This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week five (pie week) of series three: a Wellington
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
[Address to a Haggis]
So says the poet, by which I mean Robert Burns (1759-1796), Bard of Ayrshire, Ploughman Poet, son of Scotland, whose prolific artistic output is matched by the unmitigated directness of his verse. For all that his works are often written in Scottish dialect, they remain piercingly accessible to those of us used to reading only standard English, and even today they have lost none of their resonant power. I think this is perfectly illustrated by one of Burns’ more popular poems, Tam O’Shanter (which I encountered in my fluorescent-lit English Literature classroom on the first day of Sixth Form), which veers between the frankly comic spectacle of an angry woman, sitting up waiting for her drunken husband, who she knows is stumbling home late (“Where sits our sulky, sullen dame, / Gathering her brows like gathering storm, / Nursing her wrath to keep it warm”) to an elegiac meditation on our small human grasp of happiness: “But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed; / Or like the snow falls in the river, / A moment white-then melts for ever”.
Robert Burns’ life, work and cultural impact are celebrated annually on Burns Night, which technically has no fixed date as such but is typically held close to Burns’ birthday of 25 January. Is there any other celebration like Burns Night? I can’t think of any other poet, writer or artist so commemorated, not even Shakespeare. (If there is something similar, though, I’d love to know about it!). Burns suppers are characterised by the holy Scottish trinity of haggis, whisky and a side of Burns’ poetry. Traditionally, a recitation of Burns’ Address to a Haggis follows the ceremonial entry of this savoury pudding. The Address is long and the recitation must be gruelling: I have hosted a Burns Night-themed dinner at which a friend’s boyfriend gamely recited the whole thing and it was seriously impressive as a feat of stamina.
Haggis, a mixture of the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep, mixed with onion, oats and suet, by convention encased in a sheep’s stomach, seems to be very off-putting to many (the anxiety on a friend’s face when I offered her a slice was something to behold), but it’s delicious. Suet, which people often think of as claggy and heavy, actually lends food a very light texture (as long as it’s warm – once cold, it certainly stiffens up). If you eat fancy haggis procured by a butcher and sold at a nice restaurant, it will taste like a big spiced meatball, with a delicate, quite soft (almost loose) texture; commercially-bought ones from the supermarket that you heat up are firmer and (inevitably) saltier, but still make for a really good, nubbly-textured savoury dish.
I came up with the idea of a haggis Wellington because, frankly, fillet of beef is too expensive, and it seemed like something reasonably original – though, as ever, a few people got there before me. As it turns out haggis marries beautifully with a pile of mushrooms sautéed with cream and brandy and a wrapper of rough puff pastry. If you want to serve up haggis in a slightly different way, I think this is a great choice. With a side order of Burns.
Recipe below the jump, as ever.