Burns Night

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Tim Maddams is a private chef, cookery teacher, presenter and writer of several books. He talks about Robert Burns, respecting animals, and raising awareness of global food issues

Words: Tim Maddams

Let’s get something straight here, right from the off. I am not Scottish. I know that seems a shock as I am obviously about to write at length about this age-old celebration of the famous Scotts bard, but I am not Italian either and I often write about pasta, nor am I Irish, though I am very happy to get stuck into the black stuff.

I am English, and that means that I am always on the lookout for an excuse to have a celebration. I do have a paternal grandfather who was of Scottish descent, though I am assured this is what all Englishmen claim as we approach the 25th January, single malt sales sky rocket and haggis makes it’s centre stage appearance on menus across the land.

Burns is Scotland’s most famous poet, but then you knew that already. I expect you also know that Auld Lang Syne, sung at New Year’s Eve celebrations across the globe, are his words. But did you also know he was a farmer, and a poor one at that? I think it’s fairly obvious from Addressing of the Haggis, or Ode to the Haggis as it’s also known, that he was a man who appreciated food—a man who had known hunger, and therefore was well connected with the passion food evokes and its interlaced connections with farming and the environment.

Savoury bountry
Ode to a Haggis is a poem written to a large offal sausage steamed inside a sheep’s gut, but he understood its richness, its savoury bounty and, more, what it represented: a using up of all the animal, a respect for the life of the beast and a privilege, rather than a right, to eat their flesh. Burns was also an egalitarian, a man with a strict sense of moral code—he hated slavery, inequality and injustice. He was a very ethical man.

That all rather neatly brings me to what I will be doing on Burns Night this year. Of course, I am having a dinner party but for this one I have teamed up with Arthur Potts-Dawson and the UN’s World Food Programme to put on a ‘global dinner’ in London. This is a very special event designed to highlight the plight of the world’s hungry and the need for a better sharing of global resources and more sustainable farming.

We have spent weeks working on the menu and it tells many of the tales involved. The need to eat less meat. The food waste scandal. The shocking lack of nutrition in so-called developed countries. The world’s millions of starving people. We have been clever with the menu, there is very little meat and what there is, is incidental; a bi-product of cereal growing, the humble wood pigeon.

Meaningful cookery
All the food and drink has been donated free of charge by many great people including Borough Market. The menu is nutritiously balanced and what’s more, we are feeding 100 “people of influence” to get the messages out there. This is deep and meaningful cookery, designed to highlight the fact that we all need to think more carefully about what we eat, where it comes from and what it costs the environment, but above all it’s an appreciation of food that we seem to have begun to take for granted. While there is no haggis on the menu, I can’t help thinking that Burns would have approved.

All that aside, if we are going to eat less meat, fish and dairy and use our global resources more carefully, we certainly don’t want to feel like we are missing out—and that is where good honest cookery comes in, an appreciation that the sometimes mundane and boring can be just the opposite, when looked at in the right way.

It’s why I have included my recipe for ‘neeps and tatties’. The famous ‘neeps’ that are served up with the haggis are not what the English would call turnips, as is often thought, but actually swede. And swede is one very under rated vegetable. It’s a dangerous pastime, adapting a country’s national dish—I hope the good people of Scotland will see fit to forgive me.