That headline caught your attention, didn’t it?
Mike Vealey has been my friend, co-conspirator, and traveling foodie companion since before his grown daughters were born. Recently, planning a trip to Great Britain, we both anticipated the same culinary challenge: haggis.
As Scotland's national dish, haggis stands as an object of gastronomic legend, speculation, and even notoriety. In its traditional preparation, haggis comprises cooked sheep “pluck”—heart, liver, and lungs.
It is diced and mixed with onions, roasted oatmeal, suet, and spices, then sewn up inside a sheep stomach and boiled until reaching the consistency of a thick pudding or meat loaf.
Customarily served with neeps and tatties—mashed turnips and potatoes—haggis uses less desirable organ meat to make a savory, filling protein.
Other cultures and nationalities have similar thrifty-minded dishes. Scrapple is a close relative; so is kishke, made from stuffed beef intestines. But haggis has a reputation, and Mike and I didn’t see how we could go to Scotland and not try it.
Mike didn’t wait to reach Scotland. In the club car on the Caledonian Sleeper, a marvelous overnight train from London to Inverness, he braced himself with the requisite “wee dram” of smoky, peaty Laphroaig Scotch and ordered the haggis. It was an act of courage and dedication that went well beyond simply
scarfing down a plate of stewed sheep offal—in his everyday life, Mike is a vegan.
But, diets aside, when in Scotland, eat like a Scotsman. As the Caledonian Sleeper rocked and rattled northward, I stole a taste from Mike’s plate and found the notorious dish to be, well, pretty much mild and almost disappointingly inoffensive.
Arriving in Inverness, often called the “Gateway to the Highlands,” we immersed ourselves in Scottish lore and legend. We cruised Loch Ness, but did not see “Nessie,” who always is referred to by name and as a “she.” We climbed the battlements of Urquhart Castle. We tried to roll our Rs to correctly pronounce “Drumnadrochit,” a lovely lochside village.
Haggis is ubiquitous throughout Scotland. From my view, nearly every restaurant, supermarket, and fast food joint stocked the dish, sometimes deep fried, and most frequently cooked in a synthetic sausage casing. Some versions used beef or pork, and some even used bison. Some shops offered haggis in tins or containers to be cooked in conventional ovens or a microwaves.
I found haggis-flavored potato chips, canned haggis, haggis-flavored chocolate, a haggis burger served on a bun, haggis pakora in Indian restaurants, and haggis used as an ingredient in pizza. I even found a kosher haggis. Vegetarian haggis, often made from legumes, nuts, and vegetables, has become relatively common. However, the most unusual preparation must be vegan haggis, offered in a shop off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
My turn to order the haggis in Scotland came at a lunch spot near Inverness Castle. I really had to try haggis within the Highlands. Perhaps the dish as served to Mike on the Caledonian Sleeper was not quite authentic enough. After all, we were still in England at that time. Meeting the challenge required
The waitress presented to me a plate holding three mounds—one white, one yellow, and one brown—looking like they had been doled out with an ice cream scooper. The white was potatoes, the yellow was turnips, and the brown was haggis. Again, I found the haggis to be mildly flavored and “earthy” tasting, vaguely like scrapple or chopped liver. It wasn’t bad, but I loved the neeps and tatties.
Simmer one sheep’s pluck gently in unsalted water for 2 hours, or until tender. Leave it overnight in its own juices to cool.
Strain off the stock, saving a pint, and chop the meat finely. Place the meat in a bowl and season with salt, ground white pepper, thyme, sage, and rosemary.
Add chopped onion, slightly toasted oatmeal, suet, and the saved stock to moisten the mixture.
Spoon the mix into the sheep’s stomach until half full; sew it up with a strong thread. The filling and stomach will expand while cooking. To avoid a messy explosion, prick the stomach a few times with a skewer to let the air out. Cook it in boiling water for 3 hours, adding more water to keep it covered.
Cut it open when cooked, and spoon out the filling onto a warmed plate. Garnish the top with chopped parsley and serve.
Adapted from visitscotland.com.