If it were possible for lamb stew and oat porridge to have a love affair, they’d call their love child Haggis. It was the favourite dish of Alexander Graham Bell, actor Sean Connery and Scottish poet Robby Burns who wrote a poem about his beloved called Address To A Haggis.
Haggis is often served in Scottish fast-food restaurants, deep fried in batter and served with chips, but there are many more uses for haggis. Haggis Hurling is a game where a whole haggis is thrown as far as one can possibly throw an orb of food – who would have ever guessed that throwing food would become a popular sport? But right across Scotland, Haggis Hurling is just that. The record to be broken currently stands at 217 feet (66 m).
Haggis is a Scottish delicacy and if you’re brave enough to read to this point (or at all), this is as far as I can flatter haggis. The national dish of Scotland is described by Wikipedia as, “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach.”
Ouch! No wonder it’s a food most people love to hate and the butt of many food jokes. I don’t know of any other food in the world that has a sadder reputation than haggis. And the folks at Larousse Gastronomique knew this because in its 2001 English edition they say: “Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour.” And that’s as complimentary as our world’s food bible can be on the subject.
But if there’s one man born to defend the honour of haggis, it’s chef professor John Higgins of George Brown College in Toronto. So enthusiastic about haggis was Higgins that he sent me a picture of his newly made haggis ice cream. “It’s not so much an acquired taste as it is something you were brought up on,” says the haggis-loving professor.
The self-proclaimed “aficionado of haggis” was born in Scotland. “I remember when I was three years old my dad would take me to the butchers early in the morning. I remember the Beatles just released their hit song, She Loves You. I’d have a thick slice of haggis in a bun. It was so good, crispy on the outside and soft in the inside. It’s when I first fell in love with haggis and for some reason I’ve been connected to this dish ever since.”
The Scotts argue that haggis is made from five ingredients, pluck (heart, lungs and liver), oatmeal, barley, lots of black pepper and thyme, but I say seven! The word Pluck doesn’t exist in Canada in that context, so you have to include the heart, lungs and liver as three separate ingredients. It’s a small but important detail for home cooks who want to try their hand at this dish.
The pluck or some of the animals’ innards, are minced, sautéed with onions and possibly other vegetables and stuffed into the stomach of an animal. The traditional way of serving it is with taters and neeps (mashed potatoes and mashed turnips), and washed down with a glass of Scottish whisky.
Higgins sits in his office recounting the number of significant haggis memories and claims he’s a man whose destiny is intertwined with haggis. “I remember a high school assembly. We were celebrating Robbie Burns Day, there were hundreds of students and I got to carry the traditional haggis through the assembly. I was so proud to have the honour especially because someone had given me a chefs jacket to wear. That’s when I knew I had to be a chef.” And it’s also when he knew haggis would be more to him than just a national dish.
Higgins, apprenticed at Gleneagles Hotel in the Scottish Highlands, a 5-diamond hotel where he served the rich and famous like Sean Connery and Jackie Stewart. It was here that he got to carry the ceremonial haggis into the hotel on Robbie Burns Day. He was the youngest apprentice ever to be given the honour.
Competitions for the best haggis take place across Scotland all the time from small village events to national heats and Higgins was bound to enter one eventually. Surrounded with more experienced chefs all concocting their more accomplished versions of haggis, Higgins kept his head down and