Burns’ Night cometh… the mystery of the haggis!

While wandering down an aisle in the supermarket last week, my mind on other things, I came to a sudden halt and I found myself staring at some alien looking things in the meat department. After the initial shock, I realised I had come across a pile of haggis, all ready for Burns’ Night on 25th January.

In my younger days, the prospect of a Burns’ Night Supper was quite fun as it usually involved plenty of energetic Scottish dancing and a jolly evening perfect for livening up a cold and grey January. But haggis? It has never been high on my list of likes. Oh, be honest Joanna, it’s high on your list of dislikes! But the whole Burns’ Night Supper always sounds so wonderfully wild and Scottish that it appeals to the romantic in me. Served alongside the haggis you have the marvellously named ‘rumblethumps’ (potato, cabbage and onion) or ‘neeps and tatties’ (swede and potatoes), followed by the magical sounding ‘Clootie dumpling’ (a suet and fruit pudding). If all that wasn’t enough to fill you up and keep you warm through a freezing Scottish night, you can always add a few drams of whisky!

As decreed in Burns’ great poem, the haggis is slit with a dagger!

So what is haggis? It is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach although nowadays, an artificial casing is often used. A cheap dish designed to waste nothing and use up scraps and offal; it isn’t something many people would choose today as they try to eat less meat. But if you want to enjoy the whole Burns’ Night atmosphere there are lots of vegetarian haggis (haggi?) on sale and plenty of recipes online if you want to make your own.

Haggis is Scotland’s national dish, thanks to Scots poet Robert Burns’ poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ of 1787, a Scottish dish through and through, you would think. But wait! The name ‘hagws’ or ‘hagese’ was first recorded in England in 1430! And it gets worse…

There’s evidence to suggest that the ancient Romans were the first known to have made products of the haggis type. Even earlier, a kind of primitive haggis is referred to in Homer’s Odyssey. The well-known chef, the late Clarissa Dickson Wright, said that haggis “came to Scotland in a longship” (from Scandinavia) even before Scotland was a single nation. So that’s another ‘tradition’ shattered!

We looked for the reclusive wild haggis but couldn’t find any photos, so here’s a gorgeous Highland cow instead!

Even though there may be evidence that the Scots didn’t invent haggis after all… they have come up with an alternative history that I think sounds perfectly reasonable. The wild haggis is a small Scottish animal, a smaller hairier version of a sheep. According to some sources, the wild haggis’s left and right legs are of different lengths, allowing it to run quickly around the steep mountains and hillsides that make up its natural habitat but only in one direction. It is further claimed that there are two varieties of haggis, one with longer left legs and the other with longer right legs. The former variety can run clockwise around a mountain (as seen from above) while the latter can run anticlockwise. The two varieties live happily alongside each other but are unable to interbreed in the wild because, in order for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate, causing him to lose his balance and fall over!

PS. According to one poll, 33% of American visitors to Scotland believed haggis to be an animal

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Willow Pattern extravaganza!

This lovely collection of projects all used our fantastic Willow Pattern dies. They are a collection that can be used individually or together to create some really special projects.

I have had willow pattern everyday plates for many years. I think it’s a classic design that fits well with my cottage style kitchen and the ones I have don’t cost the earth – if you happen to break one! There are many objects around that use the willow pattern story. There are several ‘legends’ about the meaning of the Willow Pattern and what it depicts – all fabricated it would seem. It was first published as “The Story of the Common Willow Pattern Plate” in the magazine The Family Friend in 1849… and there was me thinking it had oriental roots.

I looked it up on Wikipedia the other day and this is the legend mentioned there:

The Romantic Fable: Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.

On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).

If any of you are interested in making the tea set pictured here, made by the lovely Sylvie Ashton then drop me an email on joanna@joannasheen.com and I will pass on the instructions and templates she sent me not long ago.

Generally speaking the cards are all really easy to make as once you have your blue and white theme sorted out (ie white on blue or blue on white) the diecuts make the card by themselves really! Have fun, smiles Joanna.

 

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Moon gazing…

As a child, I was never quite sure if the moon was made of cheese, or whether there was a man living in it, these were both tales I remember being told on numerous occasions! Despite being old enough to watch the moon landing in 1969, I think I still harboured a romantic dream that there just might be cheese up there… or that there was an old man hiding in a crater!

I am sure we have all gazed at the moon, enjoyed its beautiful silvery light on a clear frosty night, or marvelled at how huge a supermoon appears to be. But the moon is a lot more than just a pretty face, it affects our everyday lives – our very existence, in fact. The moon’s gravitational pull produces the ocean tides, something I always find fascinating.

I didn’t realise that there was still so much mystery surrounding the moon. Scientists think it was formed from debris left over from a huge collision between the Earth and another body, but they don’t know for sure. But we do know it is egg shaped, not round, and is moving very slowly away from the Earth…

The moon plays a part in many ancient cultures that developed lunar calendars, Christianity being one of them. Originally, the moon was regarded as being a symbol of wisdom and justice but this later changed to signify madness, or lunacy – from ‘luna’ the Latin word for the moon. Ever since the Middle Ages, epileptic fits were believed to be triggered by the full moon. There is also an old wives tale that warned people not to have surgery around a full moon, as they would bleed excessively – ugh!

There are many myths and tales about the moon and its influence, but no real scientific evidence to back them up, sadly. Dogs are often said to howl at a full moon (I can’t say any of mine have!) and then of course, there’s the whole werewolf scenario! People are still fascinated by the effect of the full moon on human behaviour and it even has its own term, ‘Transylvania Hypothesis’!

