As Burns Night fell this week I thought it only right and proper to write about the Haggis. Scots all over the globe will be celebrating the life of Robert Burns, as they have done for over 200 years. Traditionally the celebration takes the form of the Burns Supper. Burns is known the world over as the author of “Auld Lang Syne” which is generally sung as a folk song at Hogmanay and other New Year celebrations. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet's birthday, January 25th, known as Burns Night.
The first suppers were held in Ayrshire in 1801 by his friends on the anniversary of his death, July 21st, In Memoriam and, although the date has changed to the 25th of January since then, they have been a regular occurrence ever since.
The Burns Supper involves Haggis, Scotch whisky and poetry. The Selkirk Grace is said at the beginning of the meal:
“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some would eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.”
The supper then starts with the soup course. Normally a Scots soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup or Cock-a-Leekie is served. Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a Haggis on a large dish. It is brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host's table, where the Haggis is laid down. The host, or perhaps a guest with a talent, then recites the Address To a Haggis.
The traditional Haggis contains sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock and stuffed in a sheep's stomach. I love it. It is served with mashed potato and neeps (mashed swede).
There are lots of debates about the origin of the Haggis. People claim its is English, French, even Scandinavian but to me it will always be Scottish. It's thought that the Ancient Greeks and Romans were the first people known to have made products of the Haggis type. Popular folklore has it that the dish originates from the days of the old Scottish cattle drovers. When the men left the highlands to drive their cattle to market in Edinburgh the women would prepare rations for them to eat during the long journey down through the glens. They used the ingredients that were most readily available in their homes and conveniently packaged them in a sheep's stomach allowing for easy transportation during the journey.
Those that favour the origins of the Haggis hailing from France trace it back to the Auld Alliance. French influence remained strong in Scotland until 1603 and traces of that tongue remain in the Scottish lexicon. A leg of lamb is called gigot and a serving dish is an ashet - assiette in French. Haggis is supposed to come from the French verb hacher - to chop up or mangle. However, no dish in France seems to resemble anything we’d recognise as a Haggis, and the French didn’t seem to use the word hachis to refer to Haggis either: During the Auld Alliance, the French called it Le Pain Bénit d’Écosse, (Scotland’s blessed bread) and . . . much more recently Puding de St André.
Clarissa Dickson Wright in her book The Haggis - A Little History makes a case for Haggis originally being from Sweden. Scandinavians from Sweden eat Haggis with great relish and invariably remark on its resemblance to a dish in their local cuisine. Relations between Scotland and the Nordic world go back to the 9th century. The impact of the Norse was far greater than that of the French; they are part of Scotland's historic fabric. The root of the word Haggis could have come from the Swedish word hagga, meaning to hew or chop; and the Icelandic hoggva, with the same meaning. The Norsemen also conquered Normandy so maybe the French verb hacher derives from hagga as well?
As to what to drink with the Haggis – back in 2008 Nick was asked to give a talk on food and wine pairing at the Clifton Club in Bristol where Haggis was on the menu. It's important to chose a wine that will not over power your Haggis but one that is well balanced, smooth, with good fruit and a firm structure. A blockbuster, fruit bomb or anything too tannic or oaky will not do your Haggis justice!
Here is the menu and Nick's wine suggestions to accompany the dishes:
Home Smoked Salmon on Brown Bread – Château Tour Chapoux
Asparagus in Parma Ham with Tomato Fondue – Montagnac Chardonnay
Prawns in Filo Pastry with Tarragon – M de Malle
Parfait of Mushroom Scented with Date - Château Pessan
Haggis – Château La Roc de Pellebouc
Baby Yorkshire Puddings with Beef in Horseradish – Château Chadeuil
Rolled Ham – Clairet de Château des Lisennes
Rolled Pork – Clairet de Château des Lisennes
Grilled Foie Gras on Toast – Château St Helene
Rosemary Bread filled with Melting Roquefort – Château St Helene
Christmas Pudding in Icing Sugar – Château St Helene
And finally for those of you who are convinced that the Haggis is a small wee beastie with one set of legs longer than the other so that it can stand on the steep Scottish Highlands without falling over – here is a picture of one. (According to one poll, 33% of American visitors to Scotland believe the Haggis to be an animal) .