Lung, heart, liver, fat and suet may not sound too appetising. However add spices, onion and oatmeal, call it haggis and suddenly we’re interested. Add in our national bard and all of a sudden we have a worldwide phenomenon.
Robert Burns’ birthday was on Thursday and this weekend Burns Suppers will be taking place all over the world. From Beijing to London and Scotland, gatherings are taking place tonight to address the haggis and toast his immortal memory. In this age of quinoa, clean eating and endless dietary requirements, you might have thought a celebration of the life of a philanderer utilising the bits of an animal that normally go in the bin would be fading from view. Instead the Burns Supper goes from strength to strength. Global Scots have always nourished the flame. There’s nothing guaranteed to make you miss everything about Scotland like not being Scotland. When I lived in Paris, a typical gathering of the Caledonian Society involved eating shortbread at screenings of Whisky Galore. The Burns Supper was planned a year in advance. In the US, people who’ve never set foot in Scotland treat the occasion with reverence, all thanks to some distant relation who travelled from Elgin to Ellis Island. Not even the lack of proper haggis due to food import laws seems to dent their enthusiasm.
However, the real growth in the Burns phenomenon is closer to home. From Braveheart to the independence referendum, our sense of national identity has been enhanced and that has stirred something in Scots everywhere. This enthusiasm provides the audience for Burns Suppers from Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly to Bracken Ghyll Golf Club in Yorkshire. If you can recite Tam O’Shanter you will be in big demand down south. Yet here, at what should be the heart of the action, we often take it for granted. What other nation has such an opportunity to connect with the rest of the world? For all their great artists and talent with food, the Italians have no global celebration. For all their great writers and gastronomic reputation, the French have no Balzac Breakfasts or Sartre Suppers.
Others would love the opportunity to showcase their poetry and food but we alone can do it. Yet for many Scots it just feels too predictable. That attitude is a mistake. If Brexit does produce a harsh break from the EU, we need to find every way we can to retain connections and the Burns Supper is our national calling card.
So, we all need to get onboard with the Bard. In my hometown of Dumfries, the Big Burns Supper is a great example of that. Launched in 2011, this contemporary arts festival built around the Burns phenomenon is a great attempt to make him relevant to a new generation. We need more events like that and more Scots to adapt his legacy to modern times. This week I ate Haggis and harissa kibbeh in a Middle Eastern restaurant. Those spicy bonbons were a clever idea and absolutely delicious. Cookery writer Nigel Slater calls haggis “a thing of beauty” and admires “the intelligence of a recipe that makes something from nothing”. So why aren’t more chefs rising to the challenge of adapting it to their menus?Let’s not be shy about a great gift we give to the world every January.