Something unusual is happening in the kitchen. A huge stock pot has been gently bubbling on the burner for hours, a piece of parchment paper covering a dark, exotic mass of meatlike objects that bob gently in the broth. The aroma is unique, a rich, heady mix of lamb stew with sharper, more acrid undercurrents that evoke sensory description more common to complex wines: musty, earthy, sweet with a citrus finish.
Jan. 25 approaches and, with it, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Fans of Highland clan lore praise haggis as a national treasure. Others find it alarming, a concoction of seemingly inedible organ meats and roughage better suited to a dog’s breakfast than a banquet table.
The truth is somewhere in between. It is essentially a form of sausage, composed for the most part of lamb offal and steel-cut oats.
The offal in question is organ meat – lamb kidneys, liver, hearts and lungs. Once darkly red, glistening specimens of varying texture: firm hearts; resilient, elastic kidneys; puffy, yielding lungs; glutinous liver, they are simmered down and ground up.
Drained and cooled, the organs are brown, dense and sweet. They are minced, mixed with fat, diced onion, oats and spices and packed into casing to be poached (traditionally, a lamb stomach; these days, into a more conventional beef intestine or canvas sausage sleeve). Two hours or more in 165F water complete the cooking, blending the flavours and softening the oats.
The end result is a lot like a country-style pâté: rich and creamy, with the oats giving a bit of a nutty, crunchy texture.
It was originally eaten during poor times or war. The meats involved were cheap and available, high in iron and other minerals and promoted strength and endurance. You’d feel good and full in the cold.
Now, butchers have worked with it over the years, adjusting the seasonings, so it also tastes delicious. Like good pâté, the ingredients may sound scary but, once they taste it, most people want some more.
Is it good for you, too? The fat, oats and spices make it stable, with a long shelf life (a bonus in the days before refrigeration). Organ meats are rich in vital nutrients. Fat fuels the diet of all cold-climate cultures. Most versions of haggis are at least 50 per cent fat – but just three ounces per serving will do.
The world record for throwing a 1.5 pound (680 gram) haggis is 180 feet 10 inches (over 55.2 m.) The sporting haggis weighs 500 grams, with a maximum diameter of 18 cm and length of 22 cm. An allowance of 30 grams is given and this weight is used in both junior and middle weight events. The heavyweight event allows haggis up to 1 kg in weight, but the standard weight of 850 grams is more common, with an allowance of 50 grams.
Burns Day is a great excuse to try it. Just as millions discover an inner Irishman every St. Patrick’s Day, the splendour of skirling bagpipes, kilted porters and steaming haggis at a Robbie Burns night banquet connects with a wild, passionate side of the Scottish character. The heady poetry of “Rabbie” can intoxicate even more than the generous servings of single malt whisky.
Serving it is easy: Just reheat the cooked haggis in a bag in hot water until the internal temperature reaches 155F or bake it for 30 minutes in the oven along with traditional mashed potatoes (tatties) and turnip purée (neeps).
Excerpted from: Toronto Star, January 24, 2009.
Image: Darren McCarty competes in the throwing of the haggis competition during Highland Games in Livonia, Michigan in 2000.