Haggis is as Scottish as Stewart tartan or the thistle on the royal crest, a dish that speaks eloquently of this land’s rugged history and resourcefulness. More important, this often maligned meat is delicious, especially when garnished with a sprinkling of that other Scottish icon – whiskey.
Born of the grim necessities of making do with whatever was at hand, haggis is made from an assortment of less-used lamb meats, including liver, kidneys and other pieces-parts. These are ground and mixed with Scottish oats, onion and seasonings, then stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, just as sausage meat is stuffed into lengths of pig intestine, which we euphemize as “sausage casings.”
After several hours cooking, the flavors blend and mellow into a savory dish that doesn’t taste like any of its ingredients; there’s no trace of liver or even lamb, just a flavorful slightly crumbly dish that somewhat resembles roast-beef hash. But instead of potatoes, it has Scottish whole oats to give it a pleasant, slightly chewy mouthfeel.
Haggis gets its bad rap in two ways: not all haggis is created equal, and some people simply balk at any mention of organ meat (though they don’t turn up their noses at a nicely seared foie gras, despite its organy origin).
The reverence with which Scots regard the haggis is perhaps best exemplified by the ceremony that attends its presentation, especially when Scots gather on January 25 to observe the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. While it may be found at breakfast, served with tattie scones piping hot off the griddle, haggis is accorded a state reception at dinner, when properly presented with a skirl of bagpipes and the recitation of Burns’ Address to a Haggis.
I’d heard the haggis saluted before, but never so splendidly – nor, I must admit, so stirringly – as by a fellow passenger on board the Hebridean Princess. After the ship’s own piper had heralded the haggis into the dining room on its silver tray, this passenger, in full kilt livery, proclaimed the glories of the dish in Burns’ words, beginning:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, but what other food is accorded such honors before it’s slain with a dirk?