Gie me a haggis!
What could haggis possibly have in common with Stromboli? Stromboli is an actively volcanic island off the northern coast of Sicily. Haggis, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “a traditional Scottish dish that consists of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep or calf minced with suet, onions, oatmeal and seasonings boiled in the stomach of the animal.” The frugal, impoverished Scots cooked every part of a sheep they could eat.
Believe it or not, the cafeteria of the 200 year-old New Lanark mill village museum in the Clyde Valley of Scotland serves a “Haggis and Mozzarella Stromboli” for lunch. The piping-hot cheese is the “lava” inside the “volcano” of calzone crust. Haggis takes the place of the usual Italian sausage. It makes for a tasty snack, the culinary counterpart of World Music.
I had been eating a little haggis each morning on a Scotland tour a couple of years ago. At a folklore evening in Edinburgh, I had even had it with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), after it had been properly bag-piped into the room. The haggis lay within the sheep’s stomach during the procession, adorned with a set of antlers on the platter. True to form, the host recited “Address to a Haggis” by Robert Burns (1759-1796):
Fair fa' your honest sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
[Translation from Scots to standard English:
”Fair is your honest happy face
Great chieftain of the pudding race!
Above them all you take your place
Stomach, tripe or guts:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.”]
Burns goes on to “mark the rustic, haggis-fed, /The trembling earth resounds his tread .” (You can read the full poem on the Bartleby.com website.)
In his Larousse Gastronomique, Prosper Montagné observed that ”haggis is normally served wrapped in a well-starched napkin and whiskey is the traditional drink which goes with it.” At the Scottish Evening I attended, however, the haggis was open-faced, and the toast made with wine blended from unnamed European Union sources.
According to the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Britain, haggis is “traditionally served at Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) and on Burns' Night (25 January).” January 25 is Robert Burns’ birthday, and “Address to a Haggis” is part of a ritual that Scots the world over observe almost word for word – and bite for bite. Leslie Harlib (“On Burns Night, Scots and Others Kick Up Homage to an Ornery Poet,” Marin [Calif.] Independent Journal), estimated that “on every continent--and possibly in every country--on the planet, 28 million Scots and people of Scottish heritage (16 million within North America) attend birthday dinners” in honor of Robert Burns. Haggis, neeps, tatties, shortbread, and whiskey are always on the menu.
If you like paté, chances are you’ll enjoy haggis. You may even want to try the recipe for “pot haggis” in the Encyclopedia of European Cooking (edited by Musta Soper), substituting beef liver if the sheep is scarce:
INGREDIENTS: 8 oz. sheep’s liver / 4 oz. beef suet / 2 onions / Water /Salt and pepper /10 oz. oatmeal
INSTRUCTIONS: Cover the liver with water and boil for 40 minutes. Drain and keep the liquid. Mince the liver finely. Parboil the onions, then chop small with the suet. Brown the oatmeal by tossing quickly in a thick pan over the fire. Now combine the minced liver, suet, onions and oatmeal and season with the salt and pepper. Moisten with the liquor in which the liver was boiled. Turn into a greased bowl, cover with greaseproof paper and steam for two hours.
Slainte mhath (“Good health” in Scottish Gaelic)!