He's the toast of the Scots — and a few million more. He's the poet without peer.
Every year about this time, Burns Suppers spring up around the world wherever Gaelic, the language of the Scots, is spoken — and many places where it is not — all in the name of Robert Burns. Burns Suppers celebrate the man and his birth, on January 25, 1759; his poetry; the universal themes he expresses so well: love, humanity, compassion, justice, courage and freedom; and, of course, the haggis.
It's a phenomenon like no other. And although Whistler has hosted many a Burns Supper over the years, you won't find a one anywhere within a piper's breath of the RMOW this year. But, I'm reassured by one of the founders of the Jolly Beggars Burns Club, which has just hosted its eighth annual Burns Supper at Pemberton's Legion Hall, the phenomenon is only growing.
"Robbie Burns Nights are flourishing," says David Lunny. No wonder, what with all the drams of scotch and endless toasts.
"I've been doing them for 30 years and I would say there are at least twice as many going on now as there were 20 years ago."
Besides his Jolly Beggars Burns Club efforts — so-named for one of Burns' most famous works, The Jolly Beggars (all about a bunch of ne'er-do-wells having a rip-roaring time in an Ayrshire pub, telling tales of their sad lives as humourously as possible) — David is also past president of the St. Andrew's and Caledonian Society of the City of Vancouver, founded in 1886. He shares the honour with Malcolm MacLean, the society's first president and Vancouver's first mayor.
David and his wife, fellow Jolly Beggar Maureen Baird, live in Vancouver where David practices law. But for years they've kept a lodge near Pemberton — Drumkeeran House on Ivey Lake. Besides putting on the Burns Supper for the Legion and their friends and "almost-family," as David describes them, they also host a Christmas party for Pemberton's seniors.
"They seem to be the two highlights of the season, and there are no other Robbie Burns Nights," he says. "It's such a pity not to have something available... Our little contribution is kind of like a light shining in the wilderness."
This year's event was "fantastic," a grand affair with about 50 people enjoying the piping, the poetry, the toasting, and the classic meal — scotch broth; haggis and bannock; roast beef with mashed tatties (potatoes) and bashed neeps (turnips); and Tipsy Laird Apple Pie.
But the highlight was what sets apart Pemberton's Over the Sea to Sky Burns Night — Lil'wat First Nation drummers and singers performing, which brought tears to the eyes. Their participation, says David, also reinforces Burns' themes and his prayer that "...Man to man, the world o'er shall brothers be for all that."
Another hallmark this year, wherever Burns Suppers are held, is that 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, where Robert the Bruce took Scotland back from the English and Edward II.
"If you've ever heard the unofficial Scottish anthem, "Flower of Scotland", being sung at a rugby match you would learn all about (the battle)," explains Lesley Clark, president of the Pemberton Legion, a self-described Sassenach — the Gaelic term for a Saxon — and wife of a true Scot, Jim Clark.
So this year the bannock on the menu, provided by the Lil'wat Nation, carried extra meaning: it was an echo of the Battle of Bannockburn, but it's never a stranger to Scottish cooks. Bannock, from the Latin panicium (baked dough) and so prevalent in First Nations' cuisine throughout North America, is Scottish in origin, probably coming to the New World via Scots who were early adventurers and maybe even part of the Company of Adventurers, which eventually became Hudson Bay Company.
INSIDE THE HAGGIS
Bannock and scotch broth are all very Scottish, but you simply could not have a Burns Supper without a decent haggis. And the master of the haggis mother lode, at least in B.C., has to be Bruce Roane, a meat cutter for Save-On-Foods whose inner Scot comes to life every year around this time.
Bruce is the man behind Roane's Top Quality Haggis, pumping out some 5,000 pounds every year, all of it bound for virtually every British butcher store in B.C. and, of course, countless Burns Suppers organized by pipe bands and Scottish organizations across the province. That includes The British Butcher Shoppes in West and North Vancouver, where the Jolly Beggars Burns Club gets their haggis for Pemberton.
You know Roane's haggis must be good because 5,000 pounds is an exceptional amount, given a haggis averages three pounds in size, perfect for a Burns Supper buffet.
Traditionally, "sheep's pluck" is used — that is, any combination of the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, trachea and/or other organs. But Bruce only uses lamb's hearts and livers, along with oatmeal, suet, onion, and the secret family seasoning, all stuffed into casing like a giant sausage.
"From what I've been told by Scots, it's not too spicy — the seasoning is pleasant," says Bruce by phone from Maple Ridge while taking a break from grinding meat. What you don't want is haggis with the texture of pâté.
"I think some people out there are changing their recipe so they can use sausage stuffers, which really helps with production. But ours is a dry mix so you can't use a sausage stuffer — it's all packed by hand and has the correct texture people like."
The recipe Bruce follows came from a Scot who years ago gave it to his dad, Bill, who ran Roane's Top Quality Kitsilano Meats on Broadway in Vancouver for decades. More Scottish links: Bruce's mom is the daughter of Pipe Major Malcolm Nicholson C. M., former Pipe Major of the Vancouver Police Pipe Band, who was awarded his Order of Canada medal for all his work with pipe bands.
As for haggis at the Roanes' house, they seldom have leftovers. But if you do, you can slice it and fry it up like meat patties, mix it up with your morning eggs, or do what some of Bruce's friends swear by: roll it in balls, dip it in beer batter and deep fry it. "They say it's delicious!"
However you have it, you want your haggis piping hot, and not only for the pun of it. All that suet will quickly congeal if it isn't. Robbie would not be pleased.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who hopes you find a Burns Supper in your neighbourhood January 25.