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Across the Pond | Haggis Heaven

Week two of my visit to England saw us heading  north to the Lake District, a most beautiful part of England where there are an abundance of {very} large hills and, not surprisingly, lakes.  Lake Winderemere, the largest lake in England is in the Lake District & we were destined for a lovely little town nestled on it’s shores: Bowness.

When you’re in England, the further north you go (not that’s it’s a very big country mind you) the more likely you are to encounter haggis on the menu and in the butchers (meat counters).  If you’re in Scotland, it’s everywhere – from Gretna to John O’ Groats, from haggis burgers to haggis bhaji.  While we weren’t going as far as Scotland, we were definitely stepping into haggis territory & eating haggis while in the Lake District has become one of my brother’s family traditions.  I was more than game to join in.  I had haggis once before, some 18 or so years earlier when I was invited to a Burns Night Supper, which at such events haggis is the star of the show.  My memory of haggis is dim, but I do remember that I ate it & I don’t remember that hated it.  My memory is not dim about the wee Scottish lassie who hosted the dinner.  (Heather! Where ARE you??)  A diminutive  red head who always had the most perfectly coiffed hair & who looked nowhere near her then 40-odd years (maybe  eating haggis has rejuvenating benefits?)  With a charming & bubbly personality & a soft Scottish lilt to her voice, Heather was definitely one of those hostesses with the mostest.  It was because of Heather’s hair that I began an almost 2-decade-long hair affair (no, not a REAL affair) with John, who was the only person allowed to cut my hair even after I left the English shores for America almost 10 years ago.  I am mildly embarrassed to report that I have only recently managed to cut that cord.  Having your hairdresser in Reading, England when you live in Seattle, USA isn’t always the most convenient arrangement.

Anyway…back to the haggis.  As with most things it seems these days, there’s a proper version & a new-fangled version.  My brother, being a bit of a purist, wanted proper haggis.  Proper haggis comes in a bung…a white bag made out of sheep’s stomach.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  Sheep’s stomach.  I think I may have forgotten to mention that this particular post is not for the faint-hearted or those with a weak constitution.

I guess I had better just cut to the chase at this point and explain to the uninitiated what haggis is.  Well,  haggis is offal mixed with oatmeal, onion, suet, spices & salt.  There!  That doesn’t sound too bad now does it.  What?  Offal?  What’s offal??  Oh.  I was kinda hoping you wouldn’t go there, but, I’ve gone this far so I may as well go all the way.  Offal is all those bits of a sheep that you probably wouldn’t roast:  lungs, heart, liver, kidneys…you get the idea.  So haggis is simply some of those things mixed with all that lovely oatmeal & stuff.  Then it’s packed into bungs (see above) & sealed.  Voila!  If you want to discover the whole fascinating deal on haggis you can go here, where you’ll find all you ever wanted to know (or probably wished you didn’t know once you’ve read it).  Alternatively, if you prefer to stay steadfastly in denial that people actually eat haggis, you may prefer this definition.

So, having found a couple of very fine looking proper haggi at the local butchers shop, we hurried home to prepare them for the ritual Bowness family haggis dinner.  Haggis comes pre-cooked, so all you really need to do is heat it through.  This is best accomplished by wrapping each haggis in foil, placing in a saucepan of boiling water & simmering over a low heat until they are hot all the way through.  My brother reliably informs me that this would take about an hour.

The heating of the Haggi

Haggi fresh from the pan

Haggis are traditionally served with “neeps & tatties” & it seemed very reasonable, having gone to the trouble of finding proper haggi, to then serve it in the proper manner.  Neeps are mashed swede (rutabaga) & tatties are potatoes.

The tatties were  mashed & so were the neeps.  The steaming bowl of root vegetables placed on the table & seconds later the haggis joined them & the cutting ceremony was about to commence.   Unfortunately we didn’t have any bagpipes lying around to lead Mark (the ceremonial haggis server) to the table.  Neither was Mark wearing a kilt.  Also unfortunately, we did not have a copy of Address to the Haggis (see below) so that we could properly welcome the haggis to the table.  And maybe most unfortunately, one of the bungs had burst while the haggis was heating.  Makes not a jot of difference to the flavor of the haggis, it just meant there was only one bung to ceremoniously pierce. Once pierced, large spoonfuls of haggis, tatties & neeps are piled on a plate & onion gravy poured over the top.

#1 haggis de-bunged

An' cut you up wi' ready slicht (from Burns' famous poem)

So what does haggis taste like?  Well, it’s rather like a strong-tasting plate of minced beef (hamburger) but with a nuttier flavor & coarser texture.  This haggis was quite peppery, which added a nice little punch to the proceedings.  All in all haggis, tatties & neeps is a jolly fine, robust country meal.  Fantastic after a good long hike in the hills.  No, I didn’t take a good long hike in the hills before I tucked into this dinner, but I can totally see how it would be a brilliantly rib-sticking plate of comfort after such exertion.  Especially in winter.

Haggis, Neeps & Tatties

Haggis Heaven

And for my many American readers & friends….look!  Haggis can’t be all bad.  Alton Brown even did a show about haggis, although his recipe is not proper haggis since it contains no lungs.  For some reason the sale of sheep lungs is illegal in the US.  You guys don’t know what you’re missing out on.

If you’re ever in England or Scotland, try some haggis.  If you have to remain in denial about it’s origin in order to get it passed your lips, that’s  fine.  I am sure once you’ve tasted it you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. 


 Address Tae The Haggis (see a live Haggis ceremony) (English translation below)

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Bethankit! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckles as wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ blody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned,
Like taps o’ trissle.

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!


Address To The Haggis

Nice seeing your honest, chubby face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Belly, tripe, or links:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

The groaning platter there you fill,
Your buttocks like a distant hill,
Your pin would help to mend a mill
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distill
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour sharpen,
And cut you up with practiced skill,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, Oh what a glorious sight,
Warm-steaming, rich!

Then, spoon for spoon, they stretch and strive:
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
‘Til all their well-swollen bellies soon
Are tight as drums;
Then old Master, most likely to burst,
‘Thanks Be’ hums.

Is there one, that over his French ragout,
Or olio that would give pause to a sow,
Or fricassee that would make her spew
With perfect loathing,
Looks down with sneering, scornful view
On such a dinner?

Poor devil! See him over his trash,
As feeble as a withered rush,
His spindly leg a good whip-lash,
His fist a nit:
Through bloody flood or field to dash,
Oh how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his sturdy fist a blade,
He’ll make it whistle;
And legs and arms, and heads will cut,
Like tops of thistle.

You Pow’rs, that make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery ware
That slops in bowls:
But, if You wish her grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!

Now THAT is culture :-)

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