Food & Drink | Haggis
Chieftain O' The Pudding Race
Bridget McGrouther spills out the myths, history and ingredients of the humble haggis'.
Love it or loathe it, in Scotland it's hard to avoid the haggis ' even it is a bit of an elusive beastie in its wild habitat. If you're a Scot, no doubt you may have enjoyed embellishing the myth of the haggis to many an unsuspecting tourist.
What is a haggis?
The common reply to 'What is a haggis?' goes along the lines of: 'A haggis is a small, furry four (or sometimes even three) 'legged creature whose stumpy limbs are shorter on one side than the other, making it perfect for running around the peaks of Scottish mountains (its most common habitat) in one direction only.'
I have to hold up my hand to telling such a tale to an American visitor a few years ago while we were in a tourist office in the Trossachs. When he questioned what I was saying, one subtle wink from me to the assistant behind the counter was enough for her to confirm the description of this shy animal ' and he couldn't wait to visit the hills and glens to try to track one down. I don't know to this day whether he ever discovered the truth'¦after all, a recent survey carried out by Hall's Haggis revealed that Americans often put haggis hunting on their must-do list when visiting Scotland.
Perhaps such myths surround the haggis because nobody has ever been able to verify the specific origins of this strange species. Some compare it to a Greek or Roman sausage-like dish; others credit French cuisine and the Auld Alliance as the word haggis could have come from the French verb 'hacher' ' to chop or mangle, although they now honour its Scottish connections by calling it 'Puding de St Andre'. Heaven forbid, it's even been recognised as being similar to English faggots.
A plausible theory is put forward by Clarissa Dickson Wright in her book: 'The Haggis: A Little History', who argues that our national dish found its way to our shores on Viking longboats. She points out that haggis type dishes are still found in Scandinavia and that there are strong similarities to the Swedish word hagga or Icelandic hoggva, both meaning to chop or hew.
Haggis makers Macsweens reckon that haggis was first introduced as the raw ingredients had to be presented in a more acceptable form ' ie 'Necessity is the mother of invention'. Thousands of years ago, when a beast was slain, the carcass would be partly eaten, then had to be dried or salted to preserve it. The edible offals had to be used, so why not chop them up, mix with cereal and cook in the ready-made vessel ' the stomach. There you had the first haggis'¦or medieval boil-in-the-bag meal.
What's in a haggis?
The question about what's actually in a real haggis is perhaps best left unanswered, so if you don't want to know, then avert your eyes now'¦
Recipes for haggis are fiercely guarded from award-winning producers vying to make the tastiest, but basic ingredients include a mixture of the minced heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, pig or cow mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, spices and seasoning boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal (or more contemporary synthetic equivalent). It is a lot nicer than it sounds (honest!) and modern demand has called for the introduction of tinned haggis as well as a vegetarian alternative (called a 'Jessie' by McKean's) that substitutes pulses and vegetables for the meat in the dish. Fine food lovers may appreciate Mckean's Smoked Monarch variety, made from venison, while Hall's of Broxburn, near Edinburgh, is the world's largest haggis producer, making three and a half million pork-based haggis per year.
Although the height of the season is from November (St Andrew's Night) to January (Burns' Suppers), haggis has become so popular that it is eaten year-round for breakfast (sliced in a fry up), lunch or dinner ' and even going home after the pub, often in the form of a haggis supper from the chippy. In addition, some Glaswegian curry houses have created the 'haggis baji' as a blend of Indian and Scottish cuisine. Haggis can be found in butchers, delicatessens, gift shops and supermarkets both north and even south of the border, or ordered over the Internet, although there are some import restrictions to countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
To cook, boil in the bag, bake in the oven or zap in the microwave, although only after removing it carefully from its casing ' else it may well explode. Cooking times depend on the size of the haggis, which vary in range from dinky cocktail canapes to real chieftains o' the puddin' race, suitable for serving large groups of hungry, marauding Scots. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest haggis on record weighed 303.2kg (668lb 70z) and was made using 80 ox stomachs by the Troon Round Table, Burns Country Foods and a team of chefs at the Hilton Hotel, Scotland on May 24, 1993.
Overcooking will result on the dish being 'murdert' ' thus best avoided. Most popular accompaniments include neeps (mashed turnip) and tatties (creamed potatoes).
Haggis hurling may well happen if it's your fist taste and it doesn't agree with you, but otherwise it is in actual fact, a recognised sport. Admittedly, it's not an Olympic event as yet, but there are World Championships and it is popular at Highland Games held up and down the country.
The sport is said to date back to early clan gatherings where wives would throw a haggis across the stream to their husbands, who would catch them in their kilts (the womenfolk might well have caught a much less tasteful eyeful of what lay beneath those kilts). The contemporary version is for the haggis to be hurled as far and straight as possible from an elevated platform (quite often a whisky barrel).
The present World Record for Haggis Hurling has been held since 1984 by Alan Pettigrew, who threw a 1.5lb haggis an amazing 18 feet and 10 inches on the island of Inchmurrin on Loch Lomond.
In 1785 Burns was a guest at a Haggis Club in Kilmarnock where five lawyers met for dinner. When asked to say grace, he instead chose to address the haggis in his own inimitable way, beginning:
'Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place, Painch, trip, or tharim:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.'
The following year the completed poem became the first Burns work to be published in the Caledonian Mercury newspaper.
On the fifth anniversary of Robert Burns' death nine gentlemen gathered in Alloway to have what is now considered to be the first Burns Supper. The group dined on haggis and guid Scots fayre, they recited the 'Address to a Haggis' and drank several toasts. The assembled agreed to meet on Burns' birthday the following year ' and so evolved the annual tradition of holding a Burns Supper on 25th January in the bard's memory.
On these occasions, the haggis is carried ceremoniously on a silver platter into the dining room accompanied by the skirl of the pipes. Then it is addressed by a speaker who apologises for killing it before it is savagely set upon by a dirk (the small dagger traditionally carried in knee socks). Burns would undoubtedly approve of all the eating, drinking and merriment that follows with songs, dancing and a Toast to the Lassies.
Find more information about Burns Suppers.