We're just a couple of days from one of Scotland's biggest annual cultural events - Burns Night commemorates and celebrates the life and work of Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard, or poet.
(In Scotland another word for poet is 'makar', and in 2004 the Scottish Parliament introduced the formal title of Scots Makar for a national poet. The current Scots Makar is Jackie Kay, but the two previous holders have been Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan.)
Burns remains one of Scotland's great cultural figures, and on 25th January each year - Burns' date of birth - dinners are held to consume traditional dishes and recite Burns' poetry. The highlight of such occasions is the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties - a veritable Scottish trinity of foodstuffs!
Although these days visitors often seek a 'gourmet' version of haggis, the dish originated as a dish suited to the lifestyle and means of shepherds, combining cheaply available ingredients and a form which allowed it to be transported. The liver, heart and lungs of a sheep - known as the 'pluck' - are minced with suet, oats and spices, and stuffed into a casing to enclose it.
Originally the casing would have been a sheep's stomach or similar, today they are generally stuffed into synthetic casings. The effect was to create a bulbous sausage, something which could be stuffed into the belongings of the shepherd as he trailed his charges across the exposed Highland landscapes, and which could then be taken out, boiled over a fire, and then sliced open to eat the spicy contents.
Today, haggis is often served in different forms, deep fried in small balls as a bar snack, grilled as part of a cooked breakfast, stuffed into chicken to create Chicken Balmoral (after Queen Victoria's Highland estate), or even - purists should avert their gaze now - crumbled onto pizzas...!
Burns himself wrote an 'Address to a Haggis', which is recited at Burns' suppers as the haggis is brought into the dining room - often accompanied by bagpipes! - in which he describes it as "Great chieftain o' the Puddin-race" - the king of pies and puddings!
At such events the haggis is generally served with the other two staples of the dish, neeps and tatties. Neeps are mashed swede - a Swedish form of turnip, 'neeps' a shortening of 'turneeps' - which is much more golden and yellow than ordinary turnip. Boiled and mashed roughly with butter and salt, it's a rich and sweet vegetable dish. Tatties, then, are simply mashed potatoes - together the three elements don't offer a hugely varied palate of textures, but they do accompany each other well in terms of flavour!
A sauce may be added - whisky or pepper sauce is a good match - but for most people a liberal knob of butter is enough, without detracting from the rich flavour of the haggis itself.
In recent years the haggis has achieved a kind of mythical status, partly as a result of its scarcity in some parts of the world - the use of sheep lung as an ingredient put it beyond the limits of American health regulations, making it illegal to import or produce commercially in the United States.
Most surprisingly of all, considering the haggis is uniquely associated with Scottish culture today, some historians and food experts now believe the haggis to have been invented in England originally, before being 'exported' to Scotland!
Whatever its origins, and however it's served, be sure to try to sample this iconic dish sometime during your visit to Scotland...
Book a private tour and get my top tips on where to go to try haggis during your stay in Edinburgh!
Located on the Canongate section of Edinburgh's Royal Mile is Cranachan & Crowdie, one of the city's finest stockists of locally sourced, artisan produced Scottish food, drink and gifts.
With so much more to Scotland than whisky and shortbread, this shop is bursting at the seams with a vast array of top-quality produce from right across Scotland - it's a veritable taste of Scotland in a single shop!
If the name sounds like a mouthful, you should know that it describes two quintessentially Scottish foodstuffs: cranachan is a traditional Scottish dessert, made from toasted oats, honey, whipped cream, and raspberries, with (of course) whisky, whilst crowdie is a soft, sharp cheese best eaten with rough oatcakes.
If that hasn't got your mouth watering then pop in to the shop to see their full range of over 200 locally produced foods and gifts. They've raided every corner of the traditional Scottish larder for the finest quality offerings from producers right across Scotland - from shortbread and tablet (a dense, fudge-like sweet treat) to gin, venison and traditional marmalades and preserves, you can't help but find something to suit your palate. They offer over 16 types of oatcake alone!
