Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Civic Kitchen & Drink: Robert Burns Scotch Dinner

"Freedom and whisky gang thegither."
--Robert Burns

Robert Burns (1759–1796), also known as Rabbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, and the Ploughman Poet. is often said to be the national poet of Scotland. Besides all of his poems, he also collected and composed various folk songs, including the well known Auld Lang Syne. He loved drinking, consuming Whisky, Ale, Claret, Port, Rum and Brandy, though he had to practice moderation due to his ill health.

At one point in his life. Robert needed a job to help support his large family and he became an exciseman, collecting taxes. Around 1780, there were only eight licenses whiskey distilleries while there were almost 400 illegal ones, which weren't paying any taxes. Robert didn't seem to prone to trying to collect taxes from these illegal stills. Sadly, Robert Burns died in 1796, at 37 years old, soon after a dental extraction. Despite the short number of years he spent in this world, he left a huge mark that continues to resound over 200 years later.

In memoriam of Robert, his birthdate, January 25, is celebrated worldwide as Burns Night, with the first Burns Night celebration having been held back in 1802. On Burns Night, a special supper is held, usually with traditional Scottish foods and Scotch whisky. There are also certain rituals that are enacted, from traditional toasts to a special prayer. Each year, there seem to be more and more Burns Nights held around the country. However, until recently, I hadn't attended a Burns Night so I was eager to check it out when I received a media invite to participate at the Burns Night being held at Civil Kitchen & Drink.

Civic Kitchen & Drink, located in Westborough, opened its doors in April 2016 and is connected to the Westborough Country Club though the restaurant is open to the public. The name of the restaurants derives from the concept of the "civic center," a focal point for community gathering. It is a gastropub, however it is also a "farm to fork" restaurant, where about 60%-70% of their ingredients are sourced from within 60-70 miles. They try to rely on many small businesses and farms, as many as local as possible, for their sourcing.

Executive Chef Rick Araujo presides over the kitchen and he was born locally, in Southborough. He is a graduate of both the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales University, bringing a youthful vigor to the restaurant. General Manager and Bar Manager Sarah Lee helps to keep much of the rest of the restaurant under control, and this was her first Burns Night dinner.

As the Robert Burns dinner was intended to be more traditional, I didn't have the opportunity to sample the usual menu items. From reviewing their usual menu, there is plenty of comfort food from Burgers to House-Made Pastrami, Chorizo Tacos to Mac & Cheese. You'll also find entrees like Scallops Rockefeller, Spring Ridge Pork Bolognese and Madeira Chicken, generally priced $20-$25. They also have a full bar program, with many local beers and spirits. However, based on the food served at the Burns Night dinner, Chef Araujo seems to be a talented and creative chef.

Some of the fine men who helped to coordinate and run the Burns Night dinner included, from left to right, Charles Tower, of The Espiritus Group, Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors; Tom Childs, the bagpiper; Chef Rick Araujo, and Randall Bird, also of The Espiritus Group.

It seemed that about 50 people attended the dinner and we sat at communal tables, getting to mingle and meet new people. Overall, it was a fun evening, with plenty of delicious food and compelling Scotches. The dinner followed many of the usual traditions of Burns night events, though sometimes abbreviated for times sake, or otherwise the dinner might have lasted an additional two hours or more. The rituals, from the toasts to the final song, added a fascinating and enjoyable element to the usual dinner event.

When we first entered the restaurant, we were handed a warm welcome cocktail, The Ginger Rabbie, which was made with Towiemore Classic Scotch, tea, molasses, and ginger. It was similar in some respects to a hot toddy, only mildly alcoholic, lightly sweet, and with a pleasing taste of tea and spice. As more guests arrived, and we mingled, chatted and sipped our cocktail, Tom Childs, the bagpiper played. This is a traditional entrance at a Burns Night dinner, to have a bagpiper greeting the guests.

The Scotches for this event were primarily from The Lost Distillery Company, a Scottish company which attempts to replicate the whisky that once was produced by numerous closed and destroyed Scotch distilleries. They engage in rigorous historical research to try to determine how these old Scotches were created and then try to duplicate the process. It is an intriguing process and I think especially appropriate for a Burns dinner, as you get to taste what Scotch might have tasted like maybe 100 years ago or so.

