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Burns Night: The History, the Whisky, the Haggis.

The life of the poet Robert Burns is traditionally celebrated on his birthday, the 25th of January. Unlike many festive meals, the ingredients of a Burns Supper are relatively simple and economical. With the date falling as it does in a party black spot, it is the perfect time to gather round your favourite laddies and lassies, and plan a night of feasting and toasts.

Ready to throw your own Burns Supper? Here’s how you do it.

First: Shoot Your Haggis.

Haggis are shy creatures, rarely spotted in their native highland habitat, except by gullible American Tourists. If you are an extremely keen cook you might want to have a go at making your own haggis, food writer Tim Haywood shows you how to do it here

Alternatively, you can do what every Scottish person does and buy a haggis ready made. If you are ordering online then you may as well order 3 or 4, it freezes beautifully and is an excellent stuffing for roast chicken. Your haggis will come with heating instructions, it is already partially cooked and so is simple to prepare, needing only steaming or microwaving.

Next: Prep Your Veg.

Haggis is served with Neeps ‘n’ Tatties. Tatties is simply mashed potato. Neeps are turnips, confusingly called swede by the English. Prepare your neeps in the same way as the potatoes, and add plenty of butter, black pepper, and a little grated nutmeg. Resist the temptation to vroom-up your veg, haggis is a rich dish and the accompaniments are necessarily bland.

Third: Select Your Whisky.

On Burns Night the first toast is at the beginning of the meal (to the haggis) so you will need to make sure all glasses are charged as your diners are seated. It is considered rude to make a toast with an empty glass.

Whisky aficionado Allan Cunningham from West End hostelry Ben Nevis suggests Asyla from boutique producer Compass Box Whisky as an ideal aperitif, and new release Bruichladdich Laddie Classic from the Isle of Islay as a good choice to toast to the Bard, describing it (fatefully) as ‘delightfully moreish’. He suggests that you gently sip the whisky and then add a small amount of water to show off the natural depth and character of the product.

Fourth: Locate a Scottish Person.

You will need a Scottish laddie or lassie to read the Address to a Haggis. Anyone else will take so long trying to pronounce the dialect that dinner will be cold by the time they finish. Furnish your Scottish person with a large, sharp knife, and ask your guests to stand for the haggis, which should be bought forth on a salver, accompanied by a piper. If you don’t have any bagpipes handy then your iPod may come in useful here. If you don’t have a salver, a large plate will do just fine. As your toast person reaches the ‘gushing entrails’ they will slice the haggis open. It is not traditional to duck at this point, but it has been known for diners to be hit by hot flying haggis. You can avoid this by making a tiny cut in the haggis before bringing it in, but then again, why spoil the fun? Thank your Scottish person and remember to retrieve your large, sharp knife.

If finding a Scottish person free on Burns Night is beyond you, inveigle your most dramatic friend, and instruct them to rehearse.

Finally: Pudding.

Cranachan is the ideal pudding for a Burns Night Supper and again it is simple to make. This recipe comes from Scottish food writer Sue Lawrence, who adds usefully that the traditional way to serve it is to bring in the bowls of ingredients and then let the guests mix their own. If you have a small gathering then you may prefer to prepare your Cranachan in ramekins or glasses; however it does need to be mixed no more than an hour ahead, otherwise the oats will become soggy. And nobody wants soggy oats.

Cranachan (serves 6)

125g large porridge oats
75g light muscovado sugar
250g-mascarpone cheese
3-4 tablespoons malt whisky
300ml double (heavy) cream, lightly whipped
250g raspberries
Runny honey to serve

Put the oats and sugar on a sheet of foil and toast under the grill for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds or so. Beat the mascarpone and whisky together and then fold in the whipped cream and cooled oats mixture. Gently fold in the raspberries and then serve with the honey and an extra drizzle of whisky.

The Real Deal:

For those lucky readers that find themselves in the Dear Green Place for Burns Night then there will be no shortage of hostelries where you can join the celebrations. The Grand Old Man of Restaurants, the Ubiquitous Chip has a four-course dinner with a piper and toasts. The Bothy in Ruthven Lane has a (significantly cheaper) menu, and as well as the Haggis and Cranachan there are various other options including salmon and beef, and their own Irn Bru Ice Cream. If it’s traditional music you are after, the good folk at Ben Nevis have sessions on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Last Word: The Hangover

As your Supper has consisted of whisky toasts, a main course with whisky, and a pudding drizzled with whisky; you may find houseguests feeling a little unnecessary the next morning. This is a condition known as ‘a wee bit wabbit’. Is your Scottish person still there? They will be concocting the traditional hangover cure of Lorne sausage (a square meat patty) and ‘ginger’ (fizzy pop). It must be remembered, however, that the Scottish are fiery people. You did remember to retrieve your large sharp knife, didn’t you? ‘Slainte’!

A big thank you to Natasha Augustus for writing this article. Happy burns night to you and all the folk in Glasgow.

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