By Cinda Chavich
If you’re having trouble seeing the sexy side of another Burns Day dinner, consider this: the annual mid-winter dinner held every January 25 to celebrate a dead Scottish poet and his ode to a classic sausage in a sheep’s stomach is actually rather “of the moment.” Especially when you have your local artisan butcher creating the classic haggis with the best local lamb and turning its precious offal into a zero-waste feast (not to mention a few Outlander-esque men in kilts to set the scene).
Serve this Scottish national dish alongside a fluffy pile of tatties and neeps (mashed potato and rutabagas), with cold smoked B.C. salmon and oatcakes to start, a flight of fine single malts or a series of local Twa Dogs craft beer, each named for a classic Burns verse, and it makes for a stylish, Island-style celebration with just enough tradition to keep it real.
In Pursuit of the Poet
Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, and died a short 37 years later, making him a romantic figure who has been celebrated ever since. Known as “the people’s poet,” Burns was born into poverty and led a rather wild and dramatic life, his writing often pointing out social injustices with biting satire and wit.
Burns must have been quite the food lover too, for he often references Scottish fare in his work, calling Scotland the “Land o’ Cakes” (oatcakes), devoting a whole song to crowdie (porridge) and immortalizing the aforementioned haggis, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as the “chieftain o’ the puddin’-race.” He also penned the classic “Auld Lang Syne.”
You might need a Celtic dictionary to read Burns’ tale “The Twa Dogs” (Luath and Caesar, a common collie and perhaps a Newfoundland, in conversation about life, society and class), but the story makes a good conversation starter, especially while sipping a beer of the same name from Victoria Caledonian Brewery & Distillery. With its own single malts aging in the barrel for future release, a couple of stunning copper stills imported from Speyside and a whisky-tasting room, this brewery and distillery is a great place to get the Burns mood flowing.
Or simply head to The Whole Beast Artisan Salumeria in Oak Bay. There, Cory Pelan regularly turns the lungs, hearts and other offal (left over after breaking down lamb from Metchosin’s Parry Bay Sheep Farm) into a very high-quality and tasty haggis.
FIND LOCAL ROBBIE BURNS EVENTS
HOW TO HAVE YOUR HAGIS
I actually like haggis, not only because it channels my late Scottish grandmother, but also because it’s become a symbol of Scottish cuisine for local chefs embracing their traditional roots. On a recent tour of Edinburgh and environs, I ate haggis for breakfast with eggs and tried haggis samosas, mini haggis “bonbons,” haggis in puff pastry and even tasty vegetarian haggis. My haggis came in crisp fried patties, crumbled over mash and stacked in a tower, bathed in whisky and leek sauce.
There’s a popular line of ready-to-heat-and-eat haggis in Scottish supermarkets from MacSween, a company that makes traditional haggis, beef and haggis burgers, wild boar haggis, even a haggis with grouse, pheasant and duck. They also sell “one-minute haggis,” sliced in a plastic packet to microwave for lunch.
Though much maligned, haggis is simply a sausage, made as many traditional sausages are as a way to use up the remains after an animal is butchered for meat. It all depends who’s making the haggis and what kind of ingredients they use, but good haggis is like any other artisan charcuterie. At The Whole Beast, Pelan uses a classic haggis recipe, combining the pluck (lung, heart and liver) with lots of onions, toasted pinhead oats, beef suet and spices.
“We started with (chef) Fergus Henderson’s recipe and tweaked it a bit,” says Pelan, who collects the lamb offal to make haggis when whole animals are butchered in-house.
“Sometimes we’ll grind up the kidneys or poach off the tongues and grind them. The heart is important for the dense, meaty texture, the liver adds a nice rich flavour, and the lung ensures the mixture doesn’t get too dense.”
It’s all stuffed into a beef bung (natural casing), then poached before freezing.
“It’s fully cooked, but it still needs to be cooked a lot more before your serve it,” explains Pelan. “We vacuum-pack the haggis so you can poach it sous vide (in 170˚F water) for two to three hours to finish it.” You can also steam haggis or wrap it in foil and bake.