For non-foody types, browse their range of quality tweed, pottery and whisky-related gifts - from traditional selections like mounted whisky glasses and hand-turned wooden 'spurtles' (used for stirring porridge) to quirky contemporary ideas like tartan tweed iPad covers, the focus is on unique and unusual ideas that you won't find elsewhere on the high street.
The staff are always on hand for a friendly chat, to answer your questions, and help you find the food and gifts that you are looking for, and shop dog Caley the labradoodle is always happy to take a stroke or a pat as a reward for her hard work as Shortbread Quality Control Manager...
PLUS! You can add a 'flavour of Scotland' to any customised walking tour of the city - for just £5 per person, we can arrange to visit Cranachan & Crowdie for you to enjoy samples of some traditional Scottish foods from their extensive artisan product range, and to learn a little about their producers.
Simply tick the box on the customised tour booking form to arrange a short stop during your tour...
For the Love of Haggis
Each year on 25 January, Scots around the world celebrate Burns Night, in commemoration of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. A traditional feature of the 'Burns Supper' is a steaming plate of Scotland's national dish, the haggis. But there is often some confusion (or lack of information!) about what haggis actually is - so here's my guide to what Burns himself described as the "Great chieftain o' the puddin-race".
Contrary to some humorous representations, the haggis is not in fact an animal native to Scotland. It suits the Scottish sense of humour for locals to tease visitors about going haggis-spotting in the Highlands, or hunting parties to catch this shy creature - and think what sport we would have if this were actually the case!
The traditional haggis recipe is sheep-based, using sheep's lungs, liver and and heart finely chopped or minced together with onion, oats, suet and a blend of spices and seasoning. Originally the ingredients were combined in the skin of the sheep's stomach, before being steamed or boiled, but in recent times this element of tradition has been superseded by the use of synthetic casings.
As described, it is understandable that haggis might sound a little unappetising (and indeed one of the great misconceptions about haggis focuses on its unpleasant-sounding ingredients) but its flavour is rich and spicy and incredibly tasty. Vegetarian options are commonly available, but food puritans (from a nation that also consumes deep-fried Mars bars....) cry foul at these unnatural gastronomic creations.
Haggis is traditionally served with 'neeps and tatties', which is mashed turnips/swede and mashed potatoes. Some people also produce a sauce (often whisky flavoured) or douse the haggis liberally with butter to create a moist and tasty dish. Haggis is increasingly offered in a variety of other forms, including deep-fried in balls, in pies, or sliced and fried or grilled as part of a traditional Scottish breakfast.
For a 'national dish' it may be surprising to learn that haggis's origins are not inherently Scottish. Similar recipes from the north of England date from the fifteenth-century, whilst a description of a meal sounding very similar to haggis is described even earlier, in Homer's Odyssey, from 800 years BC! Other suggestions are that the haggis made its way to Scotland via France or Scandinavia.
At a traditional Burns Supper, the haggis is brought into the dining room to the accompaniment of bagpipes, and before it is served is toasted with Burns's Address to a Haggis, which celebrates its virtues before it is sliced open and distributed to guests. The address in full, in Burns's original Scots dialect, is as follows:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis
Make of that what you will! And so haggis remains a popular part of Scots culture, regularly eaten throughout the year as well as on Burns Night.
In recent years the haggis has taken on another role, as a sporting icon. Haggis hurling began as a joke and is now practised relatively seriously - the current world record for hurling a haggis stands at 217 feet (66 metres)! One condition of the sport, as generally agreed, is that the haggis must remain intact and fit for eating after having been thrown...
Sadly, the composition of haggis - specifically the use of sheep's lungs in the recipe - has meant it is officially on the US government's food blacklist, and since 1971 has been illegal to sell or import a haggis to America. Quite what the millions of Scots Americans eat on Burns Night remains unclear!
If you're visiting Edinburgh, you'll find plenty of restaurants where you might wish to try haggis. Explore the city with a private walking tour for some personal recommendations!
