AS A young girl in the Brownies more years ago that I care to admit in print, we had a particularly unusual and riotous meeting.
It was on a typically dark and unpleasant winter’s night.
I was seven years old and hadn’t wanted to leave the warmth and comfort of my home to spend an hour shivering in the old ramshackle village hall.
Later I was glad my mum had cajoled me into going.
It was January 25, when Scotland honours its favourite son, the poet and balladeer Robert Burns.
It was my first experience of Burns Night. While I grew up some way from Scotland, this celebration of the birth of Robert Burns on January 25, 1759, has caught the global imagination.
That night we Brownies – all 21 of us – joined in the fun with our own Burns Night Supper.
The local pub had kindly stepped in to help cook the meal. We feasted on Scotch broth, neeps and tatties, typsy laird (sherry trifle without the alcohol for us wee ones!) and, of course, haggis.
The arrival of the haggis was the highlight of the evening. Suddenly the main doors of the hall were thrown open and to the skirl of pipes played by members of the British Caledonian pipe band (remember the now-defunct airline which to a jingle borrowed from the Beach Boys said: “Wish we all could be Caledonian girls”?) the haggis was brought reverentially into the hall by the pub landlord closely followed by half the village.
I’ll warrant not many Brownies’ first taste of haggis has been accompanied by such a fanfare. It turned out our Brown Owl’s husband worked at the local airport and had pulled a few strings to get the pipe band on board.
Unfortunately, the haggis failed to agree with my seven-year-old taste buds. I hated it!
It was to be many years before I tried this quintessentially Scottish delicacy again – or participated in a Burns Night Supper.
My tastes have mellowed with age, however, and I now find myself quite liking the simple and wholesome dish of oatmeal, the heart and lungs of a lamb, fatty beef and spices all wrapped up in a sheep’s stomach.
We can be glad that Robbie Burns chose to be born in January. The early part of the year can be a bit of a food desert. We’ve left the Christmas excesses behind and it’s too early to be thinking of lighter spring dishes.
But the Burns supper sums up all that’s good about this time of year – packed as it is with winter warmers.
You can expect to see Cock-a-leekie soup, Scotch broth or cullen skink (haddock soup), bannocks (oatcakes), haggis, neeps (swede) and tatties (mashed potatoes), cranachan or clootie dumplings (suet pudding), trifle and cheese, all helped on their way with copious amounts of whisky.
Winter vegetables like swede, carrots and leeks come into their own along with oatmeal, mutton and pearl barley.
The menu is said to date back to the first Burns supper held in 1802 – six years after the poet’s untimely death – when haggis was served alongside sheep’s head. Haggis had been immortalised by Burns in rhyme, although there is no evidence he really liked the dish.
Whatever the great man’s tastes in food, his famous Address to a Haggis is always now recited at the annual ceremony.
The rest of the meal has developed in the 200-plus years since, and is as much a tribute to good, honest seasonal Scottish fare as it is to Burns.
A Burns Night meal is not one for slimmers or those watching their hearts. But it will certainly induce a warm glow on a cold January night.
And that has to be something worth raising a glass or two for.
Gibside, Burnopfield, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, NE16 6BG, 01207 541820, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ gibside. The landscape garden, walks and stables are open seven days a week 10am-4pm throughout the winter. The larder, shop and tearoom is open 11am-3.30pm Monday-Sunday.
Scotch Broth (Makes 6-8 servings)
SCOTCH broth is an integral part of a Burns supper. But this cheap, cheerful comfort soup doesn’t have to be confined to one night of the year. It’s winter fare at its very best, using warming and seasonal ingredients. Easy to make, cook it at a snail’s pace so the barley, lamb and leeks have time to get to know one another.
50g dried peas
1 medium onion, finely chopped
A little butter for sauteeing
1kg lamb (mutton is best – cheaper cuts work well with this recipe)
1.8lt cold water
75g diced carrots
75g diced turnip
75g leek, thinly sliced
½ of a white cabbage, finely chopped
1½ tsp parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash the dried peas and lentils and soak overnight.
Sauté the onion in a little butter. Wash and trim the meat and place it in a large pan with the onion and add the water, peas, lentils, barley and seasoning.
Bring to the boil and skim any fat from the top of the water.
Add the leeks, turnip and carrot. Simmer for three hours. Add the cabbage and simmer for a further hour. Add the parsley, season to taste and serve.
Food fact of the fortnight
THE haggis really is the guest of honour at any Burns supper. It enjoys the lavish ceremony of being piped in by a bagpiper while Burns’s tongue-in-cheek poem Address to a Haggis is recited to it.
The poem goes like this:
Fair fa’ [may good befall] your honest, sonsie [comely] face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch [paunch], tripe or thairm [intestines or chitterlings]:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace [worthy of a grace]
As lang’s my arm.
Where to buy
IF you don’t fancy attempting to make your own haggis, then a good butcher will. We stock ready-made haggis here at our own Gibside Larder, which is made by Neil Povey. Neil is the butcher at the Wallington Farm Shop, our fellow National Trust property at Cambo, Northumberland. He will make haggis using Wallington-reared lamb to order.
Either call us direct at the Larder on 01207 541829 or Wallington on 01670 773619.