Eventually, we took out seats at the various tables and the Host's Greeting began, with Sarah Lee starting off, welcoming us and talking a bit about the restaurant. Then, Charlie Tower spoke, informing us that the usual Burns rituals would be modified a bit, for time, and then bringing our attention to the quaich (pronounced "quake"), which is an ancient Scottish tasting cup. The cup is two-handed and everyone who spoke that evening would toast from that cup. Originally, the cups were made of wood but eventually became made of silver.

Next up was the Presentation of the Haggis, another traditional ritual where the haggis is brought out on a dish and brought around the room. The mini-parade included Chef Araujo, carrying the haggis, Tom Childs, playing the bagpipes, and Kevork Dikramanjian, the Whisky Steward. Once the haggis was brought front and center, they paid the bagpiper with Scotch, another tradition (and I bet the bagpiper enjoys that tradition). In the picture above, you can see the Haggis in the center.

Charles Tower toasting Chef Araujo.

Charles also led the Address to the Haggis, reciting only three verses of a lengthier ode to Haggis that was written by Robert Burns. While reciting the poem, Charles cut into the Haggis, slicing it from end to end. The Haggis was then taken away, to be plated as our first course of the evening.

Rick Maloney led the Selkirk Grace, a common thanksgiving prayer in Scotland said before many meals. This prayer extends back to at least the 17th century, when it was known as the Galloway Grace or the Covenanters' Grace. It may have acquired the name Selkirk because it is alleged that Robert Burns once delivered the prayer at a dinner for the Earl of Selkirk.

With much trepidation, we received our plate of haggis with neeps and tatties. Haggis has such a terrible reputation among many, as it is considered to both smell and taste bad. People know it is composed of organ meats and that turns off many people as well. Yet many of the diners, including myself, had never tasted haggis before. So this was certainly an adventure to undertake.

Traditionally, haggis is made from a sheep's heart, liver and lungs, mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, and then encased in a sheep's stomach.  Neeps and tatties are a traditional side, being mashed turnip and potatoes. Interestingly, a poll of American tourists to Scotland showed that about one-third of the guests believed haggis was an actual animal. Haggis is also used in the sport of haggis hurling, simply throwing a haggis as far as you can. The world record is about 217 ft.

However, you cannot import Scottish haggis into the U.S., at least since 1971. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) led a ban because haggis includes sheep's lungs, which they believe pose a potential danger to consumers. Recent discussions between officials in the U.S. and Scotland have tried to find way to remove this bam, and Scottish officials have been optimistic that the ban might be lifted later this year.

Chef Araujo sourced his haggis from the Scottish Gourmet in New Jersey, which was made with oatmeal, beef liver, lamb breast, onions and spices. For the neeps, he used Gilfeather turnips, and for the tatties, locally grown potatoes. He also added a crispy prosciutto chip to the dish.

As I looked at my dish, the haggis looked like a scoop of corned beef hash, and it actually had a pleasant aroma. It had already defeated one of my preconceptions, that it might smell awful. So, I dug my fork into the haggis and placed a hearty amount into my mouth. And it was delicious! A texture like corned beef hash, a silky texture, with a nice balance of spices and a slightly earthy element. I wasn't the only person at the table who was surprised at how tasty it was, and it seemed like everyone around me enjoyed it. I devoured every bit of haggis on my plate and would order it again if I had the opportunity. I think a breakfast of haggis and eggs would be very satisfying.

Accompanying the haggis course was a glass of Stratheden Archivist Scotch, a smooth and light bodied whisky with a spicy kick, a hint of smoke and a lengthy, pleasing finish.

The evening then moved onto a Toast to Heritage, led by Randall Bird, with a glass of Auchnagie Archivist Scotch. This Scotch was a bit sweeter than the previous one, with caramel and vanilla notes, and was also smooth and easy drinking, with a lengthy finish. I should note that many of these Scotches were high in alcohol so a touch of water was warranted.

For our second course, we had Cock-a-leekie Soup, a traditional Scottish soup, commonly made with leeks and chicken stock, often thickened with rice or barley. Originally, the soup had prunes in it and sometimes slices of prunes are still added. Chef Araujo created his soup with a chicken bone broth, local leeks, local barley, and topped it with black pepper oil. The broth had such an intense depth of flavor and there were tender pieces of chicken within the broth. The black pepper oil added a nice spiciness to the dish too.

