kale and scrag

The first course of my Burns Suppers is always barley-broth, which in North American is usually called Scotch broth.  Vegetable-wise the soup contains onions, kale, and carrots.  The pearled barley is cooked in a separate pot so that it doesn’t cloud the stock.

The final garnish is lamb neck, or scrag. Neck is a variety-cut that sounds a lot grosser than it really is: the meat is indistinguishable from that of the shoulder. The necks are seared, braised in some of the lamb stock, cooled, shredded, and added to the soup.

A bowl of barley-broth, with kale and scrag