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.”
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Traditional Haggis (Customary for Robert Burns 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