A beer to celebrate Rabbie Burns at 250; BEER ALASTAIR GILMOUR.
THEY'LL be dancing in the streets of Ecclefechan. Next weekend, Scots the world over will be forking sheep's innards from a plate while the skirl of bagpipes punctuates bawdy ballads and rousing poetry. Whisky will be consumed in vat quantities.
January 25, 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns - humanitarian, libertarian, equalitarian, balladeer, womaniser, hard-drinker and national hero. He spent much of his life around south west Scotland where he was a farmer and exciseman before his literary reputation fully flourished and fortune followed. Today, links to The Bard remain strong with every settlement from Ayr to Wigtown claiming responsibility for his stature as a poet.
"Robert Burns stayed here in 1794 and actually wrote the Selkirk Grace while he was here," says Chris Walker, owner of the Selkirk Arms hotel in Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, with business partner Douglas McDavid.
It's one of those tales honed and polished by the telling and promoted by canny entrepreneurs - but who can blame them? It's likely that Burns had been touring the area and visited the Earl of Selkirk at St Mary's Isle in Kirkcudbright, entertaining the company with poetry, songs and conversation. One evening he recited an old version of a traditional Scottish toast known as the Galloway Grace (or the Covenanters' Grace) which he had altered to fit the moment and - acutely aware of where his bread was buttered - to amuse his hosts. He later published it as the Selkirk Grace which is now traditionally recited at Burns Suppers.
Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thanket.
For most of 2008, the Selkirk Arms negotiated exclusivity for The Grace, an ale brewed by Sulwath Brewery in neighbouring Castle Douglas - Scotland's "food town" - to mark the anniversary. It is now available to all Sulwath customers.
"We're delighted with its success," says Chris Walker. "We asked Sulwath Brewery for a hybrid of Deuchar's IPA and Timothy Taylor Landlord and he came up with something spot on in the middle at 4.2% alcohol by volume - which wasn't a bad start. The Grace hits the mark; it's mothers' milk, we're often told."
The beer is light brown in colour with toffee hints, a caramelly sweet aftertaste and a grassy freshness; characteristics typical of the Sulwath portfolio which includes Criffel (4.4% ABV), Galloway Gold (5.00% ABV), Solway Mist (5.5% ABV) and the mightily impressive Knockendoch (5.0% ABV).
"We use three different hop varieties in The Grace plus a small amount of crystal malt," says Allen Henderson who has assumed brewing operations from his father Jim. "We did a couple of experimental brews and asked for customer opinion. People kept coming back for it. It's another tool for us for what is unquestionably a tough year ahead. We've been brewing it this week and some has already gone out to the trade, ready to be tapped for Burns Night - that's when we'll get the real feedback."
Love it or loathe it, the culinary highlight of a Burns Supper is the haggis. Can such a strange beast be prepared to perfection? Surely haggis is haggis is haggis. Not so thinks Ulsterman Alan Elliott who started Dalbeattie Fine Foods in Dumfries and Galloway five years ago on his 19th birthday. He is the UK's Young Butcher of the Year 2008; Scottish Haggis Champion 2007 and 2008; Scottish Black Pudding Champion, 2008, and Scottish Steak Pie Champion, 2007 and 2008. It's the reward for an obsession with fine foodstuffs - Alan has dissected the pie and dismembered the pudding in his quest to develop the best.
He says: "With all my traditional meat products I've tried to get to the heart of them, to rediscover their roots and to identify what made those products so popular and what has given them their longevity.
"It's all about quality ingredients and consistency - not quantity. We use a blend of spices in the haggis, eight or nine different ones, and not too different from the things other people put in them. We're not unique, but there's only me knows our recipe.
"We've been sending haggis to Northern Ireland, France and Sweden, anywhere they're holding Burns Suppers - and I've just had a call this morning from Selfridges."
The Scottish food and drink industry is facing huge challenges. New licensing laws coming into effect north of the Border in September will see the cost of off-licenses raised away above the means of some small enterprises, with some of them facing increases of almost 400%.
"In King Street alone in Castle Douglas we'll be losing nine customers," says Allen Henderson. "Multiply that throughout the country and it'll come to quite something. Put simply, bed and breakfasts, delis and gift shops have to have a licence to sell miniatures and bottles of beer and now it's not going to be worth it for the amounts they sell. So much for Scottish hospitality; it's taking a sledgehammer to a nut."
Sir Alex Ferguson has written to the Scottish first minister Alex Salmond on behalf of the trade, but as Allen admits, "it's going through, come what may". He also has a minor problem with The Grace's provenance - the wording on its bottle labels is likely to be challenged by Burns pedants.
"We have to be so careful," says Allen. "No sooner do you put something like 'Burns wrote the Selkirk Grace at the Selkirk Arms hotel in 1794' than someone will tell you it's not true and that it was written somewhere else. But, looking at the different towns he's supposed to have stayed in and what he was supposed to have done, he must have had a fast horse."
The most famous pub with Burns connections is, of course, the Globe Inn in Dumfries which was established in 1610. The whole place from courtyard through to lounge bar, snug, Burns room, Howff Club room, bedrooms and kitchen drips in Burns-abilia with poems, pictures and a treasure trove of artefacts such as the letter he wrote to a friend three months before his death in 1796 which "will be delivered to you by Mrs Hyslop, a landlady of the Globe Tavern here which for these many years has been my howff and where our friend Clarke and I have had many a merry squeeze".
In another letter he apologises for the shortness of the note, writing: "I gat myself sae notoriously bitchfy'd the day after kail time that I can hardly stoiter but and ben."
A couple of lovelorn verses to Polly Stewart are etched on a Globe Inn window pane, reputedly by Burns' diamond ring. The galloping lyricist seems to have been a serial graffiti artist - several similar "works" by his jewelled hand can be seen in the Kings Arms Tavern and Friars Carse Hermitage in Dumfries, The Inn in Moffat and the Wee Bush Inn, Carnwath, South Lanarkshire, plus a message inscribed on a goblet presented to Miss Jessy Lewars.
Never let it be said the licensed trade lacks initiative.www.globeinndumfries.co.uk www.selkirkarmshotel.co.uk www.dalbeattiefinefoods.co.uk email@example.com
ADDRESSING THE HAGGIS
THE Black Bull, Frosterley, County Durham, is hosting a celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns on January 25, with its usual eclectic concoction of entertainment. A three-course meal with soup, haggis, neeps and tatties and a pudding will be accompanied by roving minstrels and poets.
Price pounds 19.95 on a first-come, first-served basis. Tel: (01388) 527784.
If you can recite or sing a verse or two of anything, landlord Duncan Davis will stand you a drink.
WELL-CONNECTED The Globe Inn, Dumfries, is the most famous pub with Robert Burns connections including a window etched with verse.