Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Robert Burns Dinner in Review (Updated)

Robert Burns turned 254 last weekend.  Robbie was born January 25, 1759 and died on July 21, 1796, reportedly of complications following a tooth extraction.  Just think about that for a second.  He was an accomplished poet, a learned scholar, a first class rake hell and a vocal sympathizer of the French revolution.  Burns was truly without peer, so much so that upon learning of his daughter's engagement to Robert Burns one father fainted dead away.

And so on Seturday, th' fife an' twentieth day ay januar in th' year ay uir laird tois thoosain an' twal, Big Mike, Lash and I made our way over to Barley's Ale House to drink beer, scotch and sample the Haggis.  Robert Burns wrote a poem about Haggis which concludes:
Ye Pow'rs wha gie us a' that's gude
Still bless auld Caledonia's brood,
Wi' great John Barleycorn's heart's bluid
In stoups or luggies;
And on our boards, that king o' food,
A gud Scotch Haggis!

- R. Burns

Barley's Ale House Number Two
This is Barley's 13th annual Burns dinner.  Big Mike knew about in advance and had been watching his calendar closely, for which Lash and I are very thankful.  Tickets for the event were $55 and went on sale two weeks in advance; in three days the event sold out.  I think Mike may have obtained the last three tickets available.
Ticket No. 68
I felt I was fortunate to be able to attend at all - my thanks to Big Mike for his attention to the passage of time and important events.
Piping In The Haggis
A Burns dinner isn't what most people would expect - a crowd of people eating haggis (with hesitation, because you'll be told by someone just what the ingredients are and a few of these are illegal in the United States) drinking and socializing.  Rather it's a staged event that gradually falls apart under the influence of alcohol.  Dinner begins with everyone hauling and stalling around in the bar area, trying to get a drink inside a brewery when the crowd is four deep at the bar.  Right out of the blue someone does something unfortunate to a stray cat the bagpipes start up and the haggis is marched through the bar area and into the dining room.

Actually, I like bag pipe music and our pipers were quite good.  Here they are in Scottish regalia; I wish we could have heard them play a little more often.

Place at the Burns Dinner
Note the Scotch whiskey.  Haggis is traditionally served with tatties, neeps and nips, the tatties being potatoes, neeps being turnips and nips referring to a nip of Scotch whiskey.  We had three drams of single malt scotch, all different, all excellent in their own way.

Our Emcee
Here's the owner of Barley's who was our host and Master of Ceremonies (emcee) for the evening.  I cannot remember his name which is a pity, nor did I get a chance to speak to him at any length, also a pity.  The man started Barley's some years ago.

To a haggis...
After the noble haggis is piped in, the poem Address to a Haggis is read.  Our emcee did a credible job of reading the poem in the native Scottish dialect, meaning that most of the crowd had little to no idea about the actual content of the poem.  After the poem everyone raises their first shot of scotch and toasts the haggis.

Haggis, tatties an' neeps

Haggis is made with a sheep's liver, heart and lungs combined with suet, ground oats, spices and stock, then baked inside a sheep's stomach.  You can read about it here if you like.  Here's the first course, less the nip which vanished during the toast.  Our first scotch was a Glen Moray single malt that was very smooth, and an excellent choice for the first toast.

More poetry was read during the first course, then the next shot of scotch was served and the women were toasted.  The fellow making the toast elected to recite a Burns poem rather than try to make something up on the spot, which was a wise decision on his part (see update).  He was feeling his scotch by then.    Our second scotch was a Bulblair 1997, and was a good deal stronger than the first.  Some people at the table sampled this scotch then quietly passed their portion over to a neighbor.  I enjoyed the Bulblair, but it isn't for everyone.

Unknown Notable
This lady was an unknown notable (see update).  She was introduced as being someone with an important function, but I can't bring her name or title to mind.  A pity, that.  You can see another shot of her above with the haggis.  I kept trying to get a decent photo of her, but this is the best available.  I don't think she was having a good time, or perhaps she was angry with her husband over something, but in a room packed full of lubricated celebrants hers was a very singular expression.

Second Course
Here's our second course, which was accompanied by sporadic poetry.  The salad is field greens with pickled golden beets, goat cheese, toasted walnuts and sherry vinaigrette topped with a scotch egg.  The scotch egg doesn't really top anything; it's just there because, well, this is a Burns dinner.  Later on when I had time to reflect on the entire dinner, I realized how appropriate and carefully constructed this salad was.  The texture was nice and crunchy, the flavors were sharp without bitterness and I felt refreshed after eating.  My compliments to chef Darla.

