Star chef gives a Burns Night rating to five of the best producers of the enduringly popular spicy dish
BE it traditional, tinned, deep-fried in batter, vegetarian or infused with Indian spices, haggis is synonymous with Scotland. And, on Friday, the chances are we'll be proudly serving it up in style along with neeps and tatties before raising a glass in honour of our national poet Robert Burns.
The enduringly popular dish, made from sheep offal and encased in a stomach lining, received a much-needed image overhaul in the 1960s. It was at this time that manufacturers began creating more sanitised alternatives for the squeamish, replacing the stomach lining casing with plastic. Now it's so popular, even supermarkets offer a mass-produced version of the Scottish dish.
As many of us are now aware, nothing beats the classic haggis, made the traditional way and by local independent butchers with years of experience under their belts.
So, in the words of Burns, who truly is the chieftain o' the puddin' race? We scoured the Capital's streets for the best locally made haggis and enlisted the help of Hilton Grosvenor head chef Scott Archibald, a Scottish cuisine aficionado and a chef for 22 years.
"It should always be moist and flavoursome, and this comes down to how it is made rather than how it is cooked," explains Scott.
"I personally like my haggis to have a bit of spice to it – and many good ones do. It should also be made of good-quality oatmeal, made with lard for extra moisture and taste, and have nice aromas when it's cut open."
He continues: "The best haggis always comes from the local butcher and you can tell even by looking at the range of haggis here that they are all top quality. They all look really good and the majority of them are chieftain haggis – which means they have been made in the skin and cooked in it too."
So with five piping-hot puddings in front of us, and not a piper in sight, it's on with the test.
MacSween of Edinburgh
(454g, 2.99, from supermarkets)
This haggis became so renowned, the Bruntsfield butchery responsible for the original recipe closed down to concentrate on making it. This resulted in the world's first dedicated haggis factory opening its doors near Loanhead in the 1990s, and to this day, MacSween's specialises in top-quality, award-winning haggis, which is eaten around the world.
"It's really moist," says Scott between mouthfuls. "It's tasty, and you can taste the spices and pepper in this, which is good. Not too spicy but not bland, either. A great balance, which suits most customers.
"You can see the contrast of oats and it has a great aroma. It breaks up nicely too and you can tell it's a top-quality haggis. It's been made in a synthetic skin as opposed to a stomach lining. I really like this one."
And it's clear that he really does like this one – he goes back for more. . . and more.
"This is one of the best I've tasted and it's certainly got the look of a traditional haggis with the colouring and texture," he adds.
Joint Chieftain o' the puddin' race *****
Crombies of Edinburgh
(490g, 3.41, serves two)
Packed tightly inside a sheep's stomach, this is an authentic haggis, made using the Crombies recipe, first used in 1922. Having won industry awards, expectations are high. It smells spicy, looks the part and has a slightly dark-brown colour that contrasts with the light oatmeal.
Scott is impressed. "It's got a lot of flavour, which is good, and it's nice and rich. It's lovely and flavoursome with that all-important oaty texture and spice – it's definitely not bland."
But despite its flavour, Scott isn't impressed with attempts to make this humble haggis healthier, with the Broughton Street butchers working hard over the years to reduce the fat content of the dish. "It is a little dry and maybe some more fat could have been added for extra moistness," he points out.
But with it now containing just half the fat of the original recipe, perhaps this is one for those watching their waistlines? "Yeah, I suppose so," concedes Scott. "But for a traditional haggis, a little more fat would have made it more moist and tasty."
(455g, 2.37, serves two)
The family butcher in Leven Street boasts a loyal local clientele from Tollcross and the surrounding areas. With haggis made fresh on the premises, Scott is expecting top-quality cuisine. But can it live up to expectations?
"It certainly looks great," says Scott, eyeing up the specimen. "You can tell it's been made well. It doesn't appear to have as much meat content as the others but this can suit some palates."
Our masterchef is also content with the taste. "It's a little bit grainy but that comes down to personal taste," he adds. "It's still a good haggis and will undoubtedly be popular."
Wordy of a grace ***
(740g, 4.20, serves three)
Nestled discreetly in Raeburn Place, Stockbridge, meat lovers always have a good word to say about this butcher – and after tasting the haggis, Scott discovers why.
