Food at Burns Suppers and St Andrew’s Nights

Been talked into serving Scottish food at a Burns Supper or a St Andrew’s Night event? Bad luck. But here are suggestions for authentic traditional menus. This should help.

Naturally, the Scottish food star of a Burns Supper is the haggis. Without a haggis, a Burns Supper is just a, well, supper, I suppose. (Note, incidentally, how it’s never a Burns dinner, as that’s too middle class.)

The Scot furth of, sorry, I mean, beyond, his homeland (or the non-native determined to latch on to this excellent excuse for a winter celebration) should seek out a haggis supplier well in advance of the poet’s birthday (25th January). Demand can be high!

However, it is the rest of the Scottish food for Burns Suppers menu that can cause some uncertainty to organisers not brought up in the tradition.

Cock-a-Leekie, if you really feel you should.

The first course is often a Scottish soup – for example, cock-a-leekie. This, strictly speaking, should be made from scratch with a boiling fowl and with bacon, leeks and prunes among the principal ingredients.

Yeah, right. I think this soup was a way of using up an old bird, perhaps like the coq-au-vin of France, only less appetising.

Scotch broth is an equally substantial alternative. To replicate traditional Scottish food it should be authentically made with barley, along with mutton, split peas, onion, leek, cabbage, carrots and turnips (the large purplish variety that are called neeps in Scotland and swedes in England).

(That link takes you to a veritable treatise on neepery – don’t miss it.)

Anyway, you’ll be meeting neeps again in the main course. You may find the glutinous element added by the cooked barley to be deeply unpleasant. I know I do – but we are trying to be authentic here!

Know what? I’d skip the heavy soup altogether. Why don’t you just do drams and nibbles? Haggis flavoured crisps would be suitably ironic.

Haggis crisps. Whatever next?
Haggis crisps could be served with drinks instead of that over-filling hearty soup, notably for St Andrews’s Nights. Suitably ironic and jokey. Maybe I’m not being reverent enough about all this, Small wonder folk write to me to complain.
Haggis Fingers. What?
Two haggis fingers, a modern take on traditional Scottish food. Or, more likely, what the Scots hold up when told to eat more healthily.

OK then, so here are a couple of suggestions of things you probably shouldn’t serve at Burns Suppers, or on St Andrew’s Night, unless you’re intending to be deeply ironic.

The batter on the haggis fingers pictured here looks bad enough, but if these are fingers, then the Scots must have really big hands.

Also note that the object at the top right is not a haggis thumb. It’s just a thumb. Mine, in fact.

The main course of haggis should be served with bashed neeps (mashed turnips) and chappit tatties (mashed potatoes). Wait a minute. Exactly what are neeps? (Go on, follow the link to find out. You know you ought to…)

Whisky may be drunk (in moderation!) with the meal, though most Scots regard the habit of pouring it over the haggis as a bit weird, or possibly an English peculiarity. (After all, pouring wine over a main course is not good behaviour!

Some ways of copping out on haggis as a main course

I have also been to Burns Suppers in a certain part of Scotland (oh, all right, in Fraserburgh, once, a few years ago) where the haggis as a main course has also been supplemented by serving it alongside mince – that is, minced steak, another traditional and everyday element in Scottish food.

(Think spaghetti bolognaise sauce but without spaghetti, tomato, garlic, herbs, olive oil and… Hmm. I’m not making this sound over-attractive, am I?

Real oatmeal stuffing in a packet
Oatmeal (or skirlie), stuffing or just accompaniment in Scottish cooking. Probably not one your five-a-day, however. Easily microwavable – so, very time-saving. (Add a little water…)

And I also went to Burns Supper at the Royal Scot Club in Edinburgh one year when they served haggis as a starter, which I thought was a complete cop-out, followed by salmon, for goodness sake, as a main course.

I mean, Burns never wrote an address to a salmon, did he? They corrected matters the following year and remain, in my book, as a good place to have Scottish high tea, in Edinburgh. (At least they certainly used to be…)

Care for a dessert?
  • or did the skirlie finsh you off?

Right, well, sorry about that little rant. We have reached the sweet course: potentially wide-ranging though, to keep the Scottish food theme consistent, there might be a Scotch trifle.

This should, ideally, include Scots raspberries. The sponge base can be soaked in whisky. Or am I just inventing the whole thing?

Perhaps a ‘Scotch trifle’ is the name of an opening chess move or even an obscure and very small moth found on heather moors.

Tipsy Laird

Now where was I? Oh yes, a simple trifle with an appropriately Scottish element is sometimes called ‘Tipsy Laird’.

Its base is whisky-soaked sponge-cake, then a layer of rasps and a topping of cream plus the inevitably sprinkling of (this time, toasted) oatmeal.

Burns of course liked his dessert, and wrote the lines about ‘The sweetest hours that ere I spent were spent among molasses-oh.’

(I assume you won’t take that seriously. Just indulge me with the joke, will ya?)

St Andrew’s Night menu suggestions

St Andrew’s Day barely made it into a printed diary entry in the old days. Then in 2006 the Scottish Parliament voted that it could be a holiday that could be swapped with any of the other Scottish public holidays.

Unhappily, 30 November, St Andrew’s Day, isn’t at the best time of the year or taking holidays in Scotland, as it’s usually dreich, and the days are short. If only Andrew could have had a day in May or June…

Mostly Scottish cheeses
A selection of cheeses made in Scotland (and beyond)

Anyway, it’s still an excuse for a dinner, or should it be a supper? It is not obligatory to serve haggis on St Andrew’s Night. In fact I’d rather you avoided this Scottish food stereotyping.

A meal to celebrate Scotland’s patron saint on 30th November can be as wide-ranging and imaginative as the full range of quality Scottish foodstuffs permit.

(Well, I wouldn’t rank that as the most helpful sentence I ever wrote.

But Scotland has top quality beef and lamb, seafood, game, soft fruit, cheeses and so on – you just have to source it effectively.)

Starters might be fish-based: for example, Cullen Skink, a smoked-fish soup.

An authentic Scottish food main course might use venison with, perhaps, the flavour of Scots juniper berries as part of the recipe.

If game such as pheasant is served, then it is a good reason for using bread sauce as part of the accompaniment, as the Scots claim to have invented that as well! Alternatively, Scots beef or lamb would be just as appropriate.

Free rein is also permitted in the sweet course – perhaps a recipe using butterscotch, for instance, or using oatmeal in any one of a number of sweet recipes, for example, cranachan – toasted oatmeal, with cream sweetened and flavoured with rum or vanilla and eaten with soft fruit.

Incidentally, the idea of a dessert or a sweet course – from the French desservir – to clear or take away (ie the main course) – took root in Scotland in the 16th century, about a century before the notion was widely accepted in England.

This gave the Scots about a hundred year start in practising the art of baking and sweet making – and consequently about a hundred year start in the obesity stakes.

Basically, if in doubt, roll everything in oatmeal before cooking it or pour whisky on it and set it alight! (No, I’m not altogether serious.) There is information on an old-time Scottish celebration here.

(Though I’d skip the singed sheep’s heid.) Or take a look at some traditional recipes…or read some more thoughts on Scottish cuisine.