MY DAD LEFT school at 16 and, to use his words, went on to attend the "university of life". Part of this unstructured, self-imposed education involved learning the words of Robert Burns by heart. Every year on and around 25 January for as long as I can remember, Dad has been toasting the "great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race" at Burns’ Association Suppers across the Highlands. To me, his recitals are as remarkable and time-honoured as haggis itself.
When the humble haggis was created in Roman times as a practical means of preserving mutton offal in the lining of a sheep’s stomach with seasoning, spices, onion, suet and oatmeal, who could have imagined the eminent position it would occupy in Scottish culture today?
It is, of course, Burns we have to thank for the prominence and enduring popularity of haggis; it was after all one of the bard’s favourite foods - "O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich!" - which is why it is traditionally eaten with neeps and tatties on the anniversary of the ploughman-turned-poet’s birthday, when the haggis is ceremoniously piped to the table and the famous Address to the Haggis recited. The haggis is cut open at the line "an cut you up wi’ ready slight", then toasted with a glass of whisky.
However, haggis in the 21st century is not solely reserved for Burns’ Night. Haggis sales contribute no less than 1.2 million annually to the Scottish economy, and while it is true that most haggis are bought in the run up to 25 January, some of our leading chefs are championing it as a dish to be enjoyed all year round. As perennially popular as haggis is with overseas visitors, contemporary restaurants do not have it on their menus merely to keep the tourists happy.
"Locals love haggis as much as the tourists do," comments Tony Singh of Edinburgh’s glam rooftop restaurant, Oloroso. "Regardless of the time of year, it’s got such a wonderful, rich earthiness to it which we have carried through to include other spices and flavours." Singh believes haggis works best in appetiser-style dishes and serves a taster plate (6.50) including haggis wonton with plum and Famous Grouse sauce, haggis tortellini with spiked salsa verde, and haggis pakora with whisky-tinged chaat mayonnaise.
Meanwhile at Glasgow restaurant Arisaig, haggis is a consistent bestseller and comes in several mouth-watering variations. As well as traditional haggis, neeps and tatties, head chef Stephen Bonomi makes haggis enchiladas, haggis dumplings with Craggenmore whisky sauce, and a range of fritters including veggie; haggis and oat; and haggis, beetroot and lavender. "For an ingredient that’s on our doorstep it’s a very undervalued food," comments Bonomi, who uses haggis made by Macsween and Campbells. "I always have haggis on the menu and it always sells well."
Jeff Bland of Number One at the Balmoral Hotel agrees, pointing out that not only is there a place for haggis in the 21st century, but there’s a demand for it particularly at private banquets and events. "Our haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce is still one of the most popular dishes in Hadrian’s Brasserie, too - for local and international guests alike," Bland says of the hotel’s popular eaterie on its North Bridge flank, adding that it is presented in a layered stack for a contemporary feel.
To serve traditional haggis at home, remove the outer packaging (but don’t remove or damage the haggis casing) and wrap in foil, then either simmer in a pan of water or roast in the oven (180C) for 45 minutes to an hour. Serve with creamy clap shot (turnips or swedes and potatoes mashed together with butter and cream) and a dram. For 21st-century-style haggis, try the recipes alongside.
For further details on Burns’ Night traditions check out www.rabbie-burns.com
HAGGIS AND OAT FRITTERS
Stephen Bonomi, Arisaig Restaurant & Bar, Glasgow, 0141-552 4251
• A 500-600g haggis
• 100g oatmeal
• 100g oat flakes
• 1 tbsp runny honey mixed with 1 tbsp whisky
• 100g breadcrumbs
• Pinch each of fresh lovage, rosemary and thyme
• 2 eggs, beaten together with 1 tbsp milk
• Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 200C. Simmer the haggis for five minutes, then remove casing and combine with the oatmeal. Next fry the oat flakes, honey and whisky in oil for a few minutes before transferring to a roasting tin. Place the tin in the oven for ten minutes until oats are golden, then mix with breadcrumbs, herbs and seasoning.
Next, roll the haggis mix into balls and flatten with a spatula to make fritters. Dip the fritters in the beaten egg and milk, then coat in oats and breadcrumbs. Deep or shallow fry the fritters, or roast in the oven for five minutes on each side until crisp and golden. Make a sauce by reducing some cream and whisky in a pan.
BALMORAL-STYLE FILLET OF BEEF
Jeff Bland, Number One, Edinburgh, 0131-556 2414
• 4 x 125g trimmed beef fillets
• 150g haggis
• 50g fresh thyme
• 50g breadcrumbs
• 100g unsalted butter
• 2 egg yolks
• 12 baby turnips, peeled
• 200g mashed potatoes, hot
• 1 glass red wine
• 1/2 cup beef stock
Melt 50g of butter and add breadcrumbs, thyme and egg yolks. Pat into a cake about 5mm thick, and press between two pieces of greaseproof paper. Place in fridge to set.
Cook turnips until tender. Season and seal steaks in a hot pan, then transfer to an oven at 180C for eight minutes. Allow to rest. Warm the mashed potatoes and haggis and place a layer of haggis on top of each steak. Cut four herb crusts, place the steaks on the crusts and pop in the oven for two minutes.
Meanwhile, swill out the steak pan with wine and stock. When it starts to thicken, whisk in the rest of the butter. Taste and season.
Place steak in centre of plate. Place three turnips around the steak, spoon mashed potatoes between each and add sauce to serve.
• Macsween of Edinburgh 0131-440 2555
• George Cockburn & Sons, Dingwall 01349 862315
• Lindsay Grieve Traditional Butchers, Hawick 01450 372109
• Campbells Prime Meat, West Lothian 01506 858585