You take the high road…I’ll catch the haggis

I was lucky enough to live in Scotland for six years in the 90s. Whilst there I naturally took to the mighty haggis. Jane and I often went to a pub in the Grass Market in Edinburgh called ‘The Last Drop.’ A suitably alcoholic sounding name but it actually, and rather macabrely, refers to the fact that they used to hang people in the square outside! Nice! They served a really good haggis, neeps and tatties.I had tried cooking it before in my life but I think I treated it like black pudding and it frequently exploded in the pan, causing a hell of a stink! I now wrap it in foil and pop it in a roasting dish surrounded by about an inch of water and all is swell. In the olden days the preparation of a Haggis went something like this :- Take the liver, lungs & heart of a sheep and boil them. Mince the meats and mix with chopped onions, toasted oatmeal, salt, pepper, and spices. Take one properly cleaned sheep’s stomach. Stuff the cleaned stomach with the prepared contents. Sew up the stomach (leaving enough room for expansion to avoid a large messy explosion) and boil. Serve and eat. Lovely ! Okay! Now you’ve returned from the bathroom, be reassured that modern Haggis prepared in Scotland is not so gruesome. The best meats are selected, (including tripe and offal) and prepared with finest oatmeal and spices…..but served in a synthetic skin which is representative of the old technique. The quality manufacturers of Haggis in Scotland pride themselves in their guarded secret recipes and prepare the Haggis to exacting standards. Haggis has a higher quality of content than your average “sausage”…..and is extremely healthy…..so please don’t be put off! Nowadays, there are even vegetarian versions made from the finest Scottish produce. For me the best are made by McSweenys. The origin of haggis is fascinating. In the days when hunting was a means of basic survival, all parts of the dead animal had to be used. The skins were used as clothing, the gut and tissue used as thread for sewing, with the main carcass and organs used as food. The bulk content meat was often dried or salted and proved suitable for a long “shelf life” The innards and organs of the beast were the most perishable parts and had to be consumed first. Someone, somewhere, sometime, recognised that the stomach made an excellent cooking vessel, and that mixing the organs with spices and meal, placing them in this natural “pot” and cooking the contents provided a highly nutritional and tasty meal. This basic method of cooking has been traced back to Greek and Roman times. The name “Haggis” however has its origins in more recent history and links are shown to Scandinavian “hag” meaning to “hew” or the French “hageur” – “to cut” or German “hackwurst” meaning “minced sausage” Who knows ! It is difficult to identify exactly when the great Scottish “haggis” as described by Burns, came to be. For sure, in his day, and during the 18th century, the now famous meal was regularly served in Scotland as a tasty, and very healthy meal. It is, as you all know, traditionally served with neeps and tattles. The use of and meaning of the word ‘neeps‘ has been a bone of contention in our household for many a long year ( you clearly need to get out more, I hear you cry! ) We were usually served swedes with the haggis, not turnips. My wife always insisted that we were eating neeps, and she called a swede a turnip. For a long while I thought that perhaps North Easterners had just never seen actual turnips. However, it turns out that there is often confusion about the differences between the turnip and the Swede. The Swede ‘Brassica napobrassiac ‘ is from Sweden (unsurprisingly ! ) and was introduced to the UK as the Swedish turnip and the name later became shortened to Swede. To add to the confusion the Swede is often known as a turnip or neep in Scotland and the turnip goes by same name. Indeed the word turnip comes from the Scottish word ‘neep’. I hope you are still with me! The Americans, however, or so I believe, call the Swede a rutabaga, which comes from the Swedish word ‘rotabagge.’ However, in some parts of the States, the Rutabaga is called the yellow turnip and the turnip is known as the white turnip. So, my wife is not alone in this serious root veg confusion! Whatever, (everyone breathes a sigh of relief as I get back to the point!) haggis is a terrific dish and rightly deserves its accolade afforded it by the great bard Robbie Burns as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race.’ We hold a Burns Supper each February, with poems, music, and of course whisky and haggis. A dash of whisky over the haggis just before you eat it adds an interesting twist to the flavour also. I have to include, at the top of my sight on the Pages, just in case you ever hold a Burns Supper, Burns’ address to the haggis. You have to work at the accent but after several wee drams of whisky – the water of life – you lose your inhibitions and sound really authentic…well, maybe not to everyone else….and not to a Scot….as my good friend Colin Turnbull, a bon viveur and Scot through and through, never tired of reminding me just how bad my accent was! Cheers!

4 thoughts on “You take the high road…I’ll catch the haggis

  1. I have learnt a lot from you today, especially about Robert Burns the Poet and Burns Supper (when you serve the Scottish National Dish, Haggis as main course, with tatties and neeps (swede) cooked separately). Robert Burns was born in July like me, so I won’t forget that, I have also learnt that you call potatoes, tatties and the swede is known as turnip or neeps in Scotland and this causes confusion. For me there is no confusion between a turnip and a swede (called rutabaga in US, Canada or yellow turnip) because I’m a botanist by profession and the swede is a cross between the cabbage and the turnip, and the turnip is a turnip (Brassica rapa var rapa). Incidentally I spent some time at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew during my studies, some years back. I loved the taking a walk in the gardens (Kew Gardens) and we had “wine tasting sessions’ several times that left everybody giggling and happy at the end. Enjoy the rest of the week and thanks for educating me!!! It was fun reading this post, I enjoyed it.

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  2. Pingback: Dinner (It Was Haggis!) at the Doric in Edinburgh | Seattle Foodshed

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