"It looks nice, really nice," he says, even before he's sampled the haggis. "It certainly looks the part, with a thick skin encasing pale, moist texture. It looks crammed with oats and spices, with a strong meaty aroma."
And the taste? "Oh yeah, that is good. . . really good," he murmurs. "You can taste the liver in this one. It is really, really good."
After more greedy mouthfuls, he adds: "It's really moist, extremely flavoursome and has a great after-spice. It's got a real nip to it and I love that."
Runner up o' the puddin' race ****
W M Christie
(454g, 2.69, serves two)
The traditional Bruntsfield Place butchers oozes charm, but unlike the other prime butchers, Christie's doesn't make its own haggis anymore, with the owner now choosing to buy it in from a trusted supplier – West Calder-based sausage-makers A J Hornig Ltd. However, while some might turn their noses up at this decision, it's not something that concerns Scott in the slightest.
"This is really great," he enthuses, as he tucks in. "It's got loads of flavour, and is lovely and moist – plus there's some great spices in there too. It's really, really good."
Aesthetically, this haggis does look more processed – there is less contrast between the meat and the oatmeal so, as Scott reluctantly admits, it's not as easy on the eye.
But, what it may lack visually, it more than makes up for in taste, with Scott scoffing half of the haggis in no time.
"This is an impressive haggis – one of the best I've tasted in a long time," he says. "And great value for money. It's a tough call between this and MacSween's."
Joint Chieftain o' the puddin' race *****
Scotsport presenter and Forth One DJ Grant Stott: "The best haggis I ever tasted was in 1993 and it was my first taste of the dish. I grew up thinking I didn't like it and was filming a piece for STV about making haggis. The whole point to the piece was that I didn't like the stuff and so we went off to MacSween's when they had their butchers in Bruntsfield. I had the great Mr MacSween make one specially for me which I absolutely loved, and have been a fan ever since.
"A good haggis must never be dry. I like it nice and juicy, perhaps with a nice whisky gravy or even a lovely dod of HP sauce – and obviously with neeps and tatties.
"This year I'll be celebrating it twice, once on Thursday as I'm hosting Prestonfield's Burns night and then again on Friday when I'll be out for dinner with a couple of pals and a big haggis."
Stephen Jardine, STV presenter and host of forthcoming The 5.30 Show: "My haggis will be from Crombies or, if I'm too disorganised, it will be from MacSween's, who are also terrific.
"My best ever haggis experience was a couple of years ago when I was a speaker at a Burns Supper at Gleneagles. It was a very special evening culminating in a long night in the bar with actor James Nesbitt and, from what I can remember, the haggis was pretty good too.
"As far as I'm concerned, a good haggis should not be too spicy and never, ever, vegetarian. For the last few years, I've hosted my own Burns Supper and, this year, ten people are coming."
Nell Nelson, nutritionist and presenter of television's The Woman Who Ate Scotland: "The best haggis I had was in Hong Kong when I was working as a food writer and I organised a Burns Supper. It had been flown out from Scotland.
"For me, good haggis should be well seasoned and not too fatty or overcooked so it dries out. Then, serve with drams of whisky, lots of neeps and tatties, and enjoy with friends."
Andy McGregor, owner and head chef of Blonde Restaurant in St Leonard's Street: "As far as buying haggis goes, I always look for a good balance of ingredients – enough suet so it's moist without being too greasy, and enough oatmeal to give it texture without being too dry. I like a haggis to have enough black pepper and cayenne pepper to give it a decent kick as well."
Jeff Bland, executive chef at the Balmoral Hotel: "The secret to a great haggis is in the spices. For a really great tasting haggis the right combination of good quality freshly ground spices including allspice, nutmeg, mace and pepper will really enhance the flavour of the lamb."
Tony Singh, of Oloroso and Roti fame: "Spices are an essential part of a successful haggis Burns supper but the trick is to have the right amount of white pepper and nutmeg.
"The cookingmust be closely watched, ensuring that it's not overcooked and still moist. Mashed potatoes should be made with lots of butter and, when mashing the turnip, try adding a sprinkling of sugar to give a subtle sweet taste. Try giving your onion gravy a kick by adding a wee dram of whisky."