The Burn's Night haggis is the Cheiftain O'Puddings. Even though it's not purely Scottish and can be eaten without whisky, we'd recommend serving it in all its glory on 25th January
The Burn’s night haggis comes to the fore on 25 January, when diners around the world raise a glass to the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race”, as Robert Burns eulogised the haggis. Often eaten with a dram of whisky and piped in with ceremony, the haggis makes a great winter supper too. Although our top 10 best pheasant recipes and best trout recipes are there to turn to if haggis is not to taste.
HOW IS HAGGIS MADE
A Burn’s Night haggis is made in many different ways but usually includes the pluck of a sheep (lungs, heart and liver), onions, oats, fat and seasoning, all stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach. Why is this curious dish still on the table? A Burn’s Night haggis is not quite what it seems. First, it’s not just Scottish. Eminent food historian Ivan Day has a blog that challenges the false histories that grow up around food. He says that haggis is a pan-British dish rather than solely from north of the Border.
Day has found 11 medieval recipes, all of them in manuscripts from England. Half refer to haggis and some have other names such as an “entrayle”. The “hag” part of the name comes from the Old Norse “to cleave”, describing the chopped-up offal. The dish was originally made to preserve the perishable innards of a slaughtered animal and is closely related to the original puddings, which were boiled dishes that weren’t necessarily sweet. In this way, haggis is similar to black pudding.
“One of the reasons we moved away from haggis in England is that we cooked puddings in cloths rather than animal skins and stomachs – in a sense, we eventually found them disgusting. We changed and the Scots didn’t. The haggis got marooned and then became a symbol of Scottishness” says Day.
Friends of Robert Burns gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the poet’s birthday. The tradition of the Burns’ Night supper stuck and the Burn’s Night haggis became the centre of a celebratory meal. Despite its seemingly humble ingredients, haggis was always a dish fit for feasts, according to Day.
But chefs and home cooks are now using the Burn’s Night haggis as an ingredient all year round, not just on Burns’ Night. Gastropub chef Trish Hilferty offers a haggis toastie as one of her bar snacks at The Canton Arms in Stockwell. Stephen Bull, one of the first good chefs to go down the gastropub route, serves haggis fritters in beer batter with a beetroot relish at The Butchers Arms in Herefordshire. Haggis also features in his “farmer’s breakfast” fry-up. “It’s got an intense flavour and when you get it from a good butcher it’s better than most black puddings you find,” he says.
Bull’s haggis comes from Macsween, a family company based in Edinburgh, that sells to supermarkets and butchers. Unusually, the Macsween recipe doesn’t use liver and this may be one factor in its success.
In 1984 John Macsween invented veggie haggis using pulses, nuts and vegetables. It now accounts for one in four of the haggises the company sells. To woo younger home cooks, it has now created the one-minute haggis, a quick-cook slice for the microwave. Macsween sells haggis all year, although a third of its sales are in January when the company shifts an impressive 300 tonnes of the stuff.
Trish Hilferty’s haggis comes from The Blackface Meat Company, a high-quality online butcher based in south-west Scotland. It is also sold at one of London’s best butchers, C Lidgate in Holland Park. Danny Lidgate describes the haggis as deliciously peppery, rustic and full of flavour.
Ben Weatherall of Blackface says haggis is a taste that translates to other cultures. When some Italian chefs came over for a shoot, they made their own haggis ravioli. “It was really good,” says Ben. “They think haggis is delicious.” His innovation is to stuff pheasant breasts with haggis to counteract what can be a dry meat.
The adventurous might like to make their own haggis. But be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Fergus Henderson of St John restaurant in London, famed for its nose-to-tail eating, starts his recipe, “Do not be put off by the initial look of your ingredients”, before telling you to leave the windpipe of the lungs hanging over the edge of a pan with a dish below to catch what the lungs expel during cooking.
This sounds like some sort of hocus-pocus joke but F Marian McNeill, author of the classic cookbook The Scots Kitchen, recommends the same technique. Fergus Henderson likes Dijon mustard with his haggis, a nice reference to the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland. Food writer Christopher Trotter echoes this by sometimes partnering haggis with claret rather than whisky. “Leith Docks were where barrels of claret came in from Bordeaux,” he says. “People would have had whisky but claret was drunk at the grand tables.”
Trotter is hard core about how haggis is eaten, perhaps jaded by seeing it used to stuff chicken breasts as a sop to the tourists in Scottish restaurants. “In my opinion, haggis should be served as haggis, with bashed neeps and mashed potatoes,” he concludes.
When it comes to this curious remnant of the medieval table, some like to play around and many will want to stick to tradition. But, however you catch and cook your haggis, here’s to honouring the chieftain.