The singer Andy M. Stewart claims he once had to declare a canned haggis at U.S. Customs. When asked what was in it he replied, “That’s the point; nobody knows.”
Haggis is Scotland’s unofficial national dish, but few nations can claim a more maligned one. There are no haggis recipes on www.epicurious.com and the dish has been the butt of jokes by everyone from Glaswegian comic Billy Connolly to the Duke of York, who called it a “boiled pair of bagpipes.” Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard, dubbed haggis the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race,” but few thought him serious given subsequent lines extolling “paunch, tripe” and guts, and “gushing entrails bright.”
Even haggis processors have a hard time taking their livelihood seriously. McKean Foods of Glasgow sponsors a yearly haggis hurling championship. Those up for a challenge might want to try to break Alan Pettigrew’s decades-old record; in 1984, he chucked a 1 1/2-pound haggis an astonishing 180 feet, 10 inches. There’s even a website lampooning haggis as a small four-legged animal vigorously hunted by Scottish sportsmen.
Perhaps it’s the ingredients. Granted, a mixture of oatmeal, onions, spices and sheep offal can sound off-putting, especially when traditionally prepared by being stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and steamed for five hours. Then again, North Americans eat dishes that rival haggis on the don’t-think-about-it scale, like giblet gravy, scrapple, trotters, beef tongue and chicken gizzards. Plus, it’s best not to ask too many questions about what goes into that staple of Americana: hotdogs. So here’s the skinny on haggis: it may be offal, but it’s not awful. In fact, it’s extremely tasty, especially in the hands of a master chef like Stephen Bonomi of the award-winning Airsaig Restaurant at 24 Candleriggs Street in Glasgow’s trendy Merchant City district.
Bonomi is part of a wave of Scottish chefs devoted to rejuvenating the image of Scottish food like haggis, even though he’s a confirmed vegetarian. “Scotland’s greatest secret is Scotland itself,” he asserts. “We don’t beat our culinary drum like the Italians, the Americans or the French, but there’s fantastic food here. From a chef’s point of view, I’m sick and tired of French food. It’s been done to death and hasn’t moved on. I want to put Scottish food on the map.”
You don’t need an iron constitution to indulge in Bonomi’s quest. First off, the modern haggis isn’t stuffed into a sheep’s stomach. “That’s only done for special occasions, like Robert Burns’ birthday [January 25],” notes Bonomi. “It’s not practical to make it from scratch and I doubt the health inspectors would allow us to prepare it in our kitchen.”
Several firms mass produce haggis meat, the largest being MacSween’s of Edinburgh, which churns out a ton per day. It goes to market in a shrink-wrapped tube resembling a giant liverwurst.
“Scotland is what’s on her plate,” Bonomi notes. “Politics and land have shaped our food. The landowners didn’t leave much for the crofters [tenant farmers] to eat, so nothing got wasted. Eating seaweed is another example of this; it was a great source of protein for people who lacked it. Haggis for Scots was like colcannon for the Irish poor. You used what was available. Potatoes have been a staple in both places as well. We have 38 different types of mash in Scotland. I tell people that our menu is straight out of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song.”
Bonomi is serious about doing things the old way. His restaurant is named for a western peninsula that’s a gateway to the Isle of Skye and is renowned for its seafood, which he has trucked to his namesake restaurant. Bonomi also pays frequent visits, sometimes spending time in the kitchens of the old folks to see how food is prepared. That said, most modern chefs use the past as the basis for innovation. Airsaig’s menu, for example, offers a chicken fillet cru
Traditional Haggis (Customary for Robert Burns's Birthday)
1 cleaned sheep’s stomach
2 lbs. oatmeal (not quick oats)
1 lb. beef suet
1 lb. lamp’s liver (boiled)
1 sheep’s heart and lungs (boiled)
2 1/2 cups beef stock
1 chopped onion (parboiled)
1/2 tsp. cayenne
Black pepper and salt to taste
Brown the oatmeal and mince and mix all the other ingredients. Stuff into sheep’s stomach and press to remove air. Sew the stomach shut, and pierce it in several places to allow steam to escape. Place in boiling water and steam for 4 to 5 hours.
1 lb. lamb cut into pieces
1/2 lb. lamp liver diced
1/2 cup water
1 chopped onion
1 cup oatmeal
1 egg 1/2 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. black pepper
Ginger, cloves, oatmeal to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use food processor to mince half of the lamb and all of the other ingredients except the oats. Add oats and remainder of lamp to processed mixture. Shape into greased loaf pan and bake for 45-55 minutes until center is firm. Allow to cool for five minutes, then turn out into plate.