The anticipation of imminent haggis. An ear out for the DPD delivery. Just a day to go to Burns Night and its obligatory supper. And, no, it’s not the usual sheep’s stomach stuffed with the ‘pluck’ of the beast (lungs, heart and liver), onions, oats, fat and seasoning. This is Ferguson Henderson’s premium version and I can’t wait to discover how he might have refined it.
As a wee lad the champion of nose-to-tail eating was was taken on holidays by his London-based parents to the Inner Hebridean island of Tralee, where he was introduced early to the Scottish national dish. In the appropriate season, around January 25 in celebration of ploughman poet Robert Burns’ birthday, that foodie memory has been honoured at St John’s Smithfield, the restaurant Fergus has run since 1994.
A recipe for it features in his epochal culinary gospel, Nose To Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking (1999), which elevated to kitchen stardom the likes of trotters, kidneys, tripe and chitterlings.
His then take on preparing haggis is characteristically uncompromising and wry: “Do not be put off by the initial look of your ingredients. Place the pluck in a large pot and cover with generously salted water. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer and then cook for two hours, regularly skimming. The pluck should have the windpipe attached and you should hang this over the edge of your pan, with a pot underneath to catch anything which the lungs may expel while cooking.”
Afterwards allow to cool and then it’s all about the mincing and the quality of the final blend – in this current version suffused with buttery onions and, suet, studded with pinhead oats, suffused with allspice and pepper, spiked with whisky. The preparation is now in the hands of head chef Farokh Talati, whose own debut cookbook/memoir, Parsi, I have recently celebrated on this site.
By the end of this real time piece I‘ll report back – after I‘ve braised it gently in chicken stock and whisky, as recommended by my direct suppliers, Swaledale Butchers of Skipton.
I’ve been warned the St John is a more delicate specimen than most, the filling looser in its casing, hand-tied with butcher’s twine. Hence a higher risk of it bursting. The more cautious cook might prick it lightly before encasing in foil, but I‘m determined to keep it moist and squeeze an appropriate sauce out of the cooking liquid. Freshly unearthed neeps and tatties (swedes and potatoes) wait to be mashed to accompany this kilo’s worth of offal heritage. Maybe I‘ll add a bitter kick of cavolo nero, too. And Fergus fave – Dijon mustard. With a wee dram of Jura Malt on the side but no skirl of the pipes. It’s just not in my gene pool.
Getting stuffed – the weird and wonderful world of Haggis
Not everyone possesses the Braveheart spirit to embrace a traditional haggis. And is there real encouragement in Burns’ awesome guttural 1786 serenade to the dish, Address to a Haggis, which cemented his association? It starts: ‘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.’
But my favourite stanza, after much rumbledethumping about ‘while thro your pores the dews distil like amber bead’ and ‘trenching your gushing entrails bright’ is this rejection of the Auld Alliance with France as far as cooking goes…
‘Is there that owre his French ragout/Or olio that wad staw a sow/Or fricassee wad mak her spew/ Wi perfect scunner/Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view/On sic a dinner?’
Maybe making a case, yet this is also a nation that created a fishy haggis variant that I’ll happily give a miss. Step forward Hakka muggies from Shetland (not to be confused with the Celtic punk band of that name from Prague). This was made with gutted cod or ling. The muggie [stomach] was turned outside in, cleaned and put in salt water with the liver tied up raw in the stomach. The muggies, stuffed with the minced liver and swimbladder, were served boiled with potatoes. Alternatively, along similar lines, you could opt for Crappen, where oatmeal and liver were mixed and put in the fish head, sewn up in a white cloth, then boiled in a kettle.
Leap from all this to the less murky waters of the Vegetarian Haggis, a huge success for Edinburgh’s MacSween since they developed a lentil and nut-driven version for the opening of the Scottish Poetry Library in 1984 (purists might dour at their moroccan spiced ‘upgrade’). A decade earlier at Glasgow’s quirkiest restaurant, Ubiquitous Chip, founder Ronnie Clydesdale didn’t just insist on his own Highland venison haggis but also a veggie variant, both still on the menu to this day.
So haggis is really an English dish?
But we are are veering away from the real deal. Which some heretics insist really has its roots in England! One obscure record from 1390 has a cook at Richard II’s court sewing eggs, breadcrumbs and finely diced sheep’s fat seasoned with saffron) into a sheep’s tripe, to be steamed or boiled.
Eminent food scholar Ivan Day has unearthed 11 medieval recipes, all of them in manuscripts from England. Half refer to haggis and some have other names such as an “entrayle”. The “hag” part of the name comes from the Old Norse “to cleave”, describing the chopped-up offal. The dish was originally made to preserve the perishable innards of a slaughtered animal, not dissimilar to black pudding.
Day told one interviewer: “One of the reasons we moved away from haggis in England is that we cooked puddings in cloths rather than animal skins and stomachs – in a sense, we eventually found them disgusting. We changed and the Scots didn’t. The haggis got marooned and then became a symbol of Scottishness.”
There were certainly references to a haggis-style dish inside a 1615 book called The English Hus-Wife, 200 years before any evidence of the dish in Scotland. That’s according to Scottish food writing doyenne Catherine Brown (whose The Taste of Britain, co-written with the late Laura Mason, is one of my go-to reference bibles).
In a documentary she confirmed: “It was popular in England until the middle of the 18th Century. Obviously the English turned up their noses at it and ate their roast beef, and the Scots for 350 years have been making it their own.”
Or maybe the Ancient Greeks got in on the act first…
Probably such preserving perishable innards date back to pre-historic times when ‘nose to tail eating’ was a matter of life or death. The Ancient Greeks, of course, had the advantage of writing details down. There’s an oblique reference in Homer’s Odyssey about “a man before a great blazing fire turning swiftly this way and that a stomach full of fat and blood, very eager to have it roasted quickly”. And in Aristophane’s play The Clouds, there is a passage about preparing a feast in a sheep’s bladder, while Socrates’ friend, Strepsiades, gives an account of being served a “stuffed paunch,” which was not given a ‘vent’ before cooking and burst, covering him with “its rich contents of such varied sorts.”
As I write this I‘m aware that might be my own fate if I miscalculate the cooking progress of Fergus’s tender casing. And yes, while locked in my research, I‘ve allowed a puncture to grow in my braising haggis. It’s swiftly rescued, just a few guts spilled, and finished in foil while the drained whisky sauce is reduced. And how does the St John beastie taste, its rich juices soaking into the neeps and tatties, the Dijon tarragon mustard cutting through it all? Quite magnificent. The best haggis I’ve ever had.
The last word with ‘Rabbie Burns’: Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care/And dish them out their bill o’ fare/Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware/That jaups in luggies/But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer/Gie her a Haggis!
For the whisky many thanks to Erik Knudsen. For further Fergus Henderson worship check out my piece on lamb hearts.