Tartan for Rabbie, codpieces for Will
Why have the Scots managed to celebrate their great poet with a fitting tribute while we merely consign ours to the mostly reluctant hands of GCSE students?
Burns night does not celebrate the cake cookery of Alfred the Great but rather the poet Robert Burns whose verse lovingly embraces the Scottish dialect and delivers it to, in this case, the dinner plate.
Marking the birth of Burns on January 25 1759, Burns Night has a prescribed order of events and, indeed, a menu which includes, of course, haggis and whisky, those two most Scottish of delicacies . The haggis traditionally enters the dining room to the accompaniment of bagpipes and relating of Burns’ Address to a Haggis, which begins:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
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Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
Well, you get the gist.
One national newspaper lists a dozen or more Burns Night events taking place in London... including a vegan Burns Night in Hampstead. Another lists events across the nation including the White Lion Hotel in Aldeburgh which is offering two bites of the haggis by repeating its menu over Sunday lunch on January 28.
Burns Night is a national and international institution... a bit of fun we can all delight in. And the entire evening of events shows a national and cultural pride that we in England are often too embarrassed to express. St Patrick’s Day is huge and not only in Ireland. The Americans share Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en with the rest of the world. The English? Er...
In the same vein of light-hearted celebration that is Burns Night, maybe it is time that those of us without Scottish heritage or even a tartan, should consider making rather more of one of our own literary heroes.
Shakespeare is the obvious choice but his birthday and indeed, date of death, fall on April 23, which is St George’s Day. Ideally, we should oust the patron saint of England... who, after all, was from Turkey, and replace him with St Edmund (late of East Anglia). The day of his martyrdom is said to be November 20 while his birthday is totally unknown. By shuffling off St George, we would free up April 23 for Shakespeare Night which could adopt a similar format to Burns Night.
The bard is not famous for being a foodie. There is no great evocation of a culinary heaven or any indication of a signature dish. The Taming of the Shrew is not a recipe. And I will gloss over the pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice and the ghastly concoction in Titus Andronicus.
There is a reference to “cakes and ale” in Twelfth Night, to “good wine” in Henry V, eight wild boars in Romeo and Juliet, beef in Henry IV part I, cheese and garlic in The Comedy of Errors, strawberries in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “pigeons..., a couple of short-legged hens, a joint of mutton and any pretty, little tiny kickshaws” in All’s Well That Ends Well, dates and quinces in Henry IV part II. Not much to go on, but enough for a meal.
You could start with kickshaws, which are probably some sort of dainty hors d’ouevres. Then, perhaps a chicken paté made from short-legged hens (I presume they are easier to catch), roast lamb with garlic (served with a good Spanish Rioja), strawberries and cream, English cheese with quince jelly, followed by a piece of cake and a glass of ale.
The proceedings would begin with a dance and music from a local troupe of Morris dancers and the evening would be interspersed with some of Shakespeare’s “greatest hits”. The Seven Ages of Man (As You Like It), To Be or Not to Be (Hamlet), St Crispin’s Day (Henry V), Friends, Romans, Countrymen (Julius Caesar), Is this a dagger...? (Macbeth), for example.
The post-supper entertainment might be provided by a number of the night’s company who could recreate what many people would regard as one of Shakespeare’s top comic interludes and perform the play (within A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Pyramus and Thisbe.
So why have the Scots managed to celebrate their great poet with a fitting tribute while we merely consign ours to the mostly reluctant hands of GCSE students?
Shakespeare Night order of proceedings and menu:
Canapes and a good white wine served with a slice of Macbeth
Chicken paté with hot bread, mead and a soupçon of Julius Caesar
Roast mutton with garlic, root vegetables, a good red wine and lashings of Hamlet
(An interlude during which there will be folk dancing accompanied by the sackbut and viol plus an ensemble rendition of The Rain it Raineth Every Day from Twelfth Night)
Strawberries (accompanied by some of those rip-roaring Shakespearean jokes, such as: “If a man’s brains were in’s heels, were’t not in danger of kibes?” That one has them rolling in the aisles)
English cheeses and quince jelly with some Falstaff (Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV pt I & II)
Cake and ale and Henry V
The Bardic toast: “Heaven send thee good fortune. To William Shakespeare.”
Finale: The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, performed by the scratch company of Mechanicals