Photo Essay: Burn's Night

First posted in January, 2005

For some time (well, about three or four weeks) I have been meaning to write an entry about the experience of eating haggis. When I discovered that January 25th is Burns Night, a holiday to celebrate the (presumed) birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, I figured today would be the day that I would inflict the haggis post upon everyone. Wait! Vegetarians! Don't scroll on just yet! For I shall tell you of the even-more-rare-than-haggis vegetarian haggis! I captured a photo of one, beside a traditional haggis:



Clockwise, in order: Cheap table wine Fine wine and a candle for ambience, a haggis (labeled by the distributor as "The Real Taste of Scotland"), Mash cutting into the haggissy goodness so quickly he is blurry, a bottle of Theakston's Old Peculiar (which I shall miss dearly when I return to the States), and a vegetarian haggis (labeled by the distributor as "The New Taste of Scotland"). I am not kidding about the labels, and wish I'd photographed them side by side.

For the truth about haggis in modern Scotland, I quote my friend Iain:

Haggis-eating isn't nearly as common as people think; most Scottish families only eat haggis two or three times a week, and a growing minority don't even steal their own sheep. However, haggis rivalry is still a pretty big deal in rural areas, and the police tend to turn a blind eye to haggis blood feuds between the clans. For example, there's a traditional rite of passage whereby one will kill a man just to see him die, then pass it off as a haggis-related incident to fool the police. (In the cities, this quaint custom has been somewhat bastardised in recent years—it's now more common to kill a man for his Reeboks, then pass it off as an argument about football.)

"But what is haggis, I mean, really?" you ask. "Is it as bad as I've heard?"

Well, no and yes. No because, well, I thought it was extremely tasty (to my surprise, I assure you) and I would very much like to have another haggis someday. Yes, it's true that the ingredient list includes minced lungs, heart and "trimmings." This is mixed with finely chopped onions, oatmeal, and seasoning, and then cooked in a sheep's stomach.

The vegetarian version, so far as I can tell, is much of the same, but with vegetarian mince standing in for the more unmentionable bits, wrapped in plastic (in either instance, I don't think anyone eats the casing). Almost equally as nummy, only just slightly less so.

But I digress somewhat. It is Burns night. Burns is, perhaps, the most quintessentially Scottish poet the world has known. And supposedly there are people in Scotland tonight who will have the traditional Burns Night supper in honor of the man and his work. They will have haggis with neeps (mashed swede or turnip, extraordinarily yummy) and tatties (mashed potatoes, which are always at the top of my list for foods that I am okay with even if they are slowly killing me). The haggis will be carried from the kitchen with much pomp and circumstance and then, as the "chairman" at the high table ceremonially slices into the haggis so that all may experience its joy, the haggis is addressed in a formal manner:

Address to a Haggis
by Rabbie Burns (1786)

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain of the pudding-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 through your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic labour dight,
And cut you up wi' ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright.
Like ony ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin', rich!

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 like drums;
Then auld guid man, maist like to rive,
"Bethankit!" hums.

Is there that o'er his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi' perfect scunner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! See him owre his trash,
As feckless as 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,
And legs, and arms, and head will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye powers, wah mak mankind your care,
And dish them out with 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!

After the traditional poem and the, um, carving of the haggis, there is much feasting and merriment, presumably accompanied/followed by very large quantities of whiskey.

Ah, to be in Scotland - or to at least have access to a proper kitchen - on this night!

And now, for the truly curious amongst you who have access to a proper kitchen, here is your recipe for haggis (courtesy of BBC):

Haggis
Preparation time: overnight
Cooking time: over 2 hours

Ingredients

1 sheep's stomach or ox secum, cleaned and thoroughly, scalded, turned inside out and soaked overnight in cold salted water
heart and lungs of one lamb
450g/1lb beef or lamb trimmings, fat and lean
2 onions, finely chopped
225g/8oz oatmeal
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground dried coriander
1 tsp mace
1 tsp nutmeg
water, enough to cook the haggis
stock from lungs and trimmings

Method

1.    Wash the lungs, heart and liver (if using). Place in large pan of cold water with the meat trimmings and bring to the boil. Cook for about 2 hours.
2.    When cooked, strain off the stock and set the stock aside.
3.    Mince the lungs, heart and trimmings.
4.    Put the minced mixture in a bowl and add the finely chopped onions, oatmeal and seasoning. Mix well and add enough stock to moisten the mixture. It should have a soft crumbly consistency.
5.    Spoon the mixture into the sheep's stomach, so it's just over half full. Sew up the stomach with strong thread and prick a couple of times so it doesn't explode while cooking.
6.    Put the haggis in a pan of boiling water (enough to cover it) and cook for 3 hours without a lid. Keep adding more water to keep it covered.
7.    To serve, cut open the haggis and spoon out the filling. Serve with neeps (mashed swede or turnip) and tatties (mashed potatoes).

My favorite bit of the recipe is: sew up the stomach with strong thread and prick a couple of times so it doesn't explode while cooking. Can you imagine the mess an exploding haggis would make in your oven? Crikey!

But seriously, it's delightful and gives you that I-have-just-feasted-like-Henry-the-Eighth sort of feeling and if you have occasion to try it and are so inclined, I recommend it highly.



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