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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 4
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

The Land of Robbie Burns
By Kay Shaw Nelson

Kay Shaw NelsonI, like most travelers, originally visited Ayrshire, tucked away in the southwest lowlands of Scotland, because of its association with the renowned Robbie Burns, the country’s beloved national poet. He was born on January 25 in a low, whitewashed, thatched cottage at Alloway, a village on the coast near Ayr, in 1759. Here the memory and influence of the Scottish hero dominates the lovely countryside. His songs and poems "breath the air" of his native land.

While in Ayrshire, a prosperous farming and the largest dairy district in Scotland with colorful inland villages and fishing communities along the coast, I also tasted many of the region’s little-known culinary specialties.

Before my visit, however, I noted Burns’ references to his native fare. When he was quite young, Robbie began composing verses in the Scottish dialect and mentions some of his favorite dishes in them. In The Cotter’s Saturday Night, which tells us about the poet’s home life as a boy, he says, "But now the supper crowns their simple board/The halesome parritch, chief o Scotia’s food." He also mentions "weel-hain’d kebbuck" (well-saved cheese), "noble Elgin beets," and, in other poems, "barley bree (soup), hen broo or chicken broth, scones, bannocks, and muslin kail (made with vegetables, barley, greens and onions).

Burns describes Scotland as The Land o’ Cakes (meaning oatcakes) and wrote a song called Crowdie, the name once used for all porridge-type dishes, especially those made with oatmeal and buttermilk. Crowdie-time meant breakfast-time, or a time to eat when Burns mentioned it in The Holy Fair.

It was Robbie who immortalized Scotland’s controversial national dish called haggis, standard fare at all Scottish celebrations, including the Burns Night Supper, in his satirical ode, "To a Haggis" as the ‘great chieftain o the puddin’-race!"

Today Ayrshire is still noted for its distinctive charm and fine foods. The milk-producing Ayrshire breed of cattle supply creameries which produce a mature Scottish cheddar, a firm textured cheese with a full flavor. Here the traditional cheese, Dunlop, is thought to have originated in the 17th century when cheese was made locally by farmers’ wives.

The area is also known for its superior Galloway cattle ranking with Aberdeen Angus for succulent beef. Fed on the rich grass of the uplands, the lamb and mutton are noted for their prime quality, as is Ayrshire bacon with a unique style of cure.

It is served boiled as a joint and sliced while cold, or sliced while raw and grilled. Ayrshire meat roll is an old farmhouse dish made with a mixture of minced bacon and beef, chopped onions, breadcrumbs, eggs, nutmeg, salt, and pepper that is formed into a sausage-shape and boiled in a cloth.

Scotland is famous for its potatoes and some of the best come from Ayrshire. One, Early Potato, with fine white flesh and full flavor, has been grown here for over 100 years. It is used to make many staple dishes, especially champit tatties (mashed potatoes with green onions and butter) and stovies (pot roasted small potatoes).

Loch trout and river salmon are local specialties, and there is a thriving fish curing tradition along the coastline. The area is also the major fishing area for the Solway scallop or Queenie which fishermen eat fried with bacon and scrambled eggs.

The Land o’ Burns Centre at Alloway is the start of the Burns Heritage Trail which traces places linked with the poet. It takes thousands of tourists annually from Alloway and Ayr eastward to Dumfries, where Burns worked as a customs officer and died, through some of the lovely Ayrshire countryside.

In atmospheric pubs, hotels and restaurants, including some where the poet ate and drank, many of the traditional dishes made with the superb local foods can be enjoyed.

Among the selections are pheasant with game sauce, red deer with fresh orange and Glayva sauce, guinea-fowl with red currant sauce, smoked Summer Isles chicken, fresh seafood, roast lamb with rowanberries and rosemary, seasonal fruit crumbles, Ecclefechan butter tarts (pastry filled with dried fruit and nuts), Drumlanrig pudding (layers of stewed rhubarb and brown bread topped with sweetened sour cream), rich cold cream desserts, cheeses, and oatcakes.

Here is a recipe for one local specialty:

Ayrshire Shortbread

This unusually rich kind of shortbread includes an egg yolk and cream. Makes about 35.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar, preferably superfine
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon cream
Granulated or confectioners’ sugar

Cream butter with a flat wooden spoon in a large, deep bowl. Add sugar gradually, beating until light and fluffy. Stir in flour, one cup at a time, and salt, mixing as adding. Make a well in the center; add egg yolk and cream. Combine thoroughly until mixture can be pressed together to form a ball.

Turn out dough on a lightly floured, smooth, cool surface. Roll gently with a wooden rolling pin to ½ inch thickness, keeping the shape as circular as possible.

With a floured cutter, cut into 2½-inch circles. Prick tops of each circle with tines of a fork. With a spatula, transfer to an ungreased baking sheet, placing ½ inch apart. Bake in a preheated 300° oven 10 to 12 minutes, until pale golden and firm to the touch. With a spatula, remove carefully at once to wire racks to cool completely. While still warm, sprinkle with sugar. (2/19/03)

Frank’s Note: Much has been written about our beloved Bard concerning every aspect of his life. The one thing I have seen very little on, however, is food. We hear more than enough of all the drinking that went on in his day, but seldom do we hear about the food from that part of Scotland. One who is well qualified to take us on a culinary tour of Ayrshire is one who has traveled the roads of Burns and has eaten in the local restaurants throughout Ayrshire - Kay Shaw Nelson. Kay is a food and travel writer, culinary historian, and author of 17 cookbooks, including A Bonnie Scottish Cookbook and The Scottish-Irish Pub & Hearth Cookbook. Kay is a talented writer and is a columnist for The Scottish Banner. Proud of her Scottish ancestors, the Morrisons, MacLeans, MacAskills and Shaws from the Isles of Lewis and Harris, Kay has visited Scotland often and has fond memories of traveling in Aryshire.

It is a joy to have a "distant cousin" as our guest writer for our "Robert Burns Lives!" column. The Isle of Harris is just a good day’s sailing through the waters of the Sea of the Hebrides to the Isle of Jura, where my ancestors lived. On "The Lineage of the Clan Shaw Chiefs" chart, of which I have a framed copy in my wee office, there is a line containing these words - "Shaws of Harris, Jura and the Western Isles". Kay may not be such a "distant cousin" after all.

I like her style - the cover design of A Bonnie Scottish Cookbook is an adaptation of the Shaw family tartan. That bit of information, plus her book dedication, says a lot about her Scottishness:

the memory of
my Scottish parents,
Dolina MacAskill and Angus Shaw,
and to my daughter,
Rae Katherine Nelson

Kay and I became email buddies sometimes back. Prior to getting to know Kay, I was lucky enough to find a copy of A Bonnie Scottish Cookbook on eBay and jumped at the chance to make sure I was the high bidder. If you are wise and like good Scottish recipes, you’ll do the same. I have never reviewed a Scottish cookbook, but I hope Kay Shaw Nelson will publish one more so I will have that opportunity.

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