We discovered a rollicking good way to cure the winter whats-its. Actually, we didn’t discover it. We just borrowed it. Up Helly Aa is a fire festival held in Lerwick, Scotland, on a Tuesday at the end of January. The celebration features guizers (costumed celebrants) carrying flaming torches and a galley or Viking long boat that is pulled through the town to the harbor where it is set afire and “sent to Valhalla.” The Guizer Jarl, similar to a grand marshal, leads the procession from atop the galley. He wears a winged helmet and breastplate and carries a broad sword and shield. Throughout the town, barrels of oil are set afire.
In Lerwick, 45 squads work all year to devise costumes and practice songs, dances and skits for competitions that take place after the procession. The Wednesday after is a day-off work holiday to allow for recovery time as the celebration lasts into the wee hours.
Traveling to Lerwick in mid-winter to join the Up-Helly-Aa festivities might be a stretch, but it can be celebrated wherever burning torches can be carried safely and legally. A big part of the fun was planning costumes, food, torches, trail illumination and the galley. All the participants joined into the spirit of the event and lots of laughter brightened the long, cold January night.
Haggis, the Scottish delicacy made of heart, lung, oatmeal and spices boiled in a sheep stomach, is not going to appear on our Up Helly Aa table. Still, we wanted to serve a dish of Northern Scotland origin. Cullen Skink was our choice. Do not be put off by the name; this potato and smoked fish soup is delicious and perfect for a cold winter night.
Recipes for this soup, named after the village of Cullen on the northeastern coast of Scotland, vary widely. Not only do Cullen folks debate which smoked haddock vendor sells the fish most appropriate for this soup, types and amounts of potatoes vary. It seems the rule of thumb is “no need to use the most expensive smoked haddock” and “use whatever left-over potatoes are on hand.”
Up Helly Aa guests were a bit skeptical when told we were going to eat Cullen Skink but quickly reversed their opinions. Here is our interpretation of this Scottish soup:
- 6-8 stalks of celery – diced
- 1 large sweet onion – diced
- 2 tablespoons parsley leaves
- ¼ cup butter for sautéing vegetables
- 2 pounds of smoked haddock or smoked white fish (make sure fish is not dyed)
- 3 pints milk
- ½ cup cream
- 3 large potatoes- boiled and diced
- 2 large potatoes – mashed
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Sauté diced celery, onions and parsley leaves in the butter until the onions are transparent and the celery is tender. Do not brown them. Add the already boiled and diced potatoes, milk and flaked fish. Bring to a gentle boil. Add cream. Add mashed potatoes a spoon at a time until the soup reaches your desired consistency. Salt and pepper to your taste preference.