The big Scot stood in the middle of the room, wearing a kilt and sporran, and brandishing a long, serrated knife. Could it be someone slighted the honor of the Haggis?
Haggis. It’s one of those foods that most have heard of, but given a chance to try, will say “um, no thanks, I’ll pass.” Why would it have such a notorious reputation, but still be so popular with the Scots?
And, given the chance, would I risk my taste buds to something that makes so many say “ew, yuk?”
For those who aren’t clued in, haggis is a mysterious concoction of “stuff”, stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. Sounds tasty, eh? As for what the “stuff” is, I’ll just pass on an old quote about its cousin the sausage: “There are two things nobody should ever have to watch being made, sausage and laws.” It seems it’s better not to know.
Salivating yet? No?
Maybe it’s not so bad. Scotland’s favorite son, poet Robert Burns, penned a poem in 1787 to honor the haggis. They wrap entire “Burns Suppers” around this culinary delight, with Burns’ poem serving as both an ode and a toast. It was at something like this that I first encountered haggis.
We made an excursion to Stirling Castle – well at least to the outside. There we met up with a Scottish piper who regaled us with a bunch of history I remember little of. The gist? They consider Stirling Castle, about 25 miles NE of Glasgow, the gateway to the highlands. There it played an important role with the English crown trying to deal with the unruly Scots which among others, include William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other Braveheart characters.
But of more import, after his spiel, our talkative Scot piped us down the hill to dinner.
I don’t remember what the entrée was that night. I do remember the piper introduced us to Robbie Burns’ poem; his tribute to haggis with all its olde dialect and dramatic inflection.
But first, he had to pipe in the haggis. After volunteering a guest they retired to a side room. Then, the piping began. The piper marched in, skirling away, followed by the guest who carried the haggis on a silver plater.
You may have heard bagpipes outside, from a block away. Can you imagine how loud they are in an enclosed room?
After piping in the haggis, he introduced the Robert Burns poem and addressed the haggis. Here’s the first stanza. Add your own dramatic inflection.
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 worthy o‘ a grace
As lang‘s my arm.
This went on for another seven verses, each as incomprehensible as the first.
Afterward, he did it again, only in more modern language. But this time he pulled out a big knife, and at a dramatic moment in the poem he sliced the haggis open. And when the poem ended, we raised our glasses and toasted the haggis.
Frankly, the modern language version was only marginally more comprehensible than the old one. The gist of it, as best as I can make out, is that haggis is a meal for real men; other dishes are for weaklings.
After the toast, he invited the real men and women to sample the haggis. Some of us took him up on it, others, “um, no thanks, I’ll pass.”
I had to try it, no more feeling sheepish for me. The flavor was surprisingly good. Much spicier than I expected, savory, peppery, but not hot. The texture was a little odd, maybe a bit sticky.
Call me weird, call me Scottish (and there is a bit of that in the family tree), call me too canny to ask what the meat is that’s mixed with the oatmeal and spices, but I kinda liked the stuff.
So when, a few days later, a “haggis stack with a mustard and whiskey sauce” showed up on the menu as an entrée, I had to go for it. It was even tastier than the first one, and the texture maybe not quite as odd.
And if you’re thinking the meat that goes into a haggis has questionable sources, like its riffraff cousin the hot dog, consider this article from the Veterinary Record. Circa 2007, it covers reproductive management of Dux Magnus Gentis Venteris Saginati, AKA the wild haggis. It’s not your usual dry medical paper. Dry wit, maybe.
So if you find yourself with a chance to try the haggis, set aside what you think it’ll taste like and forego the “um, no thanks, I’ll pass.” You may even end up raising a glass in its honor.