When cooked, the texture is crumbly but soft, the oats and ground meat somewhat like a shepherd’s pie filling. It’s scooped out of the casing to serve and should arrive piping hot, with onion gravy, turnips and potatoes. While a whisky toast is traditional, you won’t need hard liquor to disguise the flavour of a well-made haggis. You might just end up yearning for the next Robbie Burns dinner and a chance to indulge in this seasonal treat.
“Now I get it,” says Pelan, who supplies haggis to annual events like the Robbie Burns celebrations at Craigdarroch Castle. “It’s super rich, but it’s super delicious — it’s just perfect the way it is.”
BURNS DINNER 101
Oatcakes with smoked salmon
Cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek) or Scotch broth soup
The haggis, of course, or a vegetarian haggis for the not-brave-hearts (recipe below)
Tatties and neeps (a mash of rutabagas and potatoes)
Bread pudding with whisky sauce (see below) or Tipsy Laird (a creamy whisky-laced trifle)
A wee dram (or three) of your finest single malt is de rigueur to toast the bard. Ask your friends to each bring a bottle of their favourite Scotch for a bit of a tasting. (Tell them they can take home the remains, as good whisky is pricey.) You might also consider pouring the new line of Twa Dogs craft beers from Victoria Caledonian Brewery & Distillery — Drouthy Neibor IPA, Mistress of my Soul Saison, Keekin’ Glass Pilsner, Holy Willie’s Robust Porter and Jolly Beggar’s Pale Ale, all celebrate a Burns poem, and you can read an excerpt next to the tasting notes online.
Crack out the plaid napkins and the kilts (although the latter was banned from wearing in Burns’ time, he championed the cultural rights of all Scots, kilt-wearing included). A piper may be a bit much inside the house, but a little bagpipe prelude (downloaded from the Internet) makes a nice entrée to the main course and “Address to a Haggis.” Then keep the party lively with some Celtic tunes from Cape Breton’s Natalie MacMaster or Toronto’s Enter the Haggis.
Look for someone in your dining party with an actor’s flourish or Scottish brogue to recite Burns’ poem, or at least the simple “Selkirk Grace” (below), but first have your guests stand and clap slowly as the cook ferries the great “Chieftain o’ the puddin’-race” to the table, held aloft on a silver tray.
Address the haggis, slash it open with a chef’s knife (or a dagger, if you have one) and serve with more whisky or Scottish ale and a lashing of onion gravy (recipe below). Sláinte!
If reading the lengthy Burns “Address to a Haggis” is too much work, just start with the short and sweet “Selkirk Grace”:
Some hae meat and canna eat
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat
Sae let the Lord be thankit
I created this recipe after tasting a vegetarian haggis in a restaurant in Edinburgh. Like the popular MacSween products found in supermarkets across Scotland, it’s a kind of vegetarian loaf made with beans, shredded vegetables, chopped nuts and the requisite steel-cut (pinhead) oats. The caramelized onion gravy (recipe below) I made to serve alongside was good on the veg haggis — and the real haggis too.
• 1 tbsp butter
• 2/3 cup steel-cut oats
• 2/3 cup rolled oats
• 2/3 cup chopped nuts (mix of almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, etc.)
Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the oats and nuts and toast together for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until they start to brown. Dump into a bowl and set aside.
• 2 tbsp butter
• 1 tbsp olive oil
• 1 large onion, finely chopped
• 2 medium carrots, shredded
• 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 8 mushrooms, chopped
• 650-750 ml vegetable or chicken stock (or water), divided
• 1/3 cup red lentils
• 1/2 cup kidney or romano beans (canned/cooked), mashed
• 1 tbsp soy sauce
• 1/2 tsp dried thyme
• 1/2 tsp dried savory
• 1/4 tsp celery salt
• 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
• 1/2 tsp black pepper
• 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
In the sauté pan, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion until softened and starting to colour. Add the carrots, garlic and mushrooms and sauté 5 minutes longer. Stir in the lentils and 1 cup (250 ml) of the stock. Bring to a boil.
Mix another 250 ml of stock with the mashed beans and soy sauce, and add to the pan. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.
Stir in the toasted oats and nuts and seasonings, bring to a boil, then return the lid to the pan and simmer on low for 15 minutes.