There are so many romantic moon-related terms, I thought I’d list a few of them here. The lovely sounding ‘harvest moon’ and ‘hunter’s moon’ are traditional terms for the full moons that we see during late summer and in the autumn, and nowadays we also talk about a supermoon – a full moon or a new moon that coincides with the closest distance that the moon reaches to Earth giving a larger-than-usual apparent size of the lunar disk. The Americans, however, seem to have made an art out of romantic-sounding moon terms, so here are some examples for you:

  • January: Wolf Moon, Old Moon
  • February: Snow Moon, Hunger Moon
  • March: Crow Moon, Sap Moon
  • April: Pink Moon, Egg Moon, Fish Moon
  • May: Milk Moon, Flower Moon
  • June: Strawberry Moon, Rose Moon
  • July: Hay Moon, Thunder Moon
  • August: Corn Moon, Sturgeon Moon
  • September: Harvest Moon, Full Corn Moon
  • October: Hunter’s moon, Blood Moon
  • November: Beaver Moon, Frosty Moon
  • December: Cold Moon, Long Night’s Moon

I love the idea of looking up in the middle of a barbecue and saying, sagely: “Ah yes, it’s a Strawberry Moon tonight!”

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A murmuration…

If you have ever been lucky enough to see a murmuration of starlings – where the birds swoop and swirl in amazing aerial ballet creating patterns in the sky – it’s not something you are likely to forget. But have you ever wondered why it is called a ‘murmuration’?

You were probably too enchanted by the magical sight to notice the ongoing background murmur – or murmuration – as caused by the beating of 10,000 pairs of wings at once. And that’s where the term comes from. Most of the collective nouns we use date back to the mid-15th century. But the origins of most collective bird and animal nouns are not always as straightforward as they first appear.

Some are named after specific habits, such as ‘a descent of woodpeckers’, possibly due to their penchant for dropping down from great heights onto ants or ‘a leap of leopards’ or ‘a busyness of ferrets’ while others focus on a personality trait that we believe them to possess.

For instance, the number of sinister sounding nouns for crows, such as murder, mob and horde, probably come from medieval peasants’ fears that the mean-looking birds had been sent by the Devil or were witches in disguise.

Similarly, ‘an unkindness of ravens’ could stem from an old misguided belief that the birds were not caring parents, sometimes expelling their young from their nests before they were ready.

Many bird species have more than one collective noun. As with crows, there are many terms to describe finches (charm, trembling and trimming) and geese, depending on whether they’re flying (skein, wedge, nide) or gathered on water (plump) or land (gaggle).

A book by Chloe Rhodes An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns is fascinating. In it she explains that, unlike proverbs, rhymes or homilies, many of these delightful names endure because they were recorded and published in ‘Books of Courtesy’ – handbooks designed to educate the nobility. So an early sort of ‘one upmanship’ to ensure you made it plain you belonged to the ‘right’ set, something like the Sloane Ranger speak of the 1980s perhaps!

Here are some of my favourite bird terms:

  • A wake of buzzards
  • A commotion of coots
  • A murder of crows
  • An asylum of cuckoos
  • A swatting of flycatchers
  • A prayer of godwits
  • A conspiracy of ravens
  • A parliament of rooks
  • An exultation of skylarks
  • A murmuration of starlings
  • A chime of wrens
  • A booby of nuthatches
  • A quilt of eiders
  • A mischief of magpies
  • A wisdom of owls
  • A committee of terns
  • A descent of woodpeckers
  • A scold of jays
  • A charm of goldfinches
  • A fall of woodcock
  • A deceit of lapwings
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Squeezing through the Corinth Canal

Here’s a final holiday blog for you… some pictures from the island of Sifros and our journey through the Corinth Canal. I hope you have enjoyed some of the highlights of the trip.

One of the main reasons we wanted to do this journey was to see what it was like for a medium sized boat to squeeze through the Corinth Canal. The really big boats can’t make it but we did last night and wow it was spectacular. With only a foot or two to spare each side we took about 45 minutes to cross through this gap carved through solid rock. If you can’t take this shortcut then it’s a 180-mile trip round!

We were guided by a pilot boat and sailed through at a constant 5 knots, excuse me if I don’t regurgitate the mass of techy information the captain gave me about pressures and constant speeds… I just smiled and nodded!

The island I wandered round today was called Sifnos. The guides are all lovely and each one insists their island is the best. I have been trying to be friendly and learn a little Greek and smiled at everyone saying “Calamari!” (Good morning) till the guide politely pointed out that I was yelling “Squid” at everyone and I should have been saying kalimera not calamari. I thought they were looking strangely at me!

The island is so pretty and some of the walls were from 1500BC… so something like 3,500 years old… amazing and the flowers were beautiful, mainly bougainvillea and, as always, tons of olive trees. Lots of locally made bits and pieces, honey, olive soap, amazing ceramics and the ever present wine.

I bought some honey yesterday when I visited the site of the Oracle of Delphi. Apparently, the honey is made from local bees who all use pollen from the calm, positive atmosphere of Delphi and so the honey will bring positive vibes every time it is used. Ok, so I was persuaded…. but it tastes nice so what the heck!

Sadly home again soon, but it has been a very educational but fun trip, will it influence my work, no probably not but it has given us a wonderful rest!

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