25 Jan 2011

Haggis overload: A Burns birthday special

Around the world tonight, people are tucking into Scotland’s national dish of haggis, accompanied by some piping hot neeps and tatties. But not us at chez Gorgie. No, we opted for something a little less traditional.

But I’ll get to that. In truth we have had haggis for our tea three nights in a row. That’s a lot of haggis. Somehow I got it in my head that I wanted to try three new recipes as quickly as possible. They simply got more eccentric as I went on.

We must start with the haggis itself, which I bought from Edinburgh’s wonderful Findlay’s of Portobello. The shop was so busy on Saturday morning I could barely squeeze in the door, and I regret not taking my camera because I missed a beautiful photo of a long wooden shelf that was weighed down with dozens of fat haggises (I had to look up the plural of haggis).

Behold, a haggis!

My first dish was the stodgy and Moorish haggis pie, cooked like a shepherd’s pie but with crumbled haggis on the bottom of the dish instead of beef, and a layer each of mashed neeps and mashed tatties on top.

Baked covered for about an hour and consumed with great vigour. This was easy because I didn’t have to cook the haggis first, and not as heavy as I thought it would be.
Monday night was toastie night, for which I had to cook the haggis first. Findlay’s traditional haggis cooks up nice and dark with just enough peppery bite.

Using a recipe I found in Sue Lawrence’s A Cook’s Tour of Scotland, once the haggis was cooked I cut it open and mixed it up with some dark beer. On this occasion I used Inveralmond Brewery’s rich and malty Lia Fail.

The trick is to leave the haggis in the beer for a few minutes to let it really soak in. But don’t put in too much or else it will just be soggy.

Quality haggis, quality beer, and finally quality bread. The recommendation was for a brown bread, so I went for Pattiserie Jacob’s brown sourdough, but the bread itself is very flavourful and I found it competed with the haggis a bit. Overall a tasty but extremely weighty meal and afterwards I felt as heavy as if I had eaten a sack of wet flour.

Finally, Burns Night arrived. It was time to go where no Burns Supper had been before. It was time for Asian haggis wontons with whisky mayonnaise. You will find the recipe here, although they call them samosas. To me samosas have a different outer texture. I used the wee wonton wrappers you can buy in Chinese grocery stores.
For the whisky mayonnaise, which also includes a bit of wholegrain mustard, of course we used the official Robert Burns Blended Malt Whisky. I didn’t add enough for it to make any real impact on the flavour, but from what my beloved Scotsman tells me, it is not the kind of whisky that would have a lasting effect anyway. He describes it as “inoffensive and unremarkable, with vague hints of vanilla.”

In true Scottish fashion, once the wontons are stuffed with haggis and the grated neeps and onion which have been previously cooked, they are fried in oil. Lots of oil. And since I didn’t think ahead for something to accompany them, we ate them with - what else? - fat chips from the fish and chip shop down the street.
Now that I have finished my meal of fried haggis wontons and chips, how am I feeling? Like a ball of grease, of course.

But of all three meals, this was the best. Crunchy wontons, spicy haggis and the cool creamy texture of the mayonnaise with the sharpness of mustard. But I would certainly make it as a starter and not a main dish. You wouldn’t want your guests thinking you were trying to kill them off with a heart attack.

Anyone else have a Burns Night adventure to report?

If you can’t get enough Burns, there are a few things I found around Internet-town that you might enjoy:
-The Robert Burns' Birthday flash mob which took place on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile
-The new (free!) Burns Iphone app, so you can carry Rabbie with you wherever you go

Now, someone please get me a salad!

23 Jan 2011

One wee spa escape

The haggis pie has finished cooking. A simple dish like a shepherd’s pie but using haggis. I still have two more dishes to try before Burns Night on Tuesday. Although many people have been celebrating over the weekend, I am holding out for the 25th.

I have been looking for anything that might help pull me out of this lingering heaviness and feeling of disconnection with the world. In Scotland in the winter, the damp cold pushes through the stones of the buildings and into our joints. People so often think of Britain as a green place, but where I am living now is at a similar latitude to where I once lived in northeast British Columbia.

