Burns Night is Upon Us
Andy Lynes - January 20th, 2014
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
No, I haven't been drinking, but it's highly likely that most people will have had a "wee dram" when they hear those words read out on January 25. Burns Night celebrates the life and poetry of 18th century Scottish author Robert Burns, with a ceremonial dinner centered around haggis, a poached savory pudding of minced sheep's “pluck” (heart, liver, and lungs), onion, oatmeal, and spices encased in the lining of a sheep's stomach. It's the “Great chieftain” referred to in Burns' poem Address to a Haggis that's traditionally read aloud after the dish is carried into the dining room to the sound of bagpipes.
This archaic and ever so slightly absurd event has been held since 1826 and has been increasing in popularity ever since, with yearly increases to membership of the Robert Burns World Federation and a waiting list for the Dalry Burns Club, the supper club that started it all. Tradition and culture aside, it's an excellent excuse to indulge for the first time in the New Year after the usual abstinence following the festive season.
Burns Night Suppers will be held all over the world, and this year London has really taken the event to heart. There are plenty of restaurants offering traditional menus and events, including Quo Vadis in Soho, London, and Scottish-themed restaurant group Boisdale who are laying on pipers and speakers to recite the poem for private dinners, but many are taking the opportunity to offer something more inventive.
At Seven Park Place in St James, Michelin-starred chef William Drabble is offering ravioli of haggis with confit of turnip, whisky, and thyme jus as part of a six course tasting menu. Double Michelin-star holder Nathan Outlaw has relegated haggis to canapé status for his four course Burns Night menu at Outlaw's at The Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge and will instead serve char-grilled venison with smoked oil as a main course along with neeps and tatties (mashed swede and potatoes), the traditional accompaniment to haggis.
Most unexpected of all is the Chinese Burns dinner at the upmarket Min Jiang restaurant in the Royal Garden Hotel (Kensington), where the offerings include char siew (fork-roast or barbecue) haggis puff and sesame prawn/haggis toast paired with Dalmore whisky.
The epicenter of Burns celebrations will, of course, be Scotland, and Geoffrey Smeddle of Michelin-starred The Peat Inn in Fife (in the hamlet of Peat Inn, near St Andrews, Scotland) on the east coast has been working with Bunnahabhain distillery on the Hebridean island of Islay over a period of months to design a three course menu plus canapés, all with matched whiskies.
“I have wonderful memories of Burns Night dinners with rowdy groups of friends, tucking into haggis and neeps and tatties and was always gently oiled with a good malt,” says Smeddle.
At a preview dinner hold in December 2013, the evening got off to an innovative start with pork cheek/onion toasts and duck pastillas served with wonderfully refreshing rhubarb/ginger Whisky sour cocktails. As the visually stunning first course of cured salmon/oyster panna cotta was served, Smeddle explained his thinking behind the dish. “I wanted to showcase Scottish seafood and give a taste of the sea to reflect the coastal setting of Bunnahabhain distillery and the briny notes in the malt,” says Smeddle. The dish worked a treat with the 12 year old whisky that's aged in Sherry and Bourbon casks with its aromas and flavors of dried fruit, spice, caramel, vanilla, hazelnut, and touch of salt.
There were no pipers or ode to herald the main course (this was a modern Burns supper after all). Instead haggis bonbons to accompanied smoked and roast partridge. “Christmas fruits, Pedro Xíminez, and Madeira flavors come through in the 18 year old so the dish is finished with a sprinkling of savory granola to echo that,” said Smeddle.
A 25 year old malt accompanied toffee/apple cheesecake with bramble compote and salted caramel ice cream. “This was the hardest aspect of the menu to come up with,” said Smeddle. “I tried not to overtake the flavors of the whisky but still make the dessert sweet enough. I didn't want to use chocolate, as that can kill the aromas of the malt, particularly in something as elegant as a 25 year old. The flavors in the dessert are fairly straightforward caramel, fruit, and toffee, which are what you find when you nose the malt.”
As a special treat, we sipped rare 40 year old Bunnahabhain (only 750 bottles have been made) with “cheeseburgers”—in fact, malted almond, chocolate, and mango macarons. “I used half milk and half dark chocolate in the filling to ensure it wouldn't be too overpowering for the whisky,” explained Smeddle. “The almonds reflect the nuttiness that you always find in Bunnahabhain malt.”
With the food so carefully designed to complement and amplify the flavors and aromas of the whisky, it was always going to be a special meal. And even though we celebrated a little ahead of the day itself, I'm sure Burns himself would have approved.
Find Smeddle's recipes for a Burns Night Supper:
- Rhubarb/Ginger Whisky Sour
- Cheeseburger Macarons
- Pork Cheek & Onion Toast
- Duck Pastilla
- Cured Salmon with Oyster Panna Cotta, Crab, Avruga Caviar & Avocado/Crème Fraîche
- Smoked Partridge with Haggis Bonbons, Black Pudding, Salsify & Celeriac
- Toffee/Apple Cheesecake with Bramble Compote, Salted Caramel Ice Cream & Toffee Sauce