Burns hails the haggis as “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’ race” – and certainly it belongs to a huge family of offal puddings in Scotland, and Europe.
In the homeland, we’ve the mealie puddin’: a white pudding of oatmeal, onion, suet and spices, and then mixed with blood to make a black pudding, with both traditionally stuffed into beef intestines.
“In England, ‘puddings’ was the colloquial term for the innards of an animal,” writes Catherine Brown in Broths to Bannocks. “Pudding Lane in London gets its name from the Eastcheap butchers who swilled their debris, puddings, etc. down the lane into the River Thames.”
The Great Fire of London of 1666, which started in Pudding Lane, was reportedly caused by a batch of fried offal burgers, called faggots, catching fire.
Like a haggis, the faggot encloses minced pig’s “fry” (the lights, liver and melts), onions, breadcrumbs and spices within a jacket of “caul” – the lacy membrane surrounding a pig’s stomach. The baked, meaty English “haslet” similarly wraps caul around chopped pigs’ pluck, onion, lard, sage, salt and pepper.
But, chieftain or no’, the most prolific branch of the pudding family are those traditionally encased in the gut: the sausage, or salami in Italy, chorizo in Spain, wurst in Germany, boudin in France, cheung in China, saussiska in Russia, korv in Sweden, and pølse in Norway and Denmark.
For the essential haggis, we turn to the learned Professor Skeat’s Complete Dictionary of Etymology: “A dish commonly made in a sheep’s maw, of minced lungs, hearts, and liver.” A haggis can also be made from the paunch and pluck of pigs, deer, camel, or even, in the case of pemmican – a staple food of the North American Plain Indians – buffalo.
Unbelievably, North America is closer than Scotland to where the natural casings for your Burns’ Nicht haggis will have originated. Incidentally, these casings will not be sheep paunches either, but beef intestines or “ox bungs”, following rules imposed by the EEC after BSE.
“Our ox bungs have to come from Paraguay,” explains Hawick butcher Lindsay Grieve, our guide today in the art of haggis-making. However, his sheep plucks are native, and having read stories that the sight of them boiling is far from a spectator sport, I was a little fearful entering what he calls “hallowed ground”.
But I was immediately bewitched by their smell simmered overnight in his spiced stock – the ingredients and proportions of which are secret of course, as all butchers’ haggis recipes are.
Lindsay mixes the minced lamb pluck, flank, suet and stock by hand into Hogarth’s oatmeal from Kelso, seasoned with black pepper, cayenne, onions and salt.
“Lamb pluck is sweeter and softer than pig’s or bull’s,” he says, adding that “the further north and west you go, the more oatmeal goes in the haggis – you could eat it with a spoon.”
‘Looser’ haggis, he explains, uses more pinhead oatmeal for crunch than medium oatmeal to bind. Lindsay leaves the oatmeal to steep in the stock and firm up before stuffing into the ox bungs, and enjoys a cup of coffee to rest from the stirring.
There’s a great variation in Scottish haggis, even among butchers in the Borders, and most Scots have firm opinions about which they prefer, and why.
“Haggis has always been popular in Scotland,” Lindsay reflects, as he ties off a 20lb chieftain bound overseas. “It’s a cheap meal – you can feed a person tatties, neeps and haggis for a pound a head.”
“It’s a footery job making haggis,” concludes butcher James Cockburn of JC Douglas in Selkirk, as he finishes another daily batch of award-winning Drambuie haggis in the days before Burns Night.
But the magic of haggis alchemy turns a base, cheap ingredient to gold, a diner’s horror to hunger, and turns a profit for the butcher.