a Beginner's Guide!
By Peter 'McBarks' Barker of Bendigoranians
Author's Note: I have done my best to research the history of this especial 'bill o' fare' - and also try to convey to the committed Celts out there just what they've missed if they are numbered amongst the legions of invertebrates who've never sampled the unique gastronomic offerings of this humble yet famous dish. Here goes:
In primary-school-days in far-off Australia, I had a pal called Dave Haggis (in those days, I was totally unaware of the 'national dish' of bonnie Scotland). The name Haggis – in the case of those blessed with such an official moniker – is derived from the Anglo-Saxon [son of ] Agace and began as a baptismal name – a variant of the Greek Agatha (or Agape) – good, honourable … . Well, enough of one of many possible origins of the name; it's time to turn to some more rewarding dietary considerations!
A common misconception is that Haggis is purely Scottish. The Haggis, or some version of it, may be found in the histories of countries as varied as ancient Greece, Sweden, and the United States. Yet the Haggis is most closely associated with Scotland, and has come to represent that country (just as pasta represents Italy). As a dish with ingredients within a casing, the Haggis falls within the sausage 'family' (albeit rather loosely).
Many folk, although fiercely proud Scots, are prepared to concede that the dish may have been brought to the isles by raiding Vikings (my old and valued friend, Chris Laurenson – a Shetlander – subscribes to this school of thought). Indeed, at the annual Viking Up Helly Aa festival in the Shetlands (the world's largest fire festival – a pyromaniac's delight), Chris - and hordes of others - wash their Haggis down with ample quantitites of mead - and a good 'malt' - be assured.
The first known written recipe for a dish of the name (as 'hagese'), made with offal and herbs, is in the verse cookbook Liber Cure Cocorum dating from around 1430 AD in Lancashire (north-west England).
Þe hert of schepe, þe nere þou take,
Þo bowel noght þou shalle forsake,
On þe turbilen made, and boyled wele,
Hacke alle togeder with gode persole,
The Scottish poem 'Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy', which is dated before 1520 AD (the generally accepted date prior to the death of William Dunbar, one of the composers), refers to 'haggeis'.
Thy fowll front had, and he that Bartilmo flaid; The gallowis gaipis eftir thy graceles gruntill, As thow wald for ane haggeis, hungry gled — William Dunbar, Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy
There is no precise date for the first preparation of Haggis but the earliest recorded consumption of the comparable French dish 'Andouillette', made with tripe, can be traced back to an actual date in the ninth century – it was served at the coronation of King Louis II in Troyes on 7 September 878 AD.
Food writer Alan Davidson goes back further, stating that the Ancient Romans were the first people known to have made products of the Haggis type. Even earlier, a kind of primitive Haggis is referred to in Homer's 'Odyssey', in book 20, (towards the end of the eighth century BC) when Odysseus is compared to "a man before a great blazing fire turning swiftly this way and that a stomach full of fat and blood, very eager to have it roasted quickly". Haggis was "born of necessity, as a way to utilize the least expensive cuts of meat and the innards as well". Since the internal organs rapidly perish, it is likely that haggis-like preparations have been around since pre-history.
In 1786, Scotland's most famous poet Robert Burns wrote his historic poem 'Address to a Haggis', in which he expressed his love of the dish. This in turn brought the Haggis recognition, and a public association with Scotland.
Robert Burns was a Scottish Nationalist, and was very patriotic. Such was the love for the poet that after his death, Burns Night was celebrated every 25th of January - which would have been his birthday. His friends would sit and recite his poems, and when they came to 'Address to a Haggis', a steaming Haggis would be brought into the room for them to eat. These days, Burns Night is still celebrated, and Scots around the world celebrate the great man, and eat the Haggis he so enjoyed. As Burns was a Freemason, many lodges around the world celebrate their own Burns Night annually. Because of Burns, Haggis is now widely regarded as the national dish of Scotland. But while it is revered 'north of the border' (that being the border with the unspeakable southern Sassenachs), in other places there can be a hesitancy to try it.
