BURNS Night is on its way but forget the traditional haggis, neeps and tatties served with whisky – haggis nachos, Caledonian pakora and red peppers stuffed with the vegetarian version of Scotland’s national dish are all set to become the next big thing.
That’s if you believe Jo Macsween, director of Lothian haggis maker Macsween, who has written a book of haggis recipes designed to make Burns traditionalists weep into their kilts.
“It gives people inspiration and permission to some extent to have fun with haggis,” she says. “There’s so much ritual wrapped up in haggis which is wonderful but is also in danger of alienating people.”
Given that 55 per cent of Macsween’s output goes to England, this is a key issue for the company.
“If you’re invited to a Burns Night would you then think about going home and cooking it?” she asks.
“You would think ‘I need a kilt, this dagger thing, Burns, someone to address it, whisky. Macsween is taking this on. Burns has its place, we love all its rituals, but there is so much you can do with this product. It makes a great ingredient in so many other recipes. It’s a long road. I hope we get more English people eating haggis and more people eating haggis all year round.”
The publication of The Macsween Haggis Bible by Edinburgh-based publishers Birlinn not only coincides with Burns night on January 25, it also falls in the year the family company celebrates its 60th anniversary.
The recipes include some of Jo’s own and others from people who have experimented with the use of haggis as an ingredient, and several are prefaced with the story that led to their creation.
“They are a melting pot of ideas from people who work here, chefs I have had contact with and customers,” says Jo. “People want to share what they have done with the product. I really like that. I think recipes are meant to be shared.”
The aforementioned pakora recipe came about after Jo and her late father found themselves doing a haggis tasting at an international food exhibition in London next to an Indian chef making pakoras, while haggis nachos were born following a weekend Jo spent in Orkney with a friend who loves haggis, chillis and Texan swing music.
As the self-appointed “voice of haggis”, one of Jo’s missions in life is to dispel the misgivings many people have about haggis. While the Macsween haggis doesn’t contain liver – a product many people associate with the dish – it does come wrapped in beef or ox intestine, a concept that can also provoke cries of disgust.
“Most people approach the product with some trepidation,” she says. “I take their hand and say ‘Come and sit with me and tell me what you’re worried about’. Half of the things they thought were in haggis are not. If they have an issue with offal, we talk about that.”
An aversion to offal is something Jo can empathise with – she isn’t a big fan of internal organs and entrails herself.
“I don’t rush into a restaurant and say ‘I must have the kidneys’,” she says. “I have tried most things but I find the texture too smooth. People say ‘How can you like haggis if you’re not sure of offal?’. I say ‘It’s all minced up, oats have been added’. I think of haggis as being like spicy mince.”
The cookbook is the latest idea introduced by Jo and her brother, James, to get more people eating haggis.
After discovering that most young people were buying haggis deep fried from fish and chip shops, the Macsweens came up with a microwaveable haggis, in sliced single-portion packs, to make it more accessible to the younger generation. Made from the same ingredients, the microwaveable version can be eaten fluffed up like traditional haggis, or served in a bun like a burger. Two years later, in 2011, they did the same with their black pudding.
Although aimed at the under-40s, the microwaveable versions have also proved popular with people aged 50 and over.
“There are not enough solo servings in supermarkets,” says Jo. “I’m very aware of this with my mum who lives on her own. Supermarkets have plenty of BOGOFs (buy one, get one free) and family packs. She said: ‘I don’t want all of that. It’s just for me. I can’t eat a man-size portion and I don’t want to waste anything.’
“People say: ‘I used to eat haggis once a year. Now I eat it once a week’.”
And with horse meat and pork found in some supermarket beefburgers, Jo is keen to promote another aspect of their product – the fact that it consists of locally-sourced ingredients including lamb, beef, oatmeal, onions and a blend of herbs and spices.
“We want haggis to remain in our diet,” explains Jo. “It’s a good food. It’s not a processed product. It is made from natural ingredients – we do as little as possible with them.
“If we ate more foods like this with vegetables, we would eat less sweets because we would have less room for them.”
So, forget the idea a haggis is just for Burns Night – now you can serve it at breakfast, for supper, as a canapé or even stick it on your barbecue.
Leading from the front
THE Macsween family business started 60 years ago, when Charles and Jean Macsween set up a family butcher shop in Bruntsfield, having learned their trade working for William Orr’s in George Street.
They survived the days of rationing and soon established a reputation for good quality, offering a wide range of homemade products such as pies, sausages and the now famous haggis.
John, their eldest son, joined the business straight from school, taking it over on the death of his father in 1975.
It was around that time that supermarkets started to emerge, and John and wife Kate decided to concentrate on the specialised manufacture of haggis.
Having presented their product at a Scottish food fair in Selfridges in the early 1980s, they managed to break into the English market – which now accounts for 55 per cent of their sales.
John created the first vegetarian haggis in 1984, which was approved by the Vegetarian Society and now accounts for one in four of the haggis sold by the company.
His son and daughter, James and Jo, joined the business in 1992.
They came through the BSE – or mad cow disease – crisis and as the company continued to expand, the next big landmark came in 1996 with the move from Bruntsfield to a purpose-built production facility in Loanhead.
Following their father’s death in 2006, James and Jo have continued to make innovations, coming up with microwaveable haggis – sliced single-portion packs that are ready to eat in 60 seconds – in 2009 and microwaveable black pudding in 2011.
(Makes around 20 pakoras)
454g vegetarian haggis
For the batter:
Pinch of bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of chilli powder
Salt to taste
To make the batter, add water to the dry ingredients until you have a smooth batter that is neither too thin nor too thick, so that it will coat the haggis effectively.
Leave it to rest for ten minutes.
Form the vegetarian haggis into small balls, coat in the batter and deep fry in hot oil until golden and crispy.
Drain on kitchen paper and serve hot or cold with chutney, chilli dips or raita (yoghurt, mint and cucumber).
(Serves one or two people)
130g packet of microwaveable haggis
Large bag of tortilla chips
Tub of guacamole
Jar of salsa
Tub of sour cream
Heat the haggis in the microwave according to the instructions on the pack.
Pour the tortilla chips on to a large plate.
Dollop generous spoonfuls of guacamole and salsa over the chips.
Once the haggis is piping hot, dot spoonfuls on to the top of the nachos, adding a few spoonfuls of sour cream and roughly chopped coriander to finish.
Eat immediately (with beer).