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Hungry For Haggis?


What is it about haggis that makes non-Scottish people wrinkle up their noses and pull faces of displeasure? After all, it’s not as if the rest of us are unaccustomed to eating unidentifiable meat products encased in a skin. Sausages we all know and love despite the innards being rather dubious in many cases. Yet haggis has a reputation of being a scary food, something vaguely threatening, to be avoided. Certainly the tour guide we encountered in Edinburgh was hamming up the horror to a group of American tourists she was introducing to the cuisine of Scotland. A frisson of disgust ran through the gathered party as she warmed to her theme.

Not so easily frightened by tales of awful offal, my family and I determined to give haggis a chance to delight our taste buds over dinner. Preliminary research suggested that we seek out a MacSween haggis, said to be sold in Scottish supermarkets. Indeed, this turned out to be so. Even the small Tesco Metro near our apartment offered both meat and vegetarian varieties.

macsween haggis

 

Hurrying home with our haggis I set to with preparing our dinner. The list of ingredients included lamb offal, beef fat, oatmeal, water, onion, salt, pepper and spices. The instructions on the packaging told me to wrap it in foil, place it in an ovenproof dish in 2cm of water and cook at 180C for an hour.

cooked haggis

 

My children were amused by how much the cooked haggis in its skin resembled a face with funny little ears.  Removing this skin proved difficult and when I served it up it resembled the volcanic rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands. Clearly some practice is needed.

 

cooked haggis

 

We ate the haggis with jacket potatoes and all enjoyed its taste which was spicy and salty. It was only slightly fatty with a texture like meat crumble with bits of offal mixed in with oatmeal. My husband said it reminded him of a curried mince dish he had enjoyed as a child and thought it would go well with chutney. I thought it would make an interesting base for a shepherd’s pie. Despite some reservations, my sons cleared their plates with a ‘thanks for dinner, mum’ – a sure sign they have enjoyed their grub.

Having eaten some rather strange foods over the years in pursuit of local delicacies, haggis was a pleasant surprise. It got me wondering about how else it could be used. Perusing the menus of local eateries over the next few days I discovered haggis sauce with pork, haggis canapés with oatcakes, haggis samosas, haggis Panini, haggis pakora, haggis burgers and deep fried haggis. A Flying Scotsman, I learned, is a dish of chicken breast stuffed with haggis. Scottish restaurants, of all cuisines, seem to have adapted this dish. Haggis sushi, anyone?  I’m sure if Heston Blumenthal turned his hand to haggis it would turn out as an ice cream.

Although no one would argue with haggis being the Scottish national dish, immortalised by the poet Robert Burns and eaten in quantity at his memorial dinners celebrated in late January, there seems to be some controversy as to its origins. Some date it back to Ancient Greece as Homer refers to a dish of meat wrapped in stomach and cooked. Others suggest it was developed as a way of preserving the bits of offal , like lung, that perished quickly after the sheep were slaughtered. Wrapping the offal in the stomach lining and boiling it on site made for a convenient use of ingredients. No such shenanigans are needed nowadays and most haggis is wrapped in sausage casing not stomach.

It all reminds me of stories my Lithuanian grandmother used to tell about her childhood when goose innards were stuffed into the skin of the goose neck which was then sewn closed and roasted.  Called helzel, she described it as a delicacy, not one that her horrified grandchildren cared to savour. She shipped up far away from her country of origin and spoke longingly of this dish which I am sure she could taste as she reminisced. It took on mythical proportions but sadly her beloved helzel was not sold in supermarkets. And geese did not roam our streets as they had those of her youth.  While Eastern Europe is far from Scotland, what both dishes have in common is their use of lowly ingredients that together rise above the sum of their parts; a dish that evokes memory and longing for those steeped in its traditions but suspicion in those foreign to its charms. I never got to eat a helzel and doubt I ever will, but I can vouch for the haggis. Especially with a wee dram.