Skip to comments.Haggis, the Food of Poets (Well, One Scottish Poet)
Posted on 11/22/2002 6:23:05 AM PST by jordan8
EDINBURGH, Nov. 14 Consider the haggis and you may well wonder how it inspired a rhapsodic poem, became Scotland's national dish and touched off an incipient rebellion when Britain's food safety office hinted that it might ban it.
Swaddled tightly in the yellowed stomach lining of a sheep, a mixture of congealed fat, onions, pinhead oatmeal, stock and the cut-up heart, lungs and liver of the animal has a lumpen look that even the eulogizing poet, Robert Burns, compared to the sight of bare buttocks.
People squeamish at the idea of eating haggis get little comfort from Burns's description of what happens when the knife slices its intestinal skin and sends the minced offal spilling out:
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
But don't go making any sausage factory jokes around the makers of this misunderstood delicacy. "We only hire people who can convince me that they have a real passion for it," said Jo Macsween, 34, co-director with her brother James, 30, of the family business, Macsween of Edinburgh, which turns out more than 500 tons of the stuff a year.
And don't tell the Macsweens that haggis has an image problem. They just let go a designer who proposed new packaging that they found offensive. "He wanted to cover it up," Jo Macsween explained.
This summer, Britain's Food Standards Agency asked the European Commission to look into the possibility of a link between mad cow disease and sheep and whether it might make haggis consumption dangerous. In mid-September, the commission concluded there was no evidence of any link and therefore no danger, but the barricades that have often demarcated this warrior land from the rest of Britain were already up.
Newspapers ran "save the haggis" campaigns, and Scotland's writers brandished their pens. "Anything gushing or reeking is anathema to an agency determined to promote the idea of food as pasteurized, sanitized, sterilized, and probably savorless," said Magnus Linklater, who writes a column from Scotland for The Times of London. "Add the word entrails, and they reach for the rule book."
As emblematic of this dark and rugged land as shortbread, tartan and foul weather, haggis is today more popular than ever. It is traditionally served with "neeps and tatties" mashed turnip and mashed potato preceded by single malt whiskey and chased down with red wine. With its customary seasoning base of spices like Jamaica pepper, mace and nutmeg, it is surprisingly refined in taste to the first-time sampler.
"People have the wrong concept of what haggis is until they try it because all they've heard is that it's full of guts, it's full of brains, they just pick up these tales," said James Macsween. "We have a phrase, `He who tastes knows.' "
When increasing numbers of people in recent years began to shun meat, the Scottish sense of respecting tradition came face to face with the Scottish sense of being sharp at business. Commerce won out, and Edinburgh's haggis makers now make vegetarian versions, using kidney beans, lentils and a mixture of vegetables and nuts in place of meat. "We all turn our noses up at it, but when it comes to making money, we'll make anything," said Sandy Crombie, 62, of Crombies of Edinburgh, Purveyor of Fine Foods.
Mr. Crombie said he also had begun to make halal haggis, prepared in accordance with ritual slaughter, for Muslim customers, and Mr. Macsween produced a list of recipes for red peppers stuffed with haggis, "wee cocktail haggis" canapés and pasta fillings. "You haven't lived until you've had haggis ravioli," he said.
Despite having bested the people they deride as the "health police" this fall, the haggis makers of Edinburgh are wary of their return.
"The last person from the environmental department who was here almost made me cry," said Alex Smith, 58, a butcher who specializes in game as well as haggis. "I have new floors, new fridges, new walls, new doors, a new water system, and he was down on his hands and knees under the counter looking for dust. I told him he was worse than my wife."
The custom of cooking the innards of an animal in its own natural vessel of a stomach bag probably came here from Scandinavia on Viking longboats, and haggis gained its honor as Scotland's national dish in 1786 through the Burns poem "Address to the Haggis."
It is recited every year on Jan. 25 at ceremonies marking his birthday, with the haggis being ushered into the room on a silver platter by a kilted bagpiper and toasted with whiskey once the dinner chairman has stabbed it with his dagger.
All of Edinburgh's butcher shops give pride of place on their walls to portraits of Burns.
"Really it's that poem that made haggis Scottish," said Jo Macsween. "It started that Scottish spirit of `don't give me that fancy French food, if you want to fight and be strong, you've got to have a haggis.' We are so grateful to that man."
A haggis on a plate:
An alpaca named haggis:
The Regimental march of the French Foreign Legion is "Le Boudin"
Tiens, voila' du boudin. voila' du boudin, voila' du boudin,
Pour les Alsaciens, les Suisse et les Lorrains,
Pour les Belges, y en a plus, pour les Belges, y en a plus ,
Ce sont des tireurs au cul. ( Bis )
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!