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

Hot Toddy

A hot toddy make with The GlenlivetToddy, or hot toddy, is a Scots drink of whisky, sugar, and hot water.

I’ve read that the name refers to Tod’s Well, an ancient spring that once gave Edinburgh its water.[1]  In other words it is yet another instance of the charming tradition of referring to whisky as water.[2]

Ancestral wisdom tells us that taking a mug of toddy in bed before sleep will cure many ailments.

The traditional toddy recipe I have calls for equal parts whisky and water.  Modern recipes are more likely 2 parts whisky to 3 parts or more of water.  They also typically use citrus and spices.  Though not traditional, the citrus is important, as the sweet, boozy cocktail absolutely requires acidity to remain balanced.

I debated for some time whether it was sinful to use single malt Scotch in a drink like this.  Blended Scotch is the norm, but I think you choose your whisky for a toddy the same way you choose your whisky on any other night.  Is it a Tuesday?  Then Famous Grouse is just fine.  Is it a long, dark January night, with no chance of friends calling?  Maybe something a bit peaty.

Here is a “recipe”.  I absolutely refuse to give any quantities.

A Hot Toddy

Ingredients

  • water
  • dark brown sugar
  • lemon slice
  • clove
  • fine Scotch whisky.  If it is before December, consider a Speyside Scotch.  If it is below -15°C, you might consider something from the islands.  Below -25°C and that island should be Islay.
  • orange slice

Procedure

  1. Combine the water, dark brown sugar, lemon slices, and clove in a heavy pot.  Simmer gently for 15 minutes.
  2. Pour a shot of whisky into a warmed mug.  Pour the water-sugar-spice mixture over top to desired strength.  Garnish with orange.

 

Notes.  Important Notes.

  1. Do you remember that scene in Good Will Hunting when the boys go to a Harvard bar and Will calls out that douche-bag for plagiarizing something to impress a girl?  Well, the same thing just happened to me, sort of.  To prepare for writing this post I thought I’d have a cursory glance at the Wikipedia “Hot Toddy” page to make sure I wasn’t missing some salient piece of information on the drink.  I started reading, and I got to a long passage that I recognized.  Whoever wrote the Wikipedia page on hot toddies ripped a large section of text from The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian MacNeill without referencing it at all.  The only difference between what just happened to me and what happened in Good Will Hunting is that the plagiarist wasn’t around for me to castigate, and there weren’t any girls around to admire me.
  2. I can’t remember if I’ve written this before on Button Soup, but “whisky” is an Anglicization of the Celtic words for “water of life”.

 

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

Yard of Flannel (a het pint…)

Yard of flannel is hot ale, laced with rum and spices, and thickened with egg.

Though there’s a surprising number of beer and cocktail blogs that have tried out old recipes of yard of flannel, there’s very little information on the history of this drink available online.

I’ve found no documented link between these two drinks, but yard of flannel is nearly identical in recipe and preparation to an old Scots cocktail called het pint (literally “hot pint”).  The only difference is that the Scots version typically uses whiskey instead of rum.

Het pint was once an important part of Scottish celebrations, especially Hogmanay, the Scots New Year.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, public houses made het pint on New Year’s eve, and villagers would buy a copper-kettle’s-worth to take home for the festivities.

Kettles of het pint would also be carried through the streets by “first-footers.”  The first person to enter a house on New Year’s day was said to be a foretoken of the prosperity of the coming year.  The first-foot was ideally “a man, tall with dark hair… carrying gifts, including whisky, tea, coal, or salt, symbols of good health, good fortune, good luck, a warm home, and a full larder.”[1]  In some traditions the first person to cross the threshold is a more or less random event.  In others young men would travel from house to house with gifts.  These first-footers often carried pots of het pint with them as they walked through the town, offering the drink to passers-by.

Het pint was consumed at many other celebrations, notably rural weddings on Orkney.[2]

A frothy yard of flannelNot only are recipes for het pint and yard of flannel consistenty nearly identical, they both use the same technique to develop a tall foamy head on the drink.  When agitated, the egg proteins develop a head that is much more stable than that of beer alone (think: meringue).  The head on het pint and yard of flannel is traditionally produced by pouring the drink back and forth between two mugs in a tall cascade.

Ale makes up the bulk of the drink, so the choice of ale to be used is the most important decision made by the cook.  Nowadays “ale” refers to a beverage that undergoes a warm fermentation with a top-fermenting strain of yeast, typically producing an aromatic, fruity, floral beer.  It’s counterpart, “lager,” goes through a colder, longer fermentation with a bottom-fermenting strain of yeast, resulting in a cleaner, crisper drink.

Until atleast the nineteenth century, in Great Britain the word “beer” referred exclusively to hopped beers (a Bavarian invention), while “ale” was reserved for the traditional, unhopped, British drink.  Therefore the “ale” called for in old het pint recipes refers to this ancient style of British beer.  Many contemporary beers made in the UK are reminiscent of these older styles, though they do contain some hops.  Here’s a description of modern Scottish ale:

Scottish Ales traditionally go through a long boil in the kettle for a caramelization of the wort. This produces a deep copper to brown… brew and a higher level of unfermentable sugars which create a rich mouthfeel and malty flavors and aromas. Overall hop character is low, light floral or herbal, allowing its signature malt profile to be the highlight.[3]

This style of beer makes perfect sense for het pint, as the malt and caramel flavours compliment the rum or whisky.  The pronounced hops flavour of most contemporary beers would probably be out of place.

I’ve hear that the “yard” in yard of flannel refers to the yard-long glasses in which the drink was once served, and the “flannel” refers to the rich, soft mouthfeel developed by the heated eggs.  I can’t find a reliable source for that information.

I don’t imagine this drink will be everyone’s cup of tea, as the modern man doesn’t like the thought of drinking hot eggs, but I have to say it’s a well-balanced cocktail with a fantastic mouthfeel.

Yard of Flannel (a het pint…)
adapted from Back to Basics

Ingredients

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/6 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • fresh grated nutmeg to taste
  • 341 mL your favourite English pale ale, Scottish ale, or possibly brown ale
  • 1/6 cup golden rum

Procedure

  1. Whisk together egg, sugar, and salt.
  2. Gently heat ale and nutmeg in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Do not let the ale boil.
  3. Once the ale mixture is starting to steam, slowly pour it into the egg while whisking.  Adding the ale too quickly may curdle the egg, which would be bad.
  4. If you’re a stickler for tradition, you can develop the head by pouring the mixture back and forth between two mugs.  As you can probably imagine, this quickly cools down the drink.  You can get just as good a head by whisking vigorously while the flannel is still in the bowl.

 

References

1. Duncan, Dorothy. Feasting and Fasting: Canada’s Heritage Celebrations. ©2010 Dorothy Duncan. Dundurn Press, Toronto, ON. Page 313.
2.  McNeill, F. Marian.  The Scots Kitchen.  ©2010 The Estate of F. Marian McNeill.  Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland.  Page 309.
3.  Beer Advocate.com

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