Local Flavour: Valvona and Crolla
Edinburgh is a city bursting with independent retailers, and whilst in recent times the city centre may have given way to many chains and branded stores, it's the local, independent merchants who are still likely to be hands-down favourites with locals.
One such local store has attained a reputation and a customer base which has seen fit to rank it among the best delicatessens not only in Scotland but in the UK as well. Near the top of Leith Walk, five minutes walk past the eastern end of Princes Street, is the deceptively small shopfront of Valvona and Crolla, an Italian food and wine merchant that was established here in 1934. As they celebrate over 80 years in business, and still in the same building for all of those years, Valvona and Crolla (or V&C as locals know it) is well worth taking a stroll to visit whilst you're in the city.
Founded by two Italian immigrant families, the shop today trades internationally and is still family-run. Philip Contini is grandson of original co-proprietor Alfonso Crolla, and together with his wife Mary they manage the daily business of selling imported Italian meats, cheese, pasta, fruit and vegetables, as well as wine and a whole range of home and kitchen gifts and accessories. They bake their own bread in their local bakery premises, and at the back of the narrow, Aladdin's cave of a shop there is a restaurant and cafe serving high-quality meals, snacks and drinks. Snap up a copy of Mary's latest recipe book, or catch Philip performing with his Be Happy Band during the festival or on special occasions!
Combining the very best of Italian and Scottish produce, heritage and tradition, V&C makes for a tasty stop-off on a stroll around the city, or a convenient place to meet friends for a coffee.
The Scots-Italian tradition has become well established in Edinburgh, following the arrival of many immigrant families to Scotland during the early twentieth-century. Although introducing Scots to an eye-opening (and mouthwatering) selection of pasta, 'proper' ice cream and coffee, it wasn't always easy for such families and businesses, especially during the Second World War.
But today Valvona and Crolla is a thriving and forward-looking local business which trades all over Europe, with their Scots-Italian heritage proudly to the fore, and can look forward to at least another eighty years as an independent family business.
Get tips on more local restaurants and shops when you book a private city walking tour with me!
Around Town: Bruntsfield
As the city of Edinburgh grew and expanded its boundaries, outlying areas and settlements that were originally external to the city became integrated into the city itself.
Many of these smaller areas still survive as districts or suburbs of Edinburgh, and some still retain a sense of distinct character and identity. Any visitor to Edinburgh would be heartily encouraged to explore and investigate these outlying areas for a richly varied experience of shops, cafes, restaurants and accommodation.
Bruntsfield is one such area, lying to the south of the main east-west city axis. It takes its name from a corruption of 'Brown's Fields', after a previous landowner, and originally fell within the Burgh Muir, an expansive area of outlying land no longer formally recognised, although the name survives in a couple of street names and that of a local secondary school, Boroughmuir High.
Originally woodland, the area was cleared during the reign of James IV in 1508, and much of the wood from the trees felled here was used in the construction of timber-framed properties on what is today the Royal Mile and West Bow. A small quarry was established in Bruntsfield, taking stone to build local city properties, and the spaces between the excavated areas became a popular area for playing a form of golf, a pastime which survives today on the Bruntsfield Links, a public pitch-and-putt short-hole golf course. Bring your own clubs and balls to play an idle round or hire them from the nearby Golf Tavern for a small fee.
The area was developed into characteristic Edinburgh tenements, streets of large terraces subdivided into flats, with the main streets having shops in the ground floor properties at street level. Bruntsfield today is a thriving hub that is known for its local and independent shopping opportunities. Aside from a few small chain stores, there are plenty of independent cafes and restaurants and boutique shops.
Bruntsfield remains an excellent local community with thriving businesses, and as well as being popular choice for locals is also worth a look by those visiting the city. Stretch your legs, break away from the city centre environs, and discover a whole other side to Edinburgh just a few minutes off the beaten tourist track.
Explore more of the city with a private walking tour!
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