I understand now why so many Scottish people take sun holidays in the winter. But for those who can't afford that kind of a getaway, there are other small ways to splurge in order to acquire that warmed-to-the-bones feeling.

Thanks to a windfall of two free vouchers, last week I got to take a friend to Edinburgh’s One Spa for a three-hour “Escape at One,” a chance to use their various pools and saunas and just indulge in some serious warmth (I’ve borrowed all these photos from their web site but I was told they won’t mind).

This spa includes a hydropool, which would normally be my favourite because it is an outside heated pool that includes a curved metal rack of bubbly wonderfulness, set beneath the Edinburgh sky.

But with the frosty temperatures and the wind whipping over the water, the heat is simply sucked away and if you stay out too long you can get a chill. I still managed to amuse myself by sitting up tall to bare my shoulders and arms in the cold air until I couldn’t take it anymore and I plunged back into the suddenly blissfully balmy water.
My favourite rooms were the saunas, particularly the hammam with the warm tiles to sit on and all that heat to ease through my body until I could feel a little button of warmth pulsing in my low belly. I just sat there breathing in the steam and trying not to think of how quickly the feeling would evaporate as soon as I was back outside again.

If you’re visiting Scotland in the winter, try to work in a visit to a spa. And if any Scottish spa owners require a sensualist writer to peruse the pools, send me an email.

16 Jan 2011

Dreaming of spring in Rob Roy country

Thank you for the many kind suggestions on how to beat my winter blues. I am slowly starting to feel settled again, but one suggestion in particular has rooted itself in my mind. Wayne suggested posting some photos of Scotland in the spring, which is exactly what I have decided to do.

So let’s fast forward through the rest of the dark season and walk out into the new fresh world of spring, returning to Balquhidder Glen in time to see the daffodils blooming next to the gravestones in the churchyard.

This small churchyard is where Rob Roy is buried, along with this wife and two of his four sons. Their graves are alongside the gravel path and are surrounded by a metal rail with markers of their deaths (though I have read that the age of Rob Roy’s death shown on the marker is wrong, and that he died at the age of 63, not 70).

Rob Roy’s life has been extensively romanticised over the centuries, starting with his first appearance in Daniel Defoe’s “Highland Rogue” which led to a royal pardon for the famous cattle rustler. After his death, Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Rob Roy” brought the story to a wider audience, and Hollywood has gone on to cement his fame.
Compared to the rest of the churchyard, which contains the ruins of the original church and old gravestones surrounded by swathes of lush green grass, the burial site of the MacGregor family seems run down and somewhat sad.

If you are intrigued by the Rob Roy story, it is understandable you would want to see the place where he is buried. But I would encourage visitors to the Trossachs to avoid the trap of just stopping by the Balquhidder churchyard as a way to check something off a “to see” list. The experience of Rob Roy country (as the Trossachs are often called) is to be had by getting out in the countryside that MacGregor would have spent much of his life.
Even a short walk on the trail that leads off behind the church will get you beneath the trees with the sound of the river over rocks. Or if you have time you can create a more intimate holiday experience by walking the 79-mile Rob Roy Way.

This was just what I needed. I can look at these photos and almost believe that the next time I walk outside I will see the trees sporting swollen buds and be able to smell that sweet, new-life scent in the air.

If you could wake up anywhere in Scotland at the height of spring, where would you choose?

11 Jan 2011

When it snows in Gorgie

It’s not actually snowing in Gorgie. That was on the weekend. At the moment, it’s raining. If I peer out my window I can see the drops salsa dancing on the puddle that resides on top of the phone box next to the bus shelter.

Since we have been back from Canada I have been laid up with a cold/flu, combined with a dreary state of melancholy that I am having a difficult time shaking. I’m finding it hard to throw myself into winter topics like heavy root vegetables and haggis, when all I desire is anything that reminds me of spring.

Something is bound to inspire me sooner or later. If you were in the mid-Lothian area in the middle of a grey Scottish winter, what would you do to pull yourself out of a dip of sadness?

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