A Burns passion

Mark Hix salutes the great poet and gives his own translation of the Scottish classics

Tonight, all over the world, some people will be tucking into haggis, tatties and neeps, and spouting what to me and other non-Scots is verse as incomprehensible as what they're eating. Burns Night, marking the birthday of Scotland's favourite poet, has become an annual excuse for celebrating Scottish food – and whisky (although Burns himself was a claret drinker). Just as well the poet was born in January and not June, because these dishes always seem best suited to bring cheer to the depths of winter.

Tonight, all over the world, some people will be tucking into haggis, tatties and neeps, and spouting what to me and other non-Scots is verse as incomprehensible as what they're eating. Burns Night, marking the birthday of Scotland's favourite poet, has become an annual excuse for celebrating Scottish food – and whisky (although Burns himself was a claret drinker). Just as well the poet was born in January and not June, because these dishes always seem best suited to bring cheer to the depths of winter.

The biggest fuss is lavished on the haggis, which is piped into the room then cut open with the skein dhu (the dagger worn in the knee-length sock). Is a stomach bag filled with oats and offal worthy of such attention? Put like that, it doesn't sound as if haggis will ever catch on, but it's really a big sausage, and like any sausage it can vary in quality. If you're put off by the description, I can't say I blame you, having tried some haggises, but when they're good and meaty instead of being padded out with oats, I'm as happy to eat haggis as any Scot.

Anyway, a duff haggis shouldn't colour anyone's view of the great foods of Scotland. It's where most of our finest seafood, game and girolles come from. Even if we don't always call it by its original name, we might have cullen skink, the creamy smoked-haddock soup. Shortbread, Dundee cake and drop scones are just some of the other delicious Scottish specialities, along with cockie-leekie, which the Welsh and Scots both claim to have invented.

I went up to the Highlands not long ago with my butcher, Toby Baxendale, who supplies us with beef and salmon from Scotland. Having tried the old-fashioned, beefy flavoured meat, he wanted me to meet some of the shaggy Glen Fyne cattle reared on the surrounding highlands of Loch Fyne. We were entertained at the house of the late John Noble, founder of the Loch Fyne fishery that now supplies worldwide and by post (www.loch-fyne.com).

After a tour of the smokery we ate freshly caught langoustines or, as they call them locally, prawns; kiln-roasted salmon (or braden rost) and delicious oysters from the Loch. Out on the Loch, we saw rope-grown mussels being harvested by hardened locals who sounded as if they had a Cornish accent. There was snow on the mountains and I knew that if I spent any more time in the Highlands I would be off to search for wild mushrooms in the woods where some of our best fungi comes from these days. Next time. Then I'll allow time to sample whisky as well, and even fulfil my dream of trying my hand at fly-fishing for salmon. An hour's flight and another hour's drive away from London, there's a cook's heaven to be discovered.

Burns also understood about the good things in life:

Here's a bottle and an honest friend!

What wad ye wish for mair, man?

Wha kens, before his life may end,

What his share may be o' care, man?

And I reckon eating well is definitely one of the good things.


Serves 4

Traditionally, this sort of soupy stew would be made with some shin of beef and a boiling fowl or capon for the base stock, then the meat would be used in other dishes as well as in the soup itself. If you want to use a boiling fowl or capon, fine, although the breast meat can be a bit dry as a meal. Chicken legs work well in this recipe because they give off the most flavour.

16 large, dried, stoned prunes, soaked in warm water overnight
A piece of stewing beef like shin or flank, weighing 200g or so
4 chicken legs, skinned and halved where the thigh joins the drumstick, with the knuckles chopped off the drumstick
2 litres chicken stock or a stock cube
200g large leeks, halved lengthways, washed and trimmed to fit pan if necessary
150g small finger leeks, cleaned and washed

Put the beef into a saucepan with the chicken stock and large leeks, bring it to the boil, skim any scum that forms and simmer gently for 11/2 hours. Add the chicken legs and simmer for another 30 minutes. Drain in a colander over a bowl and remove the chicken and beef. Skim the stock and strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pan. Add the prunes and the finger leeks, whole, or halved if they are too long. Cut the beef into four and return to the pan with the chicken. Simmer for another 15 minutes until the leeks are tender.

