Haggis is probably one of the oldest dishes from these islands (perhaps excepting mammoth carpaccio); it is thought that the Romans brought over the recipe, or as near as damn it. Their army, with carefully-thought through provisioning that could be carried and eaten on the march, must have been the BC equivalent to the Yanks with tinned food in the Great War. Nobody seems to know when it sealed its reputation as a Scottish dish, but it pops up in the earliest English cookery. Dorothy Hartley in Food in England gives a 1300 recipe for it, involving a pluck, tallow and womb, and if this isn’t offputting enough, a picture showing “pluck boiling, with wind pipe hung out.” There is a similar recipe, recorded by one of Richard II’s cooks in the earliest surviving English cookbook, The Form of Cury (cookery) from 1390.
I was inspired to make haggis for this Burns Night, for rather more prosaic reasons than historical enquiry; I was itching to try out a recipe in Jamie’s Great Britain; the Burns Night supper at our local was oversubscribed; and I thought it would impress my Scottish boyfriend.
Jamie’s recipe is long but unthreatening; the pluck, tallow and tripe are replaced by nothing more unusual than liver, kidneys and heart. By the time you add the spices – allspice, cloves and black pepper – it has that definably “warm-reeking” haggis smell. When you add the toasted oatflakes, it starts to bubble and makes hilarious farty noises like a child trying to annoy the grown-ups; and this mixture of meat and cereal is probably the only relic we have of that pre-potato staple, pottage. Gervase Markham, in a chapter called “On the Excellency of oats” praises them for meat pottage and goes onto recommend mixing them with blood and liver which “maketh that pudding which is called the haggas or haggus” (The English Housewife, 1615).
Jamie keeps it as a stew or covers it with neaps and tatties as a pie. This, however, wouldn’t have served for the tradition of reading Burns ‘To a Haggis’ and plunging the knife into it “Trenching your gushing entrails bright” so that the insides, “warm-reeking, rich!” come oozing out.
I found natural haggis ‘caps’ from a wonderful company called www.weschenfelder.co.uk , which was established by the owner’s German grandfather who was appalled by soggily cased British sausages. The casings arrived, packed and salted, in the post. Desalting in a bowl of water they turned out to be intestines, sealed at one end, like alarmingly large condoms. Packing them with haggis mix and tying the ends with string turned out to be easy, so long as you are not put off by the slight slime and smell (or the holes in my jumper).
Just one yielded up a white, wormy sausage enormous enough for eight of us (with enough leftover mixture for the faint hearted which might include myself).
I set it to boil gently and set about the neeps and tatties and putting out those other Scottish delicacies for pudding, Orkney cheddar and those iconic Glaswegians, Tunnocks caramel wafers . As it bubbled away, the casing expanded gently, promising a pleasing Burns moment… and then burst with a loud bang. By the time I got to it I had a pan full of runny haggis mixture, with a huge condom waving apologetically around.
Some of the remaining mixture stuffed in the spare casing and boiled for a few minutes made for an instant, poppable (if not sufficiently cooked to be quite hygienic) haggis balloon, though. Our Burns night experience was saved.
The eight varieties of malt whisky – and the eight varieties of Scottish accents employed to read Burns poems – helped too.