Saturday, 27 January 2007

Burns’ Night – A Slice of Scottishness

It looks like Scotland will feature quite highly in the news for me this year; and I am not talking about the elections in May, which may or may not take place but rather of my (and the Chorus') first visit to Scotland at the end of May, as it happens.

Scotland already featured fairly prominently once in my life some 5 years ago. My first boyfriend in this country and the record holder for the longest of what I am reluctant to call my "relationships" (only three months) was (and still is) Scottish. He unfortunately did not impart much of his cultural heritage to me, so last night I was quite excited and intrigued to have been invited by czechOUT (please mind where you put the capitals!) to a Burns’ Night (normally celebrated on 25 January) with the promise that I would also eventually get my first taste of that infamous indigenous delicacy: Haggis. Read about the preparations here and here.

It seems that another theme for the year, after my visit to the pie and mash shop is for me to get deeper and deeper into anthropological and gastronomic exploration of the British Isles.

I must admit now that my understanding of Burns’ Nights was and remains quite hazy. They seem to be a very important part of the Scottish social calendar and are there to celebrate one Robert Burns, some sort of hero up there, mostly known it seems for his poetry (even I had heard of that), although the reason for such adulation remains unclear (even to the autochthones, it seems). There also seems to be a very elaborate ritual attached to those affairs. Last night, I heard mention of a set menu centred around the Haggis, a piper to bring in the said Haggis, party pieces and readings as well as someone having to harangue to the aforementioned Haggis. Considering the central importance of the thing, perhaps they should rename this “Haggis’ Night”? The party last night was, I understand, an informal version of the traditional event.

The company comprised 2 Scots, 4 Chorus members, no women, 3 persons I did not know already, 2 cats, Haggis galore and a multilingual collection of musicals soundtracks. In all there were 8 of us. One of the guests was a new member of the Chorus (He joined two weeks ago) who happens to live with his partner, since their recent move to London, two doors down from czechOUT’s. Another proof, if needed that joining the Chorus shrinks the world quite dramatically. What was quite remarkable for me in those two is the fact that they met 6 years ago when they were respectively 16 and 19 (ages when I was still in the process of coming out to myself) and have been together ever since. Something quite difficult for me to fathom in view of my miserable record in the matter.

We started the meal with a very nice leek and shredded chicken soup and soon amicable and (something seldom found these days, it seems) intelligent conversation started to flow, gently eased by several bottles wine.

And then it was time for It: the Haggis.

It was served nouvelle cuisine style but with the traditional neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) and gravy with mince meat. Considering all I heard about the thing, including what goes into its preparation (sheep’s heart, liver and lung), I was a little apprehensive but was, in the end, nicely surprised. If anything, it is rather bland and tasteless; a fault I seem to be finding with most British food. czeckOUT will probably kill me the next time he sees me for throwing Haggis into the British pot, so to speak.

This makes me think, perhaps not very originally, that food is an acquired taste and that we are partly conditioned and taught (personal taste obviously also has its role) to be sensitive to, like or dislike certain tastes by the dominant culinary ways of the country we are brought up in.

Although I am no great fan of it in general, the subtle and not too frequent appearances of the bits of liver were a very nice addition to the overall effect. Like pie and mash though (another apology to czechOUT here for the comparison), I am glad to have tried it and will definitely persist and have it again, presumably in Edinburgh this time.

Desert was another traditional dish for Burns’ Night, whose name, like that of the soup, I have not registered. It consisted of a cup of cream beat up with honey and whiskey, served with oat, raspberries, raisin and peppered oat cakes. Very nice indeed.

Discussion and some singing carried on well into the night and I got home around half past 2. This morning my head is feeling a little woolly and fluffy from the 3 glasses of wine I had (quite a bit by my standards) but nothing too bad.

I have now read up about Haggis and Burns on Wikipedia and I am feeling a little more clued up. I recommend you too follow the links provided in this post.

Bring on the Chorus’ Scottish tour!



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