Today I’d like to discuss haggis, the dish that is as quintessentially Scottish as bagpipes, kilts, Nessie, Groundskeeper Willie, and, well, Scotch (whiskey). Let’s start with the unsavory aspects first—the ingredients. Haggis is made mostly from sheep’s pluck, which is an adorable euphemism for the liver, heart, and lungs, which are then mixed with oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices and stock, all simmered together in the sheep’s stomach. So, essentially, it’s a rather bizarre collection, a parody of forced cannibalism. The purist in me was rather disappointed to learn that modern haggis sometimes omits the stomach and uses sausage casing as the “meat bag.” But I suppose if it’s real sausage casing it’s using an organ just down the road a piece, intestinal casing rather than the actual stomach. Traditionally haggis is served with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes), washed down with a glass of your favorite Scotch.
This however, is just the basic form—modern chefs have experimented and come up with different presentations. For example, a “Haggis Supper” is haggis that’s deep fried and served with chips (or French fries, to Americans). A “Haggis Burger” is deep fried haggis on a bun. A “Haggis Pakora” is a fried haggis variant served in Indian restaurants. A “Flying Scotsman” is chicken breast stuffed with haggis. And a “Chicken Balmoral” is the same as the Flying Scotsman, only the chicken is then wrapped in bacon—kind of like a Scottish version of TurDuckEn, only with a pig/chicken/sheep meat mixture. Our vegetarian friends don’t have to be excluded, either, as there’s a version made using pulse (beans), nuts and veggies in place of meat.
In tracing the culinary lineage of haggis, though, I was shocked to read that it’s probably not a Scottish invention. A precursor dish is mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey, and some believe that the ancient Romans made it, or at least a primitive form of it. Based on linguistic evidence, others claim that the Norman French or the Scandanavians invented it, or at least introduced it to
Scotland and the British Isles. Putting that aside, it’s also thought that the haggis format was developed as a way for hunters to preserve fast decaying organs (like the heart, lungs, and liver) quickly, and while still in the field. The first haggis recipe is actually found in a Lancashire ( Northwest England) book dating to about 1430, the Liber Cure Cocorum. (In a delightfully creative mix of literary genres, this is a “verse cookbook”—the recipes are rhyming poems.)
Regardless of who invented it, it can’t be denied that the Scottish were the most avid embracers of haggis. Poet Robert Burns is given the bulk of the credit for causing this with his 1787 poem “Address to a Haggis.” Since then it’s become a huge part of their heritage, their national dish, in fact. As such it’s available year round in their supermarkets, and it’s a common restaurant choice, too.
But let’s get to my review (finally). I’ve had it three or four times, all from a can. I got these at a Scottish festival, and at a Scottish bakery. (In a departure from usual practice, I’m intentionally not going to give the locations of these, for reasons that will be explained later.) But long story short, I’m a major fan. It’s certainly very reminiscent of a sausage, but it has a little je ne sais quoi, if I can use a French expression for a Scottish food. Maybe it’s the lungs, but it has a distinct flavor and odor of its own—different, unusual, but good. It’s a little mealy, but somehow in a positive way. For those grossed out by the ingredient list, it’s similar to a sausage, or hot dog, in that it’s ground up and mixed enough that you can’t pick out, say, recognizable pieces of heart or anything. Plus I’m sure that like pretty much every food, fresh haggis must taste even better. Really, it’s quite delicious, and writing this post has given me a strong craving for it.
But here’s the weird thing about haggis (okay, here’s another weird thing about it)—it’s apparently illegal in the
, or at least importing authentic Scottish haggis into the States has been banned since 1971 because of the sheep lungs in it. So the haggis I purchased may have been illegal, which is why I didn’t name names or places—I don’t want to metaphorically bite the hand that fed me tasty sheep offal. (It’s possible, of course, that I bought haggis made from the real ingredients, but it was legal because it was technically made in the U.S.A. Alas, I didn’t save the cans, and I can’t recall the company name, so I can’t check this. I will say that I have a strong memory of it being Scottish made, so inadvertently I may be a Food Desperado, a diner who plays by his own rules. (Aren’t you impressed by what a badass I am?)) U.S.
Here’s some more haggis trivia. The record for hurling a one and a half pound haggis (the stereotypical Scottish shot put, I guess) is 217 feet, by Lorne Coltart. The record for throwing the most haggis down one’s throat in eight minutes is three pounds, by competitive eater Eric “Steakbellie” Livingston.
Finally, the Scottish have developed a bit of folklore about haggis, telling naïve tourists that it’s actually an native animal which has the curious mutation of having the legs on one side of its body be longer than the other, so it can better run around steep Scottish slopes without falling down. So their version of the jackalope, hoop snake, or squonk, etc. I’m embarrassed to see that Americans are reportedly particularly gullible about the haggis tall tale—evidently one third of them believe it.
P.S. I also recommend the Scottish Festivals in general. The one I went to (and I assume it was typical of the style) had various Scottish bands, products, and obviously food and drink. Also an entertaining border collie herding show, and several new and different athletic events. These including hurling hale bales, and giant iron weights, and, most impressively, caber tossing, which is basically throwing a telephone pole. (Really.)