Photo copyright © 2004, Scribe Weekly, Scotland
Q: What is a haggis?
A: An endangered Highland animal, according to one-third of the respondents to a survey conducted among 1000 U.S. visitors to Scotland. A full twenty-three percent said they had come to Scotland under the belief they could hunt and catch a haggis. One American tourist said he read that haggis is a birdlike creature that only comes out at night. Another claimed that the haggis is a fox-like mammal that sometimes ventures into cities.
Ask a Scotsman what a haggis is and chances are you'll get anything but a straight answer. Far be it from me to rain on anyone's parade, but the time has come to set the record straight.
A haggis is a small four-legged Scottish Highland creature. Its limbs on one side are shorter than on the other, meaning that it is perfectly adapted to run around the hills at a steady altitude. As the haggis always runs clockwise, he can be caught by running around the hill in the opposite direction, though the task is made easier if you sedate him by playing specific notes on your bagpipe while you run. The young, wild haggis is normally harmless, though when fully grown, he can become quite dangerous during rutting season. His primary evasive strategy is his ability to confuse: being both feathered and furry, the hunter never knows which feature is predominant. When he runs, he runs like a bird, and when he flies, he flies like an animal. At the present time, only kilted Highlanders can obtain official haggis hunting licenses, and haggis can only be hunted in season between November and January. Wild haggis, though originally native to Scotland, have been spotted in Nevada, the offspring of specimens introduced in the 19th century by a couple of Scottish immigrants.
Haggis is actually a savoury dish made from the minced internal organs of a sheep, mixed with oatmeal, spices, salt, pepper and boiled in a sheep's stomach (an early prototype for modern 'boil in the bag' meals). Haggis is normally served with mashed neeps (turnip) and mashed tatties (potatoes). Haggis is eaten all year round in Scotland, but has a special place in the Burns supper served on January 25th, when Scotland's beloved poet, Robert Burns, is commemorated. Burns penned the poem Address to a Haggis, which begins "Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the puddin-race! Aboon them a' ye tak your place...." In Burns' days haggis was a popular dish for the poor, since it made use of parts of a sheep that would otherwise have been wasted. In more recent times, haggis has been found both in the fish and chip shop, deep-fried in batter, and dressed-up in various guises on fancy restaurant plates.
Haggis counts among its many talents a starring role in the sport called Haggis Hurling, which involves throwing a haggis as far as possible.
It is also the lovingly-portrayed subject of entire books.
For people of squeamish dispositions but insatiable curiosity, vegetarian haggis is available - the point of which eludes me - which consists of everything minus the offal. I find it resembles bland falafel.
For those of you who must have the real thing, you can either order it, or better yet, make it yourselves.
Set of sheep's heart, lungs and liver (cleaned by a butcher)
One sheep's stomach
3 cups finely chopped beef suet (kidney leaf fat is preferred)
One cup medium ground oatmeal
Two medium onions, finely chopped
One cup beef stock
One teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
One teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon mace
Trim off any excess fat and sinew from the sheep's intestine and, if present, discard the windpipe. Place in a large pan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for an hour or possibly longer to ensure that they are all tender. Drain and cool.
Finely chop the meat and combine in a large bowl with the suet, oatmeal, finely chopped onions, beef stock, salt, pepper, nutmeg and mace. Make sure the ingredients are mixed well. Stuff the meat and spices mixture into the stomach which should be over half full. Then press out the air and tie the open ends tightly with string. Make sure that you leave room for the mixture to expand or else it may burst while cooking. If it looks as though it may do that, prick with a sharp needle to reduce the pressure.
Place in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil and immediately reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for three hours. Avoid boiling vigorously to avoid bursting the skin. Serve hot with "champit tatties and bashit neeps".
Places to try a bit of upscale haggis in Edinburgh:
Dubh Prais Restaurant has a pan fried oatmeal-encrusted haggis starter, which is exceptionally tasty.
123b High St
Tel: 0131 557 5732
Stac Polly is famous for their signature dish of phyllo-wrapped haggis parcels in plum and red wine sauce.
29 Dublin Street,
Tel: 0131 556 2231
Suruchi Indian Restaurant has the world's only haggis pakoras (sorry, but that's vegetarian haggis...)
14a Nicolson Street
Tel: 0131 556-6583