‘You want a crowd for Burns Night,’ wrote Blueprint Cafe Head Chef Jeremy Lee in last week’s Times. Burns Night tomorrow night, 25 January is the annual celebration of the birthday of poet Robert Burns, generally considered the greatest of all Scottish poets. He passed on in 1796 but left behind a huge legacy of fine and sometimes absolutely blue verse written in Scottish vernacular, including his ode To A Haggis, which marks the centrepiece of a Burns Night feast.
Usually, the event includes a feast, a haggis piped in by a bagpiper on a silver tray (the haggis, not the bagpiper), a recitation of To A Haggis then much drinking of Scotch and and dancing. We caught up with Jeremy Lee a few hours after he returned from a visit to Best Restaurant in the World Noma — ‘Extraordinary, really extraordinary’ — and as he was preparing his kitchen for lunch service. He says that Burns Night is even more than a meal. ‘It’s a well met dear fellow kind of holiday, a bit like a Scottish Thanksgiving and a great opportunity to get soaked together. It’s really about getting folks to the table, a meeting thing, and you find all these Scottish expats weeping with emotion. It really binds folks together.’ And Lee lets out his enormous, infectious laugh.
The Blueprint is doing it up in style, as are some other south-of-the-border restaurants for just that reason. Berry’s Restaurant @ Taplow House in Berkshire is offering a classic three-course Burns Night supper with haggis at the centre of it for a very nice £29.95. The utterly authentic Boisdale restaurants pull out all the stops: tables of eight or more will have the haggis ceremonially piped to their table by a kilted piper and properly addressed with all the verses of the ode. Boisdale Belgravia has four group menus from £42 (24, 25 Jan only) and Boisdale Bishpsgate has two menus from £39.50 tonight through Thursday. If you can’t muster a group, we’re sure your table of two can enjoy the spectacle from the sidelines. At Albannach in Trafalgar Square, £95 gets you the full haggis ritual, a five course feast and ceilidh music and dancing — a proper Burns Night bash. St Pancras Grand is offering Scottish themed menus all this week from £19 for two courses. Tomorrow night there will be a piper and a highland dancer and a free dram of whisky on offer to anyone who braves the cold and shows up in a kilt. A bagpiper will be appearing at 7.30 on the 25th at Harrison’s in Balham where a Caledonian themed menu is on offer from £15 for two courses. And sister restaurant Sam’s Brasserie in Chiswick is offering a three-course Scottish feast tomorrow evening for £25.
In typically generous style, Jeremy Lee has planned an entire week of Burns Night suppers at the Blueprint Cafe, from tonight through Sunday, 24 through 30 January. For £29.50, diners can tuck into four thoroughly Scottish courses that include smoked haddock broth to start, haggis and clapshot — an Orkney dish that involves mashed potato, neeps and carrots with spring onions and chives added to make it irresistible — followed by brill, mussel, crab broth and rouille and onglet steak with pickled walnuts and horseradish cream, then shortcake, rhubarb and vanilla cream.
The haggis is a far cry from the stodgy haggis of Lee’s youth, a dish he terms ‘wet, steamy and deeply unpleasant.’ If you’ve never tried haggis, you can place yourself in Lee’s hands for a superb experience. ‘In my menu haggis is literally just a little spoonful. It doesn’t feature large — it’s the homage, not the centrepiece. The beef, the onglet, is. That’s my nod to the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.’ Or you could always revert to the a la carte. Since the idea is to have a great time, you’d do well to heed Lee’s advice and bring a crowd.
In The Times he remembers a particular Burns Night party at the Blue Print Cafe. ‘A New Zealand guest decided to go the whole hog and embrace the full Scottish tradition: he wore nothing under his kilt. Towards the end of the evening I found him on the terrace, Antonio Carluccio pouring whisky down his neck. After that he was literally flying round the room, kilt swirling. It was quite a sight.’ We bet.
Or if you just can’t make it to Blueprint Cafe this week, you should know their Valentine’s Day menu looks an absolute treat, starting with a glass of prosecco with pomegranate and orange juice and going on to four gorgeous courses plus coffee and ‘very fine chocolates’. It’s just £49.50 per person, or £59.50 sat in the window (brilliant views of the Thames and Tower Bridge and binocs are on hand to play I Spy) and to pull us out of our February funk, there are plans afoot for lots of nice bright lovely decorations, blazes of daffodils and beautiful colours to feast the eyes as well as the taste buds.