Another Toast was then made, To The Lassies, by Brad Jarvis, with a glass of Loch & Key Towiemore Port Finish Scotch. In the past, Burns clubs used to be men only, except for their annual Burns Night dinner. Burns certainly loved women, having fathered 13 children, with 5 different women, within an 11 year period. Traditionally, this toast is humorous without being offensive, and Brad followed in that vein. The men all stood, toasting to the women. The Scotch, with an almost light red color, was the same one used earlier in the evening for the cocktail. It spent about 6 months in a Port barrel, and full bodied and fruity, a tasty whisky which should appeal to many wine lovers.

Our third course was House Smoked Salmon (fished from the waters of the North Atlantic) and accompanied by garlic pickles, brioche toast points and creme fraiche. The silky salmon had a light, smoky flavor and the crisp, garlic pickles were a tasty addition and I wish there had been more of them.

The next Toast, led by Jill Pendleton, was The Reply, a toast by the ladies to the men, and it too was humorous and fun, with the women standing as they toasted the men. With this toast was the Loch & Key Auchnagie Port Finish Scotch, similar in many respects to the prior Port finished Scotch, though with a little less berry flavor.

For the fourth course, Chef Araujo put together his own interpretation of haggis, creating the Lilac Hedge Farm Lamb & Spent Grain Goetta. Goetta is a German inspired meat-and-grain sausage or mush that is very similar to the Scottish White Pudding. The haggis cake was at the bottom of the dish, using spent grains from a local brewery, a potato puree and a crisp turnip chip. Atop the cake were pieces of lamb, in a demo-sauce, which are from a local farm. The lamb was delicious, tender and flavorful, and the "haggis" cake also had intense and tasty flavors. This dish might have been the closest one to the type of dishes you might find on their regular menu.

The next stage was The Immortal Memory, led by Charles Tower, where the speaker discusses aspects of Burn's life and might include a reading of some of his poetry. This can usually take 30-45 minutes but Charles kept it shorter, discussing some of the history of Burns, a bit of his life. At the end, we all toasted to Burns. And the fact that Burns Night continues to be celebrated across the world shows that his memory might be immortal.

We then moved onto another Toast, to Friendship & Fellowship, led by Kevork Dikramanjian. We made this toast with the only non-Scotch of the night, the Loch & Key Virginia Highland Malt. This relatively new company purchases Scotch and then ships it to the U.S., where it is then aged in Virginia port-style wine barrels. It is a blended malt whisky, from 3 different barrels, and was quite good, smooth and flavorful, with hints of berry, but also some spice and malt notes.

The final course, our dessert, was the Tipsy Laird Tiramisu. Tipsy laird is a traditional Scottish dessert, similar to a trifle, and Chef Araujo put his own spin on this dish. He used whisky soaked lady finger cakes, layered with expresso mascarpone cream and dark chocolate shavings. It was creamy and rich, with a pleasing blend of sweet and savory, and lots of chocolate flavor.

Next up, Charles Tower sang a song, The Parting Glass, which actually was not composed by Robert Burns. It is a traditional song, sung at the end of gatherings. With this song, we enjoyed the Gerston Archivist Scotch, which had a mild peaty note, a pleasing smokiness which I like. There was a hint of sweetness, some mild spiciness and a smooth, lingering finish. Very tasty.

Finally, we ended the evening singing Auld Lang Syne, which was composed by Burns. We stood, holding hands with each other, and singing the verses. That's probably the only time I've ever sang the song outside of New Year's Eve. We had one final Scotch, the Loch & Key Lossit, which was even peatier than the prior Scotch, though it wasn't overly so, and presented plenty of complexity. Another excellent Scotch.

What a fun and tasty evening! Next year, I highly recommend you check out a Burns Night celebration. And if you are in the Westborough area, check out Civic Kitchen & Drink too. It is clear that Chef Araujo is talented and creative, and Sarah Lee has designed an interesting drinks program. And make sure to stop by Julio's Liquors too, which is only a short distance away from the restaurant, and carries plenty of interesting whiskies, and much more.

"Wi’ usquebae, we’ll face the devil!
--Robert Burns

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