Think “Scottish food” and haggis immediately comes to mind.
It’s a savory concoction of “sheep’s pluck” (the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep) mixed with minced onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices. Traditionally haggis was stuffed into the sheep’s stomach and simmered for several hours. Nowadays, haggis sold commercially is prepared in sausage casing instead.
Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, immortalized the haggis in his 1787 poem “To a Haggis.” And so Scots serve it up on Robbie Burns Day, the poet’s birthday, January 25, with a formal reading of the poem and lots of Scotch whisky. I guess with enough of the Scottish national drink, even Scottish food can be appealing!
I think of haggis at New Year’s, because several years ago my husband and I were in Kilbarchan, a small town near Glasgow, visiting friends of our son’s after Christmas. We were leaving on New Year’s Eve. Our hosts wanted to introduce us to some traditional Scottish fare so they made a haggis dinner on December 30.
(In deference to our dietary needs, they procured a packaged vegetarian version to serve us. It was quite tasty — but it wasn’t really haggis.)
I had thought haggis would be similar to Jewish kishka, a concoction made from beef scraps, fat and matzoh meal that was traditionally stuffed into a cow’s intestines. Nowadays, like haggis, it’s made in a plastic sausage casing.
But kishka is served in slices. Haggis has a looser consistency, more like sloppy joes. It’s usually served with “neeps and tatties” – mashed turnips and potatoes.
Making cheap meat palatable
Both developed out of the same need to use the least expensive parts of the animal in a palatable way.
Perhaps the haggis meat was the portion given to the peasants after the local lord took all the good cuts from the sheep. Other historians suggest haggis was a convenient way for the highland men to take a meal with them on their long journey down to Edinburgh to sell their cattle.
During our haggis dinner, one of the family’s daughters read the Burns poem. It starts out “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face / Great Chieftan o’ the Puddin-race! / Aboon them a’ ye tak your place / Painch, tripe, or thairm / Weel are ye wordy of a grace / As lang’s my arm.”
You can get a general sense of the meaning in print, but when we heard it read in a genuine Scottish brogue we could barely understand a word. Here is the full poem, with an English translation, from the website of the Alexandria Burns Club. And here it is read on video by David Sibbald.
You can’t get it in the U.S.!
Since 1971, it has been illegal to import haggis into the United States from the Scotland due to a ban on food containing sheep lung. Then all meat from the United Kingdom was banned in 1989 because of the risk of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis, AKA mad cow disease). The general ban was lifted in 2010 – but not the ban on lungs. In fact, you can’t even buy American-grown animal lungs. Since sheep lung is a key ingredient, it’s still impossible to import Scottish haggis.
If you’d like to try your hand at actually cooking a haggis, here is a recipe from Alton Brown on the Food Network’s website. It looks pretty authentic except that it substitutes sheep tongue for sheep lung (to the horror of some Scottish reviewers). If you have a full-service butcher, you can probably get all the ingredients. (And the final snarky comment in the recipe is from the author, not from me!)
The bottom line, though, is that if you want to experience true Scottish haggis, plan a trip to Scotland!