Haggis is traditionally made with the 'pluck' of a sheep (lungs, liver and heart), chopped and stuffed into its stomach with a mixture of oats, onions, herbs and spices, and then boiled. While this maybe doesn't sound completely appetising, the complex flavours are a delight - a kind of intense lamb flavour with herb undertones. Indeed, the meat content and quality of the ingredients are superior to those found in many sausages. Haggis can now found in man-made casings, complying with the squeamish tastes of many buyers. (More of that later, in 'the case of the exploding haggis').
In another move towards the consumer, Haggis is now available in a 100% vegetarian version - made with kidney beans, lentils, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, carrots, turnip, and mushrooms, together with the traditional ingredients of oatmeal, onions and spices.
Haggis has also evolved in other ways - you can now buy packs of cocktail-sized Haggis, ideal for buffets or canapes. Or packs of pre-sliced Haggis, which can be microwaved for a speedy snack. All of these things are making sure that Haggis remains relevant in 21st Century life, rather than being left just as a Burns Night treat.
Although Australian-born and bred, I have on many occasions recited Robert Burns' Address to a Haggis – usually managing to deliver a fair imitation of the Scots' brogue; I am especially proud and privileged to have performed such an important integral part of such wonderful evenings.
Typically, Burns' Night will offer a supper, which must have certain important foods. These include (obviously) the Haggis, which is piped into the supper room (at times with an armed escort (Scottish broadsword and/or dirk), and presented with flourish and ceremony to be addressed in Burns' immortal words.
Haggis is usually accompanied by yellow turnips ('neeps') and potatoes ('tatties'): these can be prepared in numerous ways, the usual being boiled and mashed. Other products exported from Scotland tend to make up the bill of fare, in order to reference their relative shortage during Burns' time. These dishes at a Burns' Night include: beef or lamb, perhaps salmon (often the poached variety in bygone days), and various types of shellfish. To these traditional offerings many sides can be added, depending upon the preference of people organizing large or small parties.
A typical authentic Burns' Night usually has available lots of whiskey for guests and many toasts are drunk throughout the night, beginning with a toast to Burns' memory, one to the lassies, and a reply by at least one lassie if not more. Other toasts may be offered, which can reference 'the Bard' - Burns himself, or quote some of his famous lines, or be personal in nature.
At the start of a traditional Burns Night, guests gather and mix as in any informal party. The host then says a few words, welcoming everyone to the supper.
All of the guests are then seated and grace is said, usually using the Selkirk Grace, a well-known thanksgiving said before meals, using the Gaelic language. Although attributed to Burns, the Selkirk Grace was already known in the 1600s, as the "Galloway Grace". It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.
The Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit
The supper starts with the soup course. Normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup, or Cock-a-Leekie is served.
Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a Haggis on a large dish. It is usually brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host's table, where the Haggis is laid down. He might play 'A man's a man for a' that', 'Robbie Burns Medley', or 'The Star O' Robbie Burns'.
Then all present enjoy the performance of 'address to a Haggis' …
Address To A Haggis
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye 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 wad 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,
Then, horn for horn,
they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.
Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!
Fair is your honest happy face
Great chieftain of the pudding race
Above them all you take your place
Stomach, tripe or guts
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm
The groaning platter there you fill
Your buttocks like a distant hill
Your skewer would help to repair a mill
In time of need
While through your pores the juices emerge
Like amber beads
His knife having seen hard labour wipes
And cuts you up with great skill
Digging into your gushing insides bright
Like any ditch
And then oh what a glorious sight
Warm steaming, rich
Then spoon for spoon
They stretch and strive
Devil take the last man, on they drive
Until all their well swollen bellies
Are bent like drums
Then, the old gent most likely to rift (burp)
Be thanked, mumbles
Is there that over his French Ragout
Or olio that would sicken a pig
Or fricassee would make her vomit
With perfect disgust
Looks down with a sneering scornful opinion
On such a dinner
Poor devil, see him over his trash
As week as a withered rush (reed)
His spindle-shank a good whiplash
His clenched fist.the size of a nut.
