Hold the sheep’s stomach lining

It’s the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth: deep-fried haggis won ton, anyone?

Hold the sheep’s stomach lining

Now’s the time to toss prejudice aside and try haggis. Never mind that this humble pie is a steaming mound of ground organs, suet, assorted spices and oats, all boiled in the lining of a sheep’s stomach. Ever since Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns, immortalized haggis, it has become the dish that launched a million parties—and possibly about as many interpretations. This is the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth, so the annual celebration of Burns Night, on Jan. 25, is promising more invention and revelry than ever.

“The meat in a haggis is brilliant,” says chef Craig Flinn of Chives Canadian Bistro in Halifax. “It’s like the meat in a tourtière pie.” He prepared the sausage-like food once, when he cooked in a hotel kitchen, but then forgot about it. This year, Flinn will serve a Burns Night appetizer: traditional haggis sausage with tattie ’n neep purée, caramelized onion balsamic jam and grainy Dijon veal jus that he calls “a bit cross-cultural.” He’ll use a mixture of lamb and pork trimmings with back fat and “more palatable” entrails such as lamb kidneys and pork tongue and cheek.

Todd Wong started the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner in Vancouver, a Scottish-Chinese Burns Night banquet, in the late ’90s. He sees it as “an integration, a reflection of Canada’s inter-cultural nature.” This year (which is also Chinese New Year’s Eve), the menu features deep-fried haggis won ton, lettuce-wrap haggis, and a traditional variety.

Among connoisseurs, butcher shops are often considered the best sources for high- quality haggis. Paul Bradshaw, Toronto-born with Scottish roots, is with the Healthy Butcher, a shop with locations in Toronto and Kitchener, Ont. Bradshaw, the head butcher, is a self-confessed lover of the stuff and embarked on a “haggis hunt” a couple of years ago in Scotland. “I couldn’t find a good one here and I thought: it can’t be that hard to make.” In the town of Alyth, butcher Mike Dorward took him in. “We talked meat for a couple of days and he showed me the ropes.”

Back in Toronto, Bradshaw “played around with what I had learned in Scotland for about six months until I was happy with it.” He uses fat from the notoriously tubby Berkshire pig, lamb organs from a good, local source, and beef bung, a piece of beef intestine, for casing. “I can’t get stomach in Canada from sources I trust.” Instead of rolled oats, he prefers the steel-cut variety “for a crunch that’s not like a chocolate bar, but more like a piece of crisp fruit.”

You might call butcher Iain Hopkins of MacEwans Meats in Calgary a haggis machine. The Scots native has been making it there for about 20 years, using beef liver, Scotch pinhead oatmeal, onions and beef suet in a beef bung casing. He sells three to four tonnes of the rib-sticking fare on the cold Prairies each January. “I’m the last remaining haggis maker around here, pretty much,” he says. “It all fell to me.”

Vegetarians and vegans are in on the action, too. In Scotland, most of the public Burns suppers offer a veggie-only option. The posting on the Toronto Vegetarian Association’s website for vegan haggis—with beans, legumes and nuts in place of meat and baked in a tin like a meatloaf—has proven a popular alternative for those wanting to make it an animal-free affair at home.

If some diners are still recoiling at the thought of tucking into the Scottish national dish, they can reach for an essential accompaniment to wash it down: plenty of Scotch whisky. Raising a glass is part of the ceremony, as prescribed by the bard himself. Last year, when I went to Glasgow for the Burns supper, it seemed the entire city was in on the party. Crowds packed the rainy streets, dark pubs, fancy restaurants and public squares for a taste and a dram—or two. An editorial in the Scotsman sounded a dire warning: would there be enough to go around in 2009, under the government-sanctioned “Year of the Homecoming,” which is a call to the Scottish diaspora—50 million strong—to return to the homeland and mark Burns’s special anniversary? The paper likened the run on haggis to fears of champagne running dry for the millennium. It was all with tongue firmly in cheek. In fact, the Scots don’t limit themselves to these victuals once a year; haggis is consumed year-round, scooped up from the frozen food section of grocery stores and swallowed piping hot from street vendors. It’s even a popular breakfast treat—without the whisky. So on Jan. 25, remember Burns’s words from “Address to a Haggis”: “O, what a glorious sight, Warm- reekin’, rich!” Dig in.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.