Serve as it is or, for a more refined soup, remove the chicken from the bone and shred the meat.

Cullen skink

Serves 4

Avoid the yellow-dyed smoked haddock and buy the lighter-coloured natural fillets of Finnan haddock. Cullen is on the southern shore of the Moray Firth and skink is just the name for a broth or soup.

A good knob of butter
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
1 litre fish stock
1 small, floury potato weighing about 200g, peeled and roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
300g natural-smoked haddock fillet
1tbsp chopped parsley
3tbsp double cream
Ground white pepper

Melt the butter in a pan and gently cook the leek for a few minutes with the lid on, until f soft. Add the fish stock, potato, bay leaf and smoked haddock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Carefully remove the haddock from the pan with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Simmer the soup for another 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and blend in a liquidiser until smooth. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pan.

Meanwhile, remove the flesh from the skin of the haddock, checking for bones, then flake it into the strained soup. Stir in the double cream and parsley and bring back to the boil before serving.

Fillet of venison with bashed neeps, haggis and whisky sauce

Serves 4

Much of the farmed venison that's around hasn't been hung for long and lacks flavour. Wild, whether it's roe or fallow deer, is available all year, but the seasons vary depending on the species and the place. Venison for braising is often sold as a mixture of cuts with varying cooking times. But a good game dealer will have specific cuts such as the saddle, fillet and various muscles from the leg that don't need marinating because they are tender and can be cooked pink. Like black pudding, there are lots of inferior haggises around, and it's a matter of taste in the first place. You can leave it out of this recipe if you prefer, or make sure you buy a good one. The best known, MacSweens of Edinburgh (0131 440 2555 for mail order ), is capable of making converts.

4 x 150g trimmed venison saddle fillets
1/2 glass of good red wine
6 juniper berries, crushed
A few sprigs of thyme, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
150ml beef stock (a cube will do)
2 good shots of whisky
150g-200g good-quality haggis, skin removed and meat crumbled or spooned into small, rough 1cm pieces
Bashed neeps (see below)

Leave the venison, wine, juniper and thyme to marinate overnight in a stainless-steel or china dish covered with clingfilm.

Remove the venison from the marinade, dry the fillets on kitchen paper and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat a little vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and cook the fillets for 2-3 minutes on each side for medium rare or a few minutes longer for medium. Then leave them to rest on a plate to catch the juices. Cover with foil to keep warm.

Meanwhile, put the marinade into a saucepan and boil it rapidly until it has reduced to a tablespoon. Add the stock and whisky and any juices from the venison and boil for about 5 minutes or so until the sauce has thickened. If the sauce is not thick enough, dilute a little cornflour in some water and stir it in, a little at a time, until it thickens. Strain it through a fine-meshed sieve.

Reheat the bashed neeps and fold the haggis into them. Spoon into the centre of each plate. Slice the venison into four or five pieces and arrange on the neeps, then pour the sauce around.

Bashed neeps

Serves 4

In the Highlands and also throughout Ireland, I've found there can be some confusion about the difference between a swede and a turnip. Swede, or rutabaga, not the white member of the same family that we call a turnip, is what we turn intodelicious buttery, golden neeps.

500g swede, peeled and roughly chopped
60g butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cover the swede with water and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes until they are soft enough to mash. Drain in a colander, then coarsely mash with a potato masher. Re-season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, if necessary, and add the butter. Add haggis as above if you wish.

Atholl brose

Serves 4

This makes a good, hearty breakfast or a dessert. It can be scattered with Scottish raspberries when they're in season, with blackberries or, at any time of the year, apricots or prunes soaked in whisky.

60g medium oatmeal
600ml double cream
4tbsp honey
4tbsp malt whisky

Spread on a baking tray and toast the oatmeal in a low oven or under a medium grill until golden. You'll have to watch it closely or it may burn. Whip the double cream until stiff, then stir in the honey and whisky and mix well but do not over-whip. Fold in the oatmeal and serve in glass coupes or a serving dish.

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