Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Haggis and Tartans and Scotch, Oh My!

“Fortune! if thou'll but gie me still
Hale breeks, a scone, an' whisky gill,
An' rowth o' rhyme to rave at will,
Tak a' the rest,
An' deal't about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.”

-Robert Burns

Since the 18th century, it has become an honored Scottish tradition to hold a special dinner for the man considered that country’s national poet, Robert Burns, on or around his January 25th birthday. Known as a Burns Dinner or Burns Supper, this typically consists of a procedural gathering to sip Scotch, recite Burns’ poems (including separate tributes to participants of both genders, plus new and old friends) and yes, eat haggis, which is presented in a type of ceremonial march. While Burns Suppers have gained popularity in New York City in recent years among Scotch enthusiasts, one usually associates them with pubs and whisky bars. But an Italian restaurant in Park Slope? 


This year will be Aperitivo’s (http://www.aperitivocafe.com/) Second Annual Burns Dinner on Fifth Avenue, held on “Burns’ Eve,” Thursday, January 24th.  It comes complete with all the ceremony, bagpipe playing and yes, the men even wear kilts. Owner Mario DiBiase mentioned that the Italian connection is not such a huge leap, as there is a sizeable community in Glasgow. There is even an Italian Scottish tartan. 

But that’s not what ultimately inspired DiBiase to create this event. He has long enjoyed holding special theme dinners at the restaurant, usually with wine pairings.  A couple of years ago, a customer and fellow Scotch devotee requested a whisky pairing dinner, which then morphed into a Burns Supper. DiBiase liked the idea of adding an “informative purpose” to a Scotch pairing dinner, staying “as traditional as possible” while contributing an Italian spin on the traditional Scottish delicacies. 

There was just one problem – the haggis.  For those who aren’t familiar with the dish, it is a challenging mixture of sheep organs such as liver, heart and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal and spices, served inside the sheep’s stomach. As you can imagine, this doesn’t always turn out to be very appetizing. But in the right hands, it can actually be quite tasty. No. Really. 

So to make the haggis not only edible (even one of his Scotch distributors said he won’t touch the stuff), yet delicious, DiBiase decided to alter the procedure a bit. Instead of boiling the meat, it’s sautéed with extra lamb meat to temper the usual “gaminess.”  More Italian spices such as oregano and rosemary are added, and steel cut oats instead of quick oats add some extra bite. The result? DiBiase says even his Scotch rep loved it last year. 

Though haggis is the star attraction, other dishes are also traditionally presented. Aperitivo flame-sears and slow cooks a prime rib for 20 – 22 hours. They also serve a Raspberry Cranachan (a whipped dessert) made with sweet marscapone cheese and amaretto. 

Aperitvo’s Burns Dinner was a smashing success last year. DiBiase was thrilled to see regular customers attending, as well as newbies and Scotch devotees who want a new atmosphere in which to celebrate. This year, the dinner was sold out in a matter of days. 

If you weren’t one of the lads and lassies lucky enough to secure a reservation to the dinner on the 24th, you can still enjoy the bagpipes on the Avenue outside the restaurant around 7:30 and watch the fun begin. Though wherever you are that night, it’s a great time to reflect on “Auld Lang Syne” with a sip of Scotch. Cheers to you, Bobby! 

- Amanda Schuster, peachesplums.blogspot.com/

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