January 21, 2014

On Burns Suppers, Haggis and January Whiskies

For a' that, an a' that,
It's comin' yet for a' that,
That man to man the world o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.

Robert Burns was a hopeful man.
Saturday, 25th January marks the 255th anniversary of his birth, and celebrations are taking place all over the world. There are probably fifty going on in the Ottawa area. I know of at least a dozen. Scots in particular love to honour the occasion with attendance at Burns Suppers, formal and informal, but events are not exclusive to Scots, by any means. The universal appeal of celebratory and ceremonial events, especially those involving food, drink, dancing and entertainment is indisputable.
This year, I'll be singing at one in Kanata, and we're hosting our own Burns Supper in oor wee hoose, complete with our real live bagpiper (thanks Denis!), the best haggis in Ottawa, a Strip the Willow (raucous Scottish dance) and much ceremonial celebration of Rabbie's life and works.

I grew up in a Burns loving household. My Dad was a "Burns man", so I was weaned on Robert Burns' poems and songs. If I ever lose my memory, I'm certain that The Address to the Haggis will be the last thing to go. So appealing (and possibly incomprehensible) is the old Scots dialect that our Christmas Day dinner host requested that I recite "Fair fa' your honest sonsie face....." etc to the Christmas turkey!

Burns Suppers should include.......

  • The Selkirk Grace (although not written by Burns)
  • A piped procession of the haggis, followed by the Address to the Haggis, and consumption of a wee dram by those in the procession.
  • A traditional menu of Scotch Broth or Cock a' leekie soup; followed by haggis, mashed neeps (turnips) and champit tatties (mashed potatoes); then Scotch trifle.
  • The toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.
  • A Toast to the Lassies.
  • A reply to the Toast to the Lassies.
  • Music, poetry readings and dancing, whether performed or participatory.

The Best Haggis in Ottawa

It can't be a well kept secret, because Stephane SauvĂ© of the Glebe Meat Market, makes about 3000lbs of haggis at this time of year. I've been buying his haggis for several years now, and it is consistently delicious, moist, perfectly seasoned, authentic haggis - the very stuff of which Burns wrote "Oh, what a glorious sight, warm, reekin', rich." Not everyone leaps at the chance to consume  a savoury pudding encased in an animal's stomach and containing sheep's heart, liver and lungs, mixed with onions, oatmeal, suet, stock and spices. But it is tasty, fabulous stuff. Trust me!
It's also fiendishly hard to make. Apart from getting the recipe, moisture level and seasonings just right, not to mention the difficulty of nipping down to Loblaws to pick up hearts and lungs, there's also the business of encasing the contents in an animal's stomach and ensuring that said contents don't burst during the cooking process. Nowadays much haggis is made with synthetic casings, but this is not the case at the Glebe Meat Market, where well sterilized cow stomachs are used. 

Stephane first started making haggis about 15 years ago, and spent several years in research and trial and error before coming up with the perfect haggis. In the early years, he asked many Scottish acquaintances and customers to try out his creations, until he got the unanimous "thumbs up". According to Steph, it's very difficult to find properly sterilized sheep stomach, but he's had great success with cow stomachs.
While the Glebe Meat Market is not the only source of haggis in the city, I've always been delighted with the product. Steph makes them to order, in various sizes, for pickup, fresh or frozen. Try it. You'll love it!


Robert Burns, with his eighteenth century precursor to an ENJOY RESPONSIBLY message, had this to say about Scotch whisky..........
'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'Twill heighten all his joy. (John Barleycorn)
He also said......
Wi' tippenny we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the Devil! (Tam O'Shanter)
And, indeed, Tam O'Shanter did encounter a bit of trouble, on his way home, after too much whisky.
Assuming that, unlike Tam, you've left your trusty horse at home for the evening, Burns Suppers are great occasions to sample a few favourite drams. If you want to pair some whiskies with a traditional dinner, here are some of my suggestions.
With the soup, I'd suggest something sweet and gentle. Glenkinchie Distillers Edition, Auchentoshan Three Wood, The Macallan Amber, a young Aberlour, Balvenie or Glenfarclas all come to mind.
The haggis calls for your favourite whisky. Although I'm a huge fan of smoky Islay whiskies, I wouldn't rush to pair those with a plate of essentially sweet food - mashes and haggis. A hint of peat would be fine, though, so Highland Park 18 or Bowmore Darkest 15 year old would be nice to pull out for some favoured guests.
Others I fancy are Glendronach 15 or 18, full of lush sweetness; Aberlour 18, elegant and sweet; Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera Vat, nice and affordable; the elegant The Macallan Fine Oak 15 year old; rich Oban Distillers Edition; beautifully balanced Glen Grant 16 year old; the list goes on. I'd basically look for a decent bodied whisky, with inherent sweetness, and stay away from too much peat and special cask finishes other than sherry. But ultimately you should drink what you love and if something isn't working with the haggis, a drop or two of water will change the character, and all might be well.
Try a drop of Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or with the trifle. Or match sweet with sweet and go for some Glayva or Drambuie.
If there's room for oatcakes and cheese, especially stinky blue cheeses, then bring out your favourite Laphroaig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin and enjoy. I love Old Pulteney 17 year old with a good cheddar. Aberlour a'Bunadh, with its cognac like persona, would also enjoy centre stage at this point.

And if you really are going to serve all of these suggestions at your Burns Supper, then do please invite me!
Whatever you're doing in and around the 25th, raise a glass to Rabbie Burns. And with Valentines Day on the horizon, you need look no further than  Burns' love songs to woo someone special.
And I will love thee still, my Dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.