World of Mouth: Address to a Haggis

The column that brings you festivals from around the world; this week, why does the birth of poet Robert Burns make Scots eat a sheep's insides stuffed in its own stomach?

haggis 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haggis 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
Haggis, Neeps, Tatties, Cock-a-Leekie, Bannocks, Cranachan and Cullen Skink.
No, these are not characters from The Lord of the Rings. Rather, they are some of the dishes that are being eaten by Scottish people all over the world this week. Tuesday, January 25 is Burns Night, the time when Scots celebrate the birth of the revered Scottish poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796). The tradition is to hold a “Burns Supper” during which there is plenty of good food, poetry, songs and laughter.
A Burns supper usually includes a variety of traditional Scottish dishes with some more prepared to stretch the limits of convention than others (one commenter on the Internet reasoned that since Robert Burns had once dreamed of moving to Jamaica, she thought jerk chicken would be an appropriate addition to the meal).
But let’s get back to those dishes I mentioned before, the ones that sound as though they can only be properly pronounced by a grizzled man in a kilt (or a hobbit). The undeniable star of any Burns Supper is the haggis, a dish containing the lungs, liver and heart of a sheep. The offal is mixed with oats, suet (beef or sheep fat) and spices, and then stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. Indeed. Even Larousse Gastronomique states (in what is somewhat of an understatement) that "its description is not immediately appealing.”
So perhaps it isn’t for everyone. Nevertheless, it is undeniably Scotland’s national dish of pride (although there is some conflict over from where haggis actually originates) and Robert Burns even composed an entire poem all about it called “Address to a Haggis.” Naturally the poem is read at Burns Suppers when the haggis is brought out to great fanfare. Bagpipes (real or recorded) are played, and when the person reciting the poem reaches the part where it says,
‘An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight
Trenching your gushing entrails bright’
they are supposed to start stabbing at the haggis with a large knife (the more dramatically this is done, the better).
Actually, haggis seems to show up an offal lot (sorry) in poetry. Here is it in William Dunbar’s Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, a poem dating back to before 1520.
Thy fowll front had, and he that Bartilmo flaid; The gallowis gaipis eftir thy graceles gruntill, As thow wald for ane haggeis, hungry gled.”
Granted it is nearly impossible to tell what exactly is being said here, but the words hungry and “haggeis” are clear enough.
Luckily, for those who can’t quite stomach (the puns, they keep coming!) the idea of eating haggis, there are plenty of other delicious dishes common at Burns Suppers that don’t involve sheep innards.
As a starting course, the Burns Night revelers will often indulge in a bit of Cock-a-Leekie soup, a warming dish made from chicken, vegetables, including leeks, and prunes. Other soup possibilities are Scotch Broth (made with barley, lamb or mutton and root vegetables), or (containing smoked haddock and potatoes).
Along with their haggis, supper attendees are sure to enjoy some “neeps and tatties” (mashed rutabaga or turnip and potatoes,) and perhaps some bannocks (oatcakes) as well. For dessert there might be Clootie Dumpling (a boiled pudding made with oatmeal, suet, dried fruit, sugar and spices) or Cranachan (a sort of parfait made with oats, raspberries, cream and whiskey).
If the idea of haggis appeals to you, there are plenty of recipes out there to try, all with their own “secret” ingredients.
This recipe from “Traditional Scottish Recipes” contains a bit of cayenne pepper, and this one from BBC Food has mace, nutmeg and coriander. People in Scotland can just pick up a haggis up at their local butcher or at the supermarket (apparently there are even canned versions). Outside of Scotland, people may have a few more difficulties, especially because in some countries (including the United States), the import of haggis has been banned for years due to food safety fears.
For those interested in experiencing a wee bit of Burns Supper for themselves, why not try this delicious recipe for a traditional Scotch Broth from food historian and writer Anjila K. Olsen (from the blog “Alice the Cook.”
Scotch Broth Serves 6
2 lbs. of stewing lamb with bones 6 cups of cold water 3 TB of barley, washed 2 onions, finely chopped ½ head of a small cabbage, shredded 2 carrots, peeled and diced 2 celery stalks, diced 1 bay leaf 1/2 tsp of thyme 3 TB parsley, finely chopped 1/2 tsp of sea salt black pepper to taste
Place the lamb in a large casserole or a dutch oven. Cover with cold water.Cover pan with lid and simmer for one hour. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for one more hour. Discard bay leaf. Remove lamb. Separate mean from bones. Discard the bones and shred the meat into small pieces. Return meat to pot and simmer for 5 more minutes.
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