May All Acquaintance Celebrate Burns Night!
As the excitement of Christmas and the new year dies down, and the thought of January detoxing wears thin, it is inevitable to want to have something to help break up the winter blues.
Which is why I always think that Burns Night - celebrated every 25 January - comes at a most opportune time.
Burns Night is the annual eve, which honours the life and works of the great Scottish ‘bard’ - Robert (or, Rabbie) Burns’ birthday. This year, it falls on a Saturday, making it even more appropriate for festivities.
Held since the early 19th century, the Burns Night supper includes a variety of yearly traditions, as well as reading his poems, listening to bagpipers and eating the offcuts of sheep served in a stomach - a.k.a.: haggis, a very delicious, though somewhat unappetising sounding, meal.
If you’ve not heard of Burns before, let me give you a quick rundown about exactly who you would be toasting to if you were to head to a Burns supper.
The great poet was born in 1759 in Ayrshire, in the south west of Scotland, to a poor farming family. Educated firstly at home and in his parish, Burns went on to get an education at nearby schools, working on the farm in the summer periods. He later moved for a while to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation, writing poems about his experiences there, and continued composing poetry and songs upon his return to Scotland, the anthologies of which began to be published in the 1780s. He also worked as a customs and excise officer, roaming the Scottish hills in search of illegal distillers.*
But perhaps it's his infamous love affairs - along with his poetry - that Burns is most famous for. If he’d have lived now, the gossip press would have had a field day as he continuously fell in love, fathered love children and wooed the ladies. Many of his poems - such as ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ - discussed love, loss and heartache.
Burns died at the young age of 37 and has long been known as Scotland’s national poet: a treasure throughout the country and to Scots globally. The traditional annual supper acts as a way to remember his contributions and it is during these suppers that one tends to hear more of his famous work, such as the ‘Address to a Haggis’ which is usually dramatically spoken as the haggis comes in.
And, of course, a Scottish dinner wouldn’t be right without its national drink - whisky. As such, most Burns suppers include a wee dram with each course.
I’ve attended a fair few dinners and have therefore put some of my recommendations for what whiskies you might like to try if you are planning on raising a cheer to dear Rabbie.
Traditional Burns Supper:
Cullen Skink: A soup originating from the Morayshire coast of Scotland, Cullen Skink is made with smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and cream and provides a warming start to any January meal.
Pair with a salty and slightly peaty whisky, to balance out the creaminess of this soup. I like to use Talisker 10 or Bowmore 12, which both feature nice maritime flavours that enhance the qualities of the dish.
Haggis, neeps and tatties: The most traditional of Burns supper dishes, this features spicy, meaty haggis, mashed turnips (or Swede) and mashed potatoes, making for a hearty and filling course.
Pair this with a spicy, sweeter dram such as The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14, which takes the traditionally sweet heather honey notes of The Balvenie and ramps them up with a dash of fruity spiciness, gained from a finishing in ex-Rum casks.
Cranachan: A rich dessert, made from whisky-soaked oats, whipped cream, raspberries and honey, this dish indulges the sweet tooth.
Pair with a Highland whisky, such as Glenmorangie 10 or, for a special treat, the unctuous Glenmorangie Astar. Or, opt for something with a bit more bite and sherry influence to bring out the berry notes of the dessert. I like Glengoyne 15 or Glenfarclas 15 for this element.
Cheese and oaty biscuits: If three courses isn’t enough, opt for a selection of cheeses and oaty biscuits to conclude.
Pair it with punchy whiskies that help cut through the creamy nature of the cheese. I like to use Laphroaig Quarter Cask (Editor's note: Laphroaig won Islay Distillery of the year in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition) or Lagavulin 16 for this.
*Editor's note: In addition to the food pairings, Burns Night has traditionally been an occasion for Scotch enthusiasts to open a particular bottle they have been saving, to share with friends. The author here makes an interesting point that Rabbie was, in fact, an excise officer, which means he was the guy who was responsible for shutting down illegal distilleries and thus preventing certain folk from drinking whisky! So how did this become a tradition? Would anyone like to comment?