TO celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth, The Scotsman is running a week-long series on the Bard, leading up to Burns Night, the 25th January. Today Emma Cowing presents a cut-out-and-keep guide to holding the perfect Burns supper at home.
ON THE night of the 25th January 1802, nine friends gathered at a small cottage in Alloway for dinner. It was a boozy, raucous affair – a bit of singing, a sprinkling of poetry, and a strict ban on guests of the fairer sex. Above all, though, it was an intimate, informal evening, where nine men came together to celebrate the life of the dead friend they so desperately missed – Robert Burns.
More than 200 years on, Burns suppers have spawned arms, legs and ceilidh bands to become large, formal affairs with a rigorous schedule; the intimate gatherings of yore have waned in popularity. But as we approach the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth, with a credit crunch that makes a big night out unaffordable for some, it seems appropriate to revisit those kitchen suppers of the past, nights where the emphasis isn't on belting out every last speech in word-perfect Scots, but on having a good night in that's full of fun, friendship and food.
As someone who has hosted a Burns supper in her home every January since the age of 17 (which, fact fans, makes this my 15th year) I have amassed considerable experience on how to make a Burns supper at home run smoothly, and how to avoid having your guests run screaming from the house (honestly, it only happened once). Along with advice from three of Scotland's Burns supper experts – Jo MacSween of MacSween haggis, TV chef and restaurateur John Quigley, and Joe McGirr of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – we present our cut-out-and-keep guide to holding the perfect Burns Supper at home.
WHEN it comes to the booze, opinions are divided. "Controversially, I don't think you need to buy whisky unless your guests really like it," says MacSween. "I would challenge people to think outside the box a bit, and have a good beer or a nice red wine with their haggis. If you're going to have whisky have it before the meal, perhaps in a champagne cocktail if you're having a girly night, or have it afterwards, when the hardened, sentimental types are sitting up late."
I find it's best to keep a bottle of decent malt on hand nonetheless – I pour those that want it a nip for the address to the haggis, and some folk like a bit of whisky poured on the haggis itself. If you're a whisky fan, however, you may want to go all out. Joe McGirr, assistant venue manager at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh, suggests pairing a different whisky with each course. "Getting the right whiskies for a Burns Night is important," he says. "You don't have to stick with the traditional whiskies; try something with spice and toffee flavours, perhaps, although everyone has their own ideas about what whiskies work."
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is this year pairing a rich and velvety 20-year-old Highland malt with its haggis-stuffed pigeon dish, and a 23-year-old Japanese whisky for its cheese course of an 18-month-old Montgomery cheddar. "It's a bit off the wall, but it goes really well with the flavours in the cheddar," he counsels. If you have a collection of malts at home you may want to try a few in advance with the dishes you're thinking of cooking, or check out the Scotch Malt Whisky Society website ( www.smws.com) for more ideas.
Quigley, on the other hand, is unconvinced that whisky and haggis sit well together, and prefers less traditional options. "I find some of the sweet, fruity Belgian beers go really well with a haggis," he says. "And a Merlot, or another light red wine that's low on tannins will also do the job."
AT MY first Burns supper, when I was a second-year student at university, the table decoration was a pile of unwashed potatoes encircled by a tatty tartan scarf, with a quarter-bottle of Grant's whisky in the middle. Thankfully, things have moved on from such dizzy heights of sophistication, and I now favour a few discreet tealights, some tartan napkins and perhaps a bit of tartan ribbon strung round the table. The key, though, is to keep things simple.
"It's funny how everyone associates tartan with Burns night when actually, tartan has nothing to do with Burns," points out MacSween. "If you fancy a bit that's fine, of course, but if you're going back to the origins, those nine men getting together to talk about him, it was quite modest."
Quigley suggests a simple table decoration and a homemade menu. "It's nice to have a thistle on the table, if you can get hold of one. Then you could do your own menu on the computer, list the address to the haggis, the toasts, and the food, then print it out and wrap it in a wee tartan ribbon. That's a nice touch. A peat fire burning in the background and a few sheep quietly baah-ing somewhere is even better."
As for the outfits: men, if they wish to, can wear a kilt – "kilts give me a certain swagger" admits Quigley – although it's best to keep this optional so you don't panic those men who've never worn one in their life. For the ladies, anything goes – a simple heather-and-tartan corsage is a nice touch and easily done by a florist – although this year I'll be taking advantage of the autumn/winter tartan trend and wearing a tartan minidress, before it goes woefully out of fashion again.
A BURNS supper without haggis is like Christmas without turkey. Don't fight it. At least it's relatively easy to cook. "Haggis doesn't need a lot of attention," says Jo MacSween, the third generation of her family to run the MacSween haggis firm. "You can put it in the oven if your guests are late and it's not going to complain. It's simple."
For some years now I have taken the slightly controversial decision not to make haggis the main event. Instead, cooking on average for around 12 people, I have made a large lamb, red wine and rosemary casserole, dauphinoise potatoes, roasted root veg (always a good accompaniment for haggis) and haggis fritters (cook your haggis, mix it with fine oatmeal, then shape into palm-sized fritters and dunk in egg yolk. Fry some oatflakes with honey and whisky, then toast them in the oven until golden. Mix breadcrumbs, chopped thyme and rosemary, roll your fritters in this mix, and then in the toasted oats. Roast for 15-20 minutes at 180C).