Through a bloody flood and battle field to dash
Oh how unfit
But take note of the strong haggis fed Scot
The trembling earth resounds his tread
Clasped in his large fist a blade
He'll make it whistle
And legs and arms and heads he will cut off
Like the tops of thistles
You powers who make mankind your care
And dish them out their meals
Old Scotland wants no watery food
That splashes in dishes
But if you wish her grateful prayer
Give her a haggis!
Singing or recitation of Burns' classic Auld Lang Syne usually concludes the evening.
1 x sheep's pluck (liver, heart and lungs)
10 x large 'red' (Spanish) onions
2 x table spoons of cooking salt
1 x table spoon each of black pepper, paprika and Jamaican spice allspice.
400 grams of stone-milled oats
400 grams of steel-cut oats
Hearts from chickens, lambs, cows and pigs are all good for cooking and are fairly easy to find. Working as hard as they do during the life of the animal, hearts are very lean, aside from a layer of fat on the outside.
Onions are arguably the world's most widely used ingredient. Spanish onions are the largest, with brown skin and a mild, sweet flavour; brown onions are a smaller variety of yellow onion with an even more pungent flavour, making them a good all-rounder.
Take one sheep's pluck. (The pluck is also known as 'liver and lights', 'lights' meaning heart and lungs. Lungs aren't readily obtainable these days but liver and heart, poached then minced, provide the meat component for a great haggis. The poaching fluid provides the liquid for the oatmeal to absorb.) Wash the offal in cold water and place in large saucepan with enough cold water to cover well.
Add to this the red onions peeled and quartered, the cooking salt, black pepper, paprika and allspice. Cover and cook at slow boil for 2 ¾ hours. During this time, place the stone-milled oats and the steel-cut oats onto a baking tray, roast to a good nutty brown and put aside.
Take the boiled pluck off the stove and allow to cool. Lift out the pluck and the onions to a tray sizeable enough to work in, retain the bree (liquid), break the meat to remove and discard all sinew and unwanted debris, pass the meat and onions through a mincer, using the coarse plate, into a good-sized mixing bowl, add sufficient bree to make a sloppy mix. Add the toasted oats, mix well and taste for seasoning which should be sharp and spiky.
From here you have 2 options: to produce a haggis for ceremonial occasions, or to have a pot haggis for domestic use.
For the first option you will require a sheep's paunch. Soak the paunch in strong brine for 3 days, wash well in cold water, scrape well with a small knife washing constantly. It should now resemble clean, pink, creamy skin. Sew up all slits and holes leaving one reasonable opening, scald for 30 seconds in boiling water, cool in cold water, shake dry and now fill to 4/5 with the meat. Sew up the opening leaving a good length of the string for handling. Place into a good size pot, cover well with water, bring to boil, reduce heat, cook for 2 hours at a medium simmer. Do not allow to boil, it may split the paunch and do not cover the pot while cooking. To de-pot the Haggis, tip the pot carefully to run off most of the water, then gently slide the Haggis out onto a deep sided tray. When cooled slightly remove to the serving tray.
For the second option you will need preferably a 12 centimeter deep crock or enamel tray, grease very well with good beef dripping, put in your Haggis, press evenly and brush well with beef dripping. Bake at medium heat (180 degrees), middle shelf for 1- 1 ½ hours.
May your appetite increase and your stomach rejoice!
The Royal Haggis meat is from venison shoulder joint, heart and liver, and the condiments and meal are the same as for the Highland Haggis and cooked in either the paunch (Ceremonial) or tray (pot) as above.
A delicious Haggis pizza is made by Cosmo Pizza. This pizzeria style Haggis pizza combines the great tastes of Scotland and Italy from a company who have been Italian cooking in Scotland for over 50 years. The combination of mozzarella cheeses, tomatoes and haggis gives a succulent light taste and only takes 8 to 14 minutes to cook depending on the oven temperature. You can purchase Haggis pizza from Tesco and more information can be found at www.cosmoproducts.com who are based in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, Scotland.
The Case of the Exploding Haggis
'Tall tales and true' from the Antipodes ... or is it just another 'McBarks' misadventure ?
