Food is something I’d like to write more about on this blog – especially since I’ve eaten a lot of unusual and occasionally mind-bogglingly strange varieties of food in different parts of the world.
And where better to start this new series of postings about glorious international foodstuffs than with Scotland’s national dish, haggis? After all, today is January 25th, 2017: the 258th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard. And tonight, the devouring of haggis will be one of the main activities (alongside the reciting of Scots-dialect poetry, the playing of bagpipes and the downing of industrial quantities of Scotch whisky) at Burns suppers held in honour of the great man the world over.
Haggis is a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver, traditionally (though not normally these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach. The fact that the main ingredients of haggis are offal has earned it a lot of abuse over the centuries. For example, someone called Lils Emslie once wrote a famous piece of doggerel that went: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’ More recently, in the 1990s, I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis inelegantly as ‘a bag of shite’.
Well, the ignorant may sneer. But in my experience anyone adventurous enough to try haggis for the first time usually ends up enjoying it. The Wikipedia entry on it describes its taste as being ‘nutty’ (as in ‘nut-like’, not ‘crazy’); but I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it like that. ‘Spicy’ is the adjective I’d use – though spicy in a dark, subtle, slightly teasing way.
Culinary historians have argued about where haggis originated, although I’m sure it wasn’t in Scotland itself. I’ve seen the invention of the dish attributed to northern England, to medieval Scandinavia and to ancient Rome and Greece. Personally, I suspect the basic format of haggis dates back in history to soon after humans started hunting and killing their food. Once you’d tracked down and slain a big animal like, say, a stag and removed the best cuts of meat, there’d still be a fair amount of flesh in the carcass that you couldn’t let go to waste – especially not when there was no guarantee when you’d be getting your next meal. So you’d gather up the squelchy bits too – the heart, lungs, intestines – and find something to put them in. And handily, there was another squelchy bit you could use as a container – the stomach. Then you’d cook all this before the contents went off. Hence, haggis.
And that’s one reason to cherish it. Haggis, or the original concept of haggis, is the meat dish of the common man. You can bet that by feudal times it was the aristocrat or wealthy landowner who was carting off the best meat from the big game animals he’d hunted down. Whereas it was the serfs – who’d done all the hard work, looking after his horses and hounds, carrying his weapons, chasing the wild animals out into the open – who’d be stashing the left-behind offal into left-behind stomachs, boiling them and tucking into them afterwards.
© Daily Record
Appropriately, Robert Burns, of humble origins himself, appreciated a good haggis and wrote a poem in honour of the dish – Address to the Haggis, customarily the first poem to be recited at a Burns Supper, with the carrying in and cutting of haggis the first thing on the schedule. It begins: “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face / Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!” Though it’s usually around the third verse that things get exciting and the reciter-cum-haggis-cutter starts waving a big blade in the air: “His knife sees rustic labour dight / An’ cut you up wi ready slight / Trenching your gushing entrails bright / Like onie ditch / And then, o what a glorious sight / Warm-reekin’, rich!”
Not that haggis has remained unchanged since the time of Burns. It’s evolved. As culinary tastes and habits have developed, so has the way it’s been eaten. It’s possible now to get haggis burgers, haggis pakora and haggis-topped pizza. Vegetarian haggis – with the squelchy meaty bits replaced by nuts, lentils, beans and other vegetables – has been on sale for many years and it’s also been a long time since I munched my first-ever bag of haggis-flavoured crisps. If someone hasn’t already invented haggis-flavoured ice cream, I’m sure they’re working on it.
And of course, the deep-fried haggis supper has long been a fixture of Scotland’s many fish-and-chip shops. One admirer of haggis in its deep-fried form is New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present). In one episode where he visited Scotland, he identified it as his favourite Scottish dish and described it as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”
A tribute to haggis that’s almost worthy of Robert Burns in its eloquence.