Add another 100 to 200 ml of broth or water as necessary. This mixture should be moist but not soupy.
Stir in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning. It may need salt, depending on what kind of broth you’ve used. Turn into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 375°F for 30 minutes. Serve with mashed potatoes and turnips.
BOOZY BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKY SAUCE
More whisky? Why not — it’s the Celtic way, and nothing lifts an old-fashioned bread pudding into gourmet territory like this creamy caramel-coloured whisky sauce. It’s a good trick to haul out anytime you need to take a dessert up a notch. Recipe from The Guy Can’t Cook by Cinda Chavich.
• 6 cups day-old white bread (brioche or challah makes a richer pudding, but an Italian loaf or baguette works too)
• 1 cup raisins
• 1/2 cup whisky
• 2 cups whole milk
• 1 cup whipping cream
• 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
• 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
• 1/2 cup melted butter
• 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
• 1/2 tsp salt
Caramel Whisky Sauce:
• 1 can sweetened condensed milk
• 1/2 cup heavy cream
• 1/4 cup Scotch (or rye) whisky
Preheat the oven to 350°F. For the pudding, cut the bread into 3/4-inch cubes and place in a large bowl.
Combine the raisins and 1/2 cup of whisky in a bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Set aside to cool and soak for 30 minutes.
In another bowl, use a whisk to combine the milk, cream, eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla and salt. Pour over the bread and stir to combine. Let the mixture rest for 10 minutes to allow the bread to soak up the custard before stirring in the raisins and whisky.
Pour the bread mixture into a buttered, 10-cup baking dish and bake for 1 hour or until puffed and golden.
While the pudding is baking, make the sauce. In a small saucepan, boil the sweetened condensed milk with the cream over medium heat until it turns a caramel colour; this will take about 15 minutes. Stir it regularly to make sure it doesn’t burn. Remove from the heat and slowly stir in the whisky. Keep warm until ready to use.
When the pudding is baked and firm, remove from oven and cool slightly. Cut into squares and serve warm, drizzled with whisky sauce.
Serves 8 to 10.
• 3 large onions, peeled and slivered
• 4 tbsp butter
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 2 large cloves garlic, minced
• ¼ cup white wine
• 2 tbsp flour
• 3 cups water or broth
• 1 tbsp soy sauce
• 1 tbsp Worcestershire
• Salt and pepper
In a sauté pan, heat the butter and oil over medium low heat and cook the onions, stirring often, until brown and caramelized. Add the garlic and cook for 5 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with wine, stirring up any browned bits, then stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Gradually add the water or broth and bring to a simmer. Cook 1-2 minutes then add the soy sauce, Worchester and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cool slightly. Use a hand held blender (or food processor) to whiz up the sauce, leaving it a little chunky. Reheat and thin to preferred consistency with a splash of water or ale. Makes 4 cups.
OAT CAKES WITH SMOKED SALMON
Slivers of cold smoked salmon, draped over a handmade oat cracker, with a dab of crème fraiche or sour cream and a sprig of dill, makes a hearty starter. If you need to save time, you can find imported oat cake crackers from companies like Walkers in local supermarkets.
• 8 oz. cold smoked salmon (lox)
• 1/2 cup sour cream or crème fraiche
• 1 tbsp each, chopped fresh and chopped chives
• Dill sprigs or chives to garnish
• 3 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 1/4 tsp baking soda
• 3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
• 1/2 cup hot water
To make oat crackers, combine oatmeal, salt and baking soda in a bowl. Pour in the melted butter and then stir in enough water to make a stiff dough. You may have to wait a few minutes for the oats to absorb the water to check the consistency.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and quickly knead for 30 seconds.
Roll out on a sheet of plastic or wax paper to a 1/4-inch thickness, then cut out round crackers with a 3-inch cookie cutter or water glass.
Use a spatula to transfer crackers to a baking sheet that’s been lined with parchment paper, and bake at 350°F for 30 minutes or until they begin to brown. Cool on a rack and store in an airtight tin.
Combine the sour cream or crème fraiche with the chopped dill and chives. To serve, spoon a little cream on a cracker, top with a sliced smoked salmon and a sprig of dill or chive. Serves 8.