Luckily, my good mate Brendan Leach (a piper) and myself (a drummer) are able to source the sheep's 'paunch' via a mutual friend who manages a sheep 'property' (ranch) – Glenn @ 'stinger' Ray. A few years back, we had to prepare some Haggis at very short notice for a forthcoming Regimental Dinner to be held at a local Australian Army unit. 'Stinger' was regrettably unable to oblige with a sheep's paunch at the time. As our home town (Bendigo, in the 'self-governing colony' of Victoria, in the south-east of Australia) has a small-goods specialist catering for the many local butchers, we purchased some very big and thick sausage 'casings' – the sort you'd probably use to prepare those monstrous salamis with.
We laboured for a few hours chopping, frying and boiling, gradually partaking of the better part of a 'slab' (24 bottles) of beer. (I hasten to add that the making of good Haggis brings about a thirst that is almost unquenchable!) As the big moment arrived to place the two Haggises (Haggai ?) into a huge pot for boiling, we found ourselves down to but a few 'tinnies' (cans of beer) left in the 'fridge. As the gas-jet on the stove was abated from boil to simmer, allowing for a half-hour at that, we decided to walk several blocks to the Brougham Arms Hotel (a fine hostelry and 'watering-hole' wi' a good Scots name and the most quenching of ales).
At said hotel, we met up with several friends, and conversation ensued over a few more beverages, as we continued abating the thirst that raged within us. Cutting here to the chase, the trip home took somewhat longer than the trip there, and upon entering Brendan's kitchen we bore witness to a spectacle that no nuclear holocaust would hold a sputtering candle to.
The doors, walls and some of the ceiling were literally (and rather indecently) festooned with that special and delicious dish, of which the famous Robert Burns was so fondly enamoured.
To add to our woes, Brendan's lovely wife, Helen (she of the occasional awesome temper) was due home within the hour. The only saving grace was that one of the two haggises was happily still simmering in about a centimetre of water, blissfully unaware of the sad fate of its tasty wee mate. If ever there was a time in the history of fine food preparation when a secret weapon were needed, it was right about then. 'Squirrel' is beckoned to this scene of mass destruction forthwith …
'Squirrel' is a very big, brindle coloured, much scarred dog – of cross-mastiff breed (with much 'Heinz 57' myriad varieties to boot). 'Squirrel's' agility, for a dog of his size, is legendary; he began his working life at a 'cattle-station' (ranch) in Australia's Northern Territory, the vastness of that cattle-station is about the size of Scotland and Ireland combined. This cattle 'empire' was managed for some years by Brendan's eldest son, Robert. Apart from being a top working dog, 'Squirrel' and his kennel mate - 'Reg' - were just about the best wild-boar hunting dogs ever seen in the territory.
obert moved on to try his luck horse-breaking in the USA, and eventually became rated among the top few 'breakers' over there. However, due to quarantine protocols, 'Squirrel' ended up moving south to the 'self-governing colony of Victoria' to live out his well-earned retirement with Brendan and Helen. In addition to his well entrenched work ethic and reputation as a fierce hunter, 'Squirrel' had an appetite as prodigious as any creature known to man. Within a few minutes, 'Squirrel' was industriously bounding from chair to table to bench-top licking up that Haggis with the success rate of a shoal of frenzied Piranha fish! A sight to behold, dear readers, the likes of which I'm sure I shall never see again.
Not a skerrick of Haggis escaped the roving eye of 'Squirrel'; indeed, at one point we risked both life and limb by holding him up (we were balanced precariously on chairs) whilst he devoured the offerings on the ceiling (along with some cobwebs and a few 'licks' of Dulux white paint). The day was saved, along with the surviving Haggis (cleverly hidden from 'Squirrel's' roving eye). The ensuing Formal Regimental Dinner was a resounding success, and to this day the lovely (but at times a tad tempestuous) Helen has no knowledge of the absolute calamity which befell her kitchen on that (in)famous 'day of the exploding Haggis'.
'Squirrel' retired to his kennel after his legendary performance, and slept soundly for that evening and most of the next day. Helen was heard to remark: "The poor thing's off his food today ... most unusual!" But you, my fellow Celts, now know the truth of what transpired that fateful day. (And ye must also ken the nourishing and tummy-filling properties of such a regal dish.)
Erin go Bragh - and the best of luck to ye all.