Brewmaster Angelo Signorino, Jr
Here's Barley's brewmaster, Angelo Signorino, Jr.  This is man responsible for the absolutely outstanding beer we drank that evening, Robert Burns Scottish Export Ale.  The ale is dry hopped, meaning that the hops are dried and put into the barrel and the ale poured in on top.  The barrel is left to sort itself out in the cellar and after a few months it's tapped and drunk with great relish.

Tapping the Firkin
I estimated 75 people in the room, but there may have been 100.  I'm lousy at estimates of that sort.  Anyway, this is a firkin of the aforementioned Robert Burns Scottish Export Ale in the process of being tapped.  The man to the right of Angelo is an honored guest who has attended every single Burns dinner since the very first.
Robert Burns Scottish Export Ale
The firkin holds about nine gallons, all of which was consumed that evening.  Combining a 12 ounce beer glass with 9 gallons of brew and filtering it through a little grade school math complete with calculator, I arrived at 96 glasses of Scottish happiness.  My estimate of 75 people sounds a little more accurate to me given that everyone was provided one glass and those that were thirsty had one refill.  I note that the pitchers were not simply put out on the table, as there was no guarantee that the guests had the necessary social skills to share the pitcher - equally or any other way.

Smoked Pork Chop
Our final course was a smoked bone-in pork chop with sauteed corn and pears and a sage demiglace.  Here is where chef Darla really shows her skill.  My pork chop was perfect.  It was very tender, moist and the flavor was subtle, which is important.  The sauce was absolutely first rate.  Big Mike and Lash gave similar, unsolicited compliments later on that evening.

By this time our host and emcee was having a little trouble collecting his thoughts while focusing his eyes on his book of poetry and trying to get everyone's attention.  Fortunately he got a little help from a pair of entertainers, one with a guitar, who kept the proceedings moving along.  He also got help from a guest at the dinner who had his own small book of Burns poetry and volunteered to read a selection or two.
Archie, a native of Scotland
Archie was born and raised in Scotland, a few miles from Robert Burns home town.  Ergo, he spoke the native dialect and was very familiar with Burns poetry.  Archie began by reading To a Mousie in his native dialect which contains the famous quote, The best laid plans of mice and men.  He read several others, including A Red, Red Rose and, I believe, Ye Flowery Banks.  By the end of the evening Archie was having trouble getting started and I asked him if he'd been drinking.  "Not enough!" Archie replied, draining his glass.  Adjusting his glasses, Archie composed himself for another go at it.

By the time desert was served I was stuffed and in no mood for sweets, but there it was anyway.  In truth I'd have been glad of another shot of scotch, but only one was served.  Our third shot was a cask strength Laphroag (111.4 proof).  The flavor of the first scotch was smooth and very mild; the second was stronger by a good margin.  This one would take the chrome off a trailer hitch.

I enjoy the strong flavor of a good scotch, but the Laphroag appeals to a very narrow audience.  Anyone with a tender, sensitive palate was going to get scorched, and those of us who were feeling pleasantly relaxed promptly sat up and stopped mumbling.  I enjoyed it, but I probably would have enjoyed it more with a small ice cube to chill the liquor and to add a small amount of water to it.  My real desire is to buy a bottle and experiment a little, but I'd likely only drink it twice a month at most.

The Burns dinner concluded with a alcoholically enthusiastic rendition of Auld Lang Syne, which was loud enough to drown out everything in a three block radius and every bit as sonorous as any steam driven calliope.  As we exited our host reminded us to drive carefully and that the bar was still open.

Our generous host only charged us $55 a plate for this Robert Burns dinner, and my feeling is that he might have broke even on the deal, or perhaps lost a little.  I had an excellent time at the Burns supper and I'm planning to go again next year.  My hope for next year is that our host was cognizant enough to get Archie's contact information so as to bribe him to return next year and read poetry.  I think Archie could be bribed with a combination of money, beer and whiskey.

See you next year, Archie!

Our host and emcee, the founder of Barley's, is Lenny Kolada.  The unknown notable whose image I failed to successfully capture is Lenny's wife Joan, AKA Saint Joan, eponymous founder of Russian Imperial Stout Saint Joan's Revenge.  I'm told from a reliable source that she was having a good time that evening and it was fortune that I failed to get a good photo of her.

The gentleman who proposed the toast to the women did not read a Burns poem; he read his own work.  He's introduced himself as Kilted Kieth.  The quality of his writing is remarkable for its excellence, and so I doff my fedora and raise my morning bourbon glass to him - well done, sir!

1 comment:

Kilted Keith said...

The host's name is Lenny. The lady with the less-than-happy expression from your photos is his wife, Joan. I spoke to her at length, and believe that your shots just had the wrong timing, because she enjoyed herself very much. And lastly, the "Toast to the Lassies" was actually not a Burns' poem, but one I wrote myself.

Glad you have a good time.