John Quigley, who will be doing a Burns Night special on UKTV's Market Kitchen this Friday, is more of a traditionalist. "I think you do have to do haggis, neeps and tatties, but there are other touches you can add," he says. "I like to present it well, do a gateau of the three, or pile them up in a stack (use a scone cutter for this]. It looks great with crisp fried onions and a light, sweet gravy, and works well with the pepperiness of the haggis." He also recommends mixing fresh parsley through the dish, and adding chopped spring onions to the potatoes. "There are ways of doing haggis that take it out of the realm of what it is," he adds.
MacSween says that if you do go for vegetarian as well as meat haggis, then it's worth getting a bit more than you think you'll need. "The meat-eaters always want to try it," she points out.
Then there are the starters: soup or fish, or, if you want a haggis-free main course, a small plate of haggis, neeps and tatties. "Cock-a-leekie is the classic soup, but it's quite a full-on meal with the haggis as a main," says MacSween. "I normally go for a lighter starter, like fish, perhaps smoked salmon. And I have to say I do get annoyed when haggis is served as a starter, because I always want more and feel short-changed."
Quigley favours Cullen Skink, "a lovely, smoky soup", but reckons Scotch broth is a bit heavy for the meal.
A side note: if you want to hold a cocktail party rather than a full meal, Quigley suggests: "If you're grazing but keeping haggis as the central theme, you could do haggis pakora, haggis spring rolls and haggis nachos as party food, and serve them up with whisky cocktails. I've even seen hot shots of Cullen Skink done before."
Although dessert is often the last thing on anyone's mind after a meal like that, there are still a few recipes that may suit. There's cranachan – the cream, whisky, oatmeal and raspberry dish that I used to make but abandoned after a straw poll round the table revealed that only two people, one of whom was me, actually liked it – and that most traditional Burns pudding, Typsy Laird trifle. "I like a sweet, boozy trifle," Quigley says. "There's no fruit or sponge, just jelly, custard and cream with whisky, or perhaps Drambuie or Glayva laced through it."
MacSween came up with a simple dessert while at university. "I made a berry compote and layered Greek yoghurt on top of it, then I bought loads of shortbread fingers and stuck them in, and everyone picked one out and ate it like that."
Don't forget your cheese options. "A Lanark Blue is a great way of ending a Burns supper," says Quigley. "Or perhaps a nice Ayrshire cheese, like Dunlop." Trim your Scottish cheese plate with a few simple oatcakes to finish off.
And then go on a diet for a week.
IN MY house, there are two dead certs when it comes to the speeches – the Selkirk Grace and the Address to a Haggis. One of my traditions is to ask a different man to address the haggis each year (the girls have brought along enough boyfriends over the years to ensure no-one's ever had to do it twice), all of whom bring a completely different character to Burns's words.
"The address to the haggis is what gives the real feel of Burns to the evening," says McGirr. "That's where the power of his words and the ideas behind it really come across."
McGirr also has a fun suggestion for the vegetarians around the table (trust me, there's always one).
"I've had an alternative Burns night with a vegetarian haggis in the past, where I've given the veggie a doctored version of the address to read out instead." he says. You can find one by rooting around online – or even penning your own.
But where do you draw the line with speeches? "We're all busy," says MacSween. "Who's got time to write an Immortal Memory? It's just a night to be creative. I like the idea of writing your own poem, maybe about Burns, or the night itself." Quigley suggests doing the Toast to the Lassies and the Reply – "that's always fun, you can really have a laugh with it," he says – and also having a book of Burns's poetry to pass round. "After the meal, once everyone's had a few drinks, you can try reading poems out and having a bit of banter. It's particularly good fun for those who haven't read in Scots before."
And MacSween has a genius idea for getting everyone thinking and talking about Burns without the night turning into an endless recital. "Try a Burns fortune cookie," she suggests.
"Take a few lines from a Burns poem, either something famous or not so well known, write the line out on a bit of paper, fold it and twist the ends and tie them with ribbon like crackers. Then throw them around the table, everyone pulls a cracker and has to guess what poem it's from. It's fun and it turns it into a bit of a quiz."
THE 'sangs and clatter' that intersperse the food and speeches have become an integral part of the Burns experience. But how far to go to keep your guests entertained at a domestic gathering? "You honestly don't need a piper," says McGirr. Thank goodness for that, as not only would it make the ears bleed indoors, it's also unlikely to make you popular with the neighbours. Ceilidh dancing is also impractical in the average home, although that doesn't mean you can't listen to the music.
"Whenever I've organised an event between a few friends, I've got a few CDs of Scots music to listen to," says McGirr. I have built up a compilation of contemporary Scots music that I play throughout the meal – with bands and artists such as Capercaillie, Kim Edgar, Karine Polwart (right) and clarsach player Rachel Hair. I even have a Jim MacLeod Dance Party Favourites album that I sneak on when no-one's looking. If you're intent on some live music, encourage any musically talented friends to work up a Burns song or two in advance of the big night and offer to pay them in whisky. Also, don't forget that a round of Auld Lang Syne towards the end of the evening with everyone linking hands will always go down well.
But there are also less-traditional forms of entertainment that go down a storm. "Last year I wrote some haggis haiku," reveals MacSween, "which was really good fun and a bit different." A good haggis-haiku game might involve everyone at the table writing one, then chucking them into a bowl on the table, with each person picking one out and having to guess who wrote it.
Most often my Burns suppers end with board games – in particular Cranium and Articulate, which call for people to organise themselves into groups and often lead to, ahem, "healthy" discussions. One year we even attempted a quiz, with all the questions based on things we had done over the years, which was not only hilarious but also reminded everyone why we all gathered together each year in the first place: to celebrate our friendship.