I realise an Englishman talking about Burns night is about as useful as a Scotsman talking about football, but Alex Ferguson seems to do ok so give me a chance. I am qualified for this, in addition to being married to a Scottish lassie and wearing a skirt (sorry Kilt) at my wedding, I have been hosting Burns suppers with my university friends for years. Normally you would drink whisky, whisky and whisky with the meal, but I think there are some great wine matches to go with the food.
My shop in Ayr is right in the heart of Burns country, just a couple of miles from where he was born. Many of my customers get into the spirit of things with folk music, readings and events in the week leading up to Burns Night. Rabbie’s poems and songs such as A Red, Red Rose, Tam o’ Shanter and Auld Lang Syne are artefacts that have inspired a nation. This is why his friends started gathering on the 25th of January to celebrate his life and works. He was recently voted ‘Greatest Scot’, even better than Sean Connery!
A Burns supper is a great opportunity to share a meal with friends after a month of detox and saving money. They can be as simple or as complicated as you like, from nipping to the supermarket for a ready-made meal to hunting your own haggis in the highlands and preparing a lavish banquet complete with speeches, poetry and a great deal of ceremony.
There are plenty of books and websites that can give you a running order of the full procedure, but a good basic starting point is to gather a group of good friends and enjoy a brief welcome speech from the host. The ‘Selkirk grace’ is traditionally said before a starter of Cock a leekie soup. This Chicken and leak broth is ideally suited to a Chardonnay with butter and toast notes alongside crisp fruit flavours. The Kangarilla Road Chardonnay has a spicy nuttiness that balances nicely. Another option is the Bourgogne Chardonnay from Domaine Jomain which is slightly more crisp and fruity making it ideal with the range of flavours in the soup.
After the starter it is time to pipe in the haggis. My friend Fraser always recites the ‘ode to the haggis’ with unrivaled gusto. Haggis is fantastic stuffed in chicken breast or over a baked potato, but for Burns supper the only way to serve it is alongside bashed neeps and tatties. The spicy, gamey flavour of Haggis works with most robust reds, but I particularly like the Pavillion de Poyfere 2005. This is ripe and juicy with some bold cedar and liquorice hints to bring out the depth of the haggis. The Cvne Reserva Rioja is a great alternative with a more spicy, cherry fruit flavour backed up by rich leather and coffee notes. I can’t agree with Lawrence from Leith more, if you’re eating at home splash out a bit and Haggis can really bring out the best in a good quality wine.
The pudding is traditionally a sherry trifle called Tipsy Laird that works well with the dried fruit flavours in sweet wines such as the Triana PX or the Buller’s fine Muscat, but this is the point of the night when I indulge in a wee dram or two. If you’re new to whisky, I’d recommend a highland style such as the Dalwhinnie or the Dalmore which tend to be more delicate. However if you’re more adventurous, why not try one of the rich peat smoked Islays such as Laphroaig. A wonderful end to the evening.
After the meal, it is traditional to have further speeches: the Immortal Memory; to the lassies; reply from the lassies; votes of thanks; etc. but feel free to skip straight to the Gay Gordons, Highland Flings and Stripping the Willows. However far you take it, the main thing is to have a great night and possibly your first taste of a little creature called Haggis.
**Disclaimer – I know haggis isn’t really an animal but don’t tell the English**