Monday, November 29, 2010

St. Andrew's Day- A Celebration of Scotland

The single malt is flowing, the Shepherd’s Pie and haggis puffs are baking and the Cock-a-leekie soup is boiling over a large pot on the ‘hob’. The house is decked out with the Scottish flag (the Saltire) and plaid (tartan) patterns adorn everything from the table cloth to the ribbons tied on the glassware. A music play list of Scottish musicians, traditional and modern, fills the air with the distinctive Scottish brogue. My best friend from Scotland, Jean, and I wait for our guests to arrive. We’ve been stateside for about a year now; this St. Andrew’s Day party is a way to celebrate Scottish culture and our time studying together in Edinburgh.

If you know me you know that I’m obsessed with anything Scottish. I love kilts, cozy tartans, bagpipes, thistles, rainy days and even… (cue the looming music)…Scottish food. I sing Scotland the Brave in the shower, I integrate Scottish words into my vocabulary even though no one in America understands them, and when I talk about Scotland I refer to it as the motherland. Though a very patriotic American, I am proud of my Scottish heritage; whatever small percentage of my Heinz 57 ancestry that is Scottish brings me great joy.

Part of being Scottish, full blood or part of the diaspora is the celebration of St. Andrew’s Day. November 30th commemorates St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. This feast day is celebrated with food, drink, and the company of family and friends. Many Scots don the kilt, wear a thistle on the lapel, and enjoy traditional Scottish dancing at celidhs (‘kay-lees’). In a place that’s often cold and rainy, time-honored traditions bring warmth to the Scottish people.

Warming up in November in Scotland is a veritable objective. A steaming bowl of cock-a-leekie soup does just the trick! This soup dish of leeks and chicken is hearty, warming and very traditional. Tom Kitchin, the youngest Michelin-starred Scottish chef and proprietor of my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world, The Kitchin, one-upped the soup in this tasty recipe from his cook book ’From Nature to Plate - seasonal recipes from The Kitchin’:

1 whole free range chicken
1 leek
1 onion
2 carrots
1 sprig thyme
5 white peppercorns
1 bay leaf

200 g Basmati rice
50 g chopped prunes
20 gr chopped parsley
1 chopped leek

In a large pan, cover the chicken with cold water and bring to the boil. Add the vegetables and herbs and cook slowly for 2-3 hours until chicken is cooked.
Remove chicken and vegetables from stock and season to taste.
Meanwhile cook the basmati rice and chopped leeks in boiling salted water. Chop the prunes and parsley, keeping aside for garnish. Break away the chicken from the bone.

To serve:
In a bowl, place the cooked rice, chicken, prunes and chopped parsley. Cover in stock and serve


Saint Andrew’s Day is for feasting and celebrating with traditional food, which has a somewhat undeservedly bad reputation. While a large part of the Scotch diet is fried foods (the Scots would fry soup if they could), it isn’t entirely unhealthy fare. Scottish cuisine is often made from fresh, local and seasonal food. From smoked salmon, fresh Loch Fyne oysters, tender wild Highland Venison, to delicate berries; Scotland’s temperate climate and abundance of game species provides some of the best meat and produce in the world.

When in Scotland, or when celebrating Scotland, haggis is a must! Haggis is a combination of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with onion, suet, oatmeal, salt and stock. Though not immediately tempting, haggis is a Scottish sausage traditionally prepared inside a sheep’s stomach. It has a nutty texture and a delicious savory flavor. It’s one of those things better enjoyed while having forgotten the ingredients. For Haggis virgins- try wrapping the haggis in puff pastry and serve with a wild mushroom and whisky sauce!

Always remember to serve your St. Andrew’s Day feast with a good single malt whisky like Glenkinchie, Talisker or my favorite- smoky Lagavulin from Islay. If the hard stuff just isn’t your style go for a nice Scottish beer like McEwan’s, Belhaven, Caledonian, or Deuchar’s IPA.

In addition to feasting on food and drink with friends and family, St. Andrew’s Day is a celebratory day of national reverence. St. Andrew’s Day is a reminder to the world that Scots are more Scottish than they are British. They are proud of their people, their culture, their country and their sports teams (Scots passionately cheer on their teams as well as anyone playing against England!).

There have always been tensions between England and Scotland and St. Andrew’s Day is no exception. Even on Scotland’s national day the British Army refuses to fly the Saltire from Edinburgh Castle, a historic and recognizable symbol of Scotland yet a British Army installation.

In fact, flying the Saltire on St. Andrew’s Day has been quite a contentious issue between the two countries. Prior to 2002 the Saltire was only allowed to be flown in addition to the British Union Flag and only if there were two flag poles. This led Scottish politicians to complain that Scotland was the only country in the world that couldn’t fly its national flag on Flag Day. After government regulations were revised, in Scotland on 30th November the Saltire is flown from all government buildings and the Union Flag is secondary.

The Saltire, or St. Andrew’s Cross, has been a symbol of Scotland since 842 AD and is the oldest continually used flag in the world. It represents the patron Saint Andrew who went to Greece to preach Christianity, where he was crucified for his beliefs on a cross in the form of an X. After his death, the Emperor Constantine decided to move the Saint's bones to Constantinople, but according to legend, the monk St. Regulus was warned in a dream by an angel who told him to move as many of the bones as he could to the "ends of the earth" to keep them safe. As far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, Scotland was as near to the world's end as you could get, so his remains were taken to Scotland and he has been closely associated with the country ever since.

While originally a religious holiday, St. Andrew’s is day of national pride. It’s a celebration of the strength and pride of the Scottish people, the richness of the country’s history, the physical beauty of the isle, the importance of friends and family and the value of lasting tradition.

Thousands of miles away from Scotland, Jean and I celebrate Scotland’s national day. We celebrate our friendship, Scotland and our time together at the University of Edinburgh. Scotland is a country where not only friendship but tradition is paramount. In true Scottish style, over haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), and a quality single malt whisky, St. Andrew’s Day will be celebrated in my house year after year and will keep Scotland and her traditions close to my heart.

PS. For a HILARIOUS skit on the differences between the American and Scottish accent check out this link:

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