Great chieftain o' the pudding-race
Haggis. It’s Scotland’s national dish. Warm, flavoursome and quite nutritious, Scots enjoy haggis, often served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) any time. You’ll find the humble haggis on most any café, pub or restaurant menu in one form or another, whether smothered in whisky gravy or tempura fried.
But haggis is especially celebrated as part of the traditional Burns Night Supper festivities. I am referring, of course, to Mr. Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.The first Burns Suppers were held by his friends after his death at the end of the 18th century- first in July, on the date of his death. Later the tradition continued and spread from his stomping grounds of Ayrshire, and the date was changed to his birthday, January 25th. On this night, traditional suppers are held in every town and village. Since he waxed lyrical on the subject of the national dish, it’s only appropriate that it takes centre stage on this night dedicated to food, drink and revelry.
The traditional Burns Night ritual calls for the cook to carry a platter of giant haggis as it is piped out with great fanfare, after which it is toasted, poems recited about it, and then ritually cut, its guts gushing gloriously forth, which is then shared with the merry company. Few foods can claim such an honour!
What exactly is haggis, you may ask? It falls under the savoury pudding category, made with sheep’s ‘pluck’- heart, liver and lungs- mixed with oatmeal, suet, onion, stock and spices (the formula varies and is often kept secret), then encased like a large, round sausage in, traditionally, sheep stomach, but today, often in a artificial casing.
Haggis’ origins, much like its ingredients, are shrouded in mystery. Those who claim a Scottish foundation say it started with the old cattle drovers. The women would send their men away to market in Edinburgh with a filling dish neatly carried in its own skin. Another story is that the recipe originated in medieval times when the Laird, after having an animal killed for a feast, would pass the offal to the slaughter man as payment. Others say it actually originated in England, or even in Scandinavia, arriving with the Vikings. More likely, this convenient and economical method of using up the nourishing offal- or innards- of any freshly killed animal, in its own handy carrying pouch, has been around for millennia.
However, the Scottish definitely put their own twist on it with oatmeal and spices such as black pepper, coriander, mace and nutmeg. And, yes, it really is nutritious, mostly because of the liver and lung- high in iron vitamin A, B12 and copper. Some nutritionists actually prescribe haggis for their patients who could use a vitamin and mineral boost!
Whatever its true origins, Scotland proudly claims the haggis as its own. Today it’s not just for peasants - in large part, thanks to some savvy PR from Burns, haggis is mainstream, served everywhere from the most humble pub to the most elegant restaurant, and, thanks to Oban’s award winning butchers, in kitchens all over Oban. Making haggis from scratch is a complicated and messy business, so locals get theirs ready to eat, whether whole or in convenient ready to grill slices.
The Oban area has a great haggis tradition. The Oban Winter Festival holds an annual Haggisfest, in which area butchers go haggis to haggis, and the competition is fierce. At the 2014 Festival, Mark Grant of Grant’s Butcher in Taynuilt walked away with the Golden Haggis and the People’s Choice Awards.
For Obanites, Jackson’s Butchers is ground zero for the perfect haggis. They sell about 100 haggis a week- and in the run up to Burns’ Night, that number more than doubles to nearly 250!
Fridays find the Jackson’s crew busy in the preparation area, cranking out batches of 40-50 at a time. ‘We boil the liver and heart, then mince it through,’ master butcher James Paterson explains. ‘To make 40 haggis takes about an hour and a half- you’ve got to wait for it to boil, then run it off. To encase it, we don’t do it traditionally, we vacuum seal ours so it lasts longer and has a better shelf life.’
As for the exact recipe, no butcher would ever share the secret. Jackson’s has developed their signature recipe over the nearly 85 years they’ve been trading in Oban. ‘Really, over the years it came down to listening to our customers’ opinions- whether the haggis was too peppery, or spicy enough, or whatever,’ James shared. ‘We’ve had the same recipe for a long time, since before I started.’
Their recipe is definitely a hit among the locals. ‘We make the haggis fresh on Friday and by Monday or Tuesday the next week it’s gone,’ James said. ‘We get loads of English tourists taking them home. Some have been coming for years and they come to see us.’
Once you get your scrumptious haggis home, preparation is easy, according to James. ‘The best way to cook it is to boil it- put in a pan of cold water, bring it to boil and let it simmer for half an hour. Or you can slice it and fry it but I prefer to boil it. We are happy to slice it for you in the store.’
James loves to eat haggis for an easy, wholesome dinner anytime. ‘I don’t like neeps, so I’ll just put beans with it.’
And where does James come down on the controversial subject of veggie haggis? He pulls a face when asked. ‘We’ve had a few customers ask if we do it but we’ve never considered making it,’ he laughs.
Spoken like a true self-respecting butcher!
Find traditionally made haggis at Jackson Butchers in Oban, Grants of Taynuilt and Iain Darling Butchers trading as I Wynne & Son in Oban.
Traditional haggis with whisky gravy, Oban style
3 x 500g packs Jackson Butchers or Grants of Taynuilt Haggis
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
200ml Oban Single Malt Whisky
2 x 500g beef stock
3 tbsp redcurrant jelly
1. Cook the haggis according to package instructions.
2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large frying pan over a high heat. Add the onion then reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, stirring frequently until dark brown.
3. Increase the heat to high and add the whisky. Leave to bubble vigorously, stirring frequently, for 3-5 minutes until almost all has evaporated.
4. Add the stock and redcurrant jelly to the pan, bring to the boil, then leave to simmer vigorously for 30 minutes or until at least two-thirds its original volume, and the sauce is thick and glossy. Strain the gravy through a sieve. Serve the haggis at the table with the gravy alongside.
Robert Burns Address to a Haggis (recited at Burns’ Night Supper)
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o'a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
In time o'need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,