Stephen Jardine: Haggis changes with the times

IN THEORY, it should be a very hard sell. A meal celebrating a dead 18th century poet consisting of minced heart, liver and lungs all served up in a stomach, doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.
The Haggis is taken to a Burns Supper table. Picture: Ian RutherfordThe Haggis is taken to a Burns Supper table. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The Haggis is taken to a Burns Supper table. Picture: Ian Rutherford

But the reality is Burns Night has never been more popular.

It’s believed the first Burns Supper took place on the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death when nine of his friends gathered to celebrate his life and work and share a meal of haggis. The evening went so well, they agreed to meet again the following year and as the gatherings spread the date moved to become his birthday. Tonight, thousands of gatherings will take place around the globe commemorating the life and work of Robert Burns but also elevating our humble national dish to near mythical status.

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In his wonderful Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson suggests the ancient Romans may have come up with the first haggis, but the version we know now was probably invented as a means of cooking quick-spoiling offal near the site of a hunt.

Whatever the story, it’s now firmly established as Scotland’s signature dish. Thankfully, the ridiculous squeamishness about it’s constituent parts now seems to be in decline.

This week, a south of England newspaper carried a recipe for make-your-own haggis and called it a dish that “has to be taken seriously”. How times have changed.

Part of the attraction of the Burns Supper is it’s endless flexibility. There are no hard and fast rules. On Thursday, I was at the Soil Association Scotland’s Burns Supper, complete with organic whisky and haggis. Instead of toasts to the lads and lassies, the speeches were about the bounty of the earth and how lucky we are to live in a country with so many good things to eat.

Coming from Dumfries, a town steeped in Burns tradition, I’ve attended suppers where nothing changes down the decades, including the menu. But I’ve also been at events where the menu featured haggis Scotch eggs and cranachan cheesecake. Burns Night is nothing if not adaptable.

If one refrain features more than any other at the Burns Supper, it is “I don’t know why we don’t eat more haggis”.

Producers start gearing up production in November and MacSweens, who style themselves the “guardians of Scotland’s national dish” sell 30 per cent of their output in the two weeks leading up to Burns Night. But that still leaves 70 per cent to cover the rest of the year and haggis is increasingly appearing in new and interesting ways.

Sue Lawrence has a great recipe for haggis lasagne and in the shops Cosmo’s haggis pizza is only a few shelves away from Mackies’ haggis and black pepper crisps.

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However you have it tonight, even if just as a simple haggis supper from the chip shop, enjoy the celebration and savour the joy of having such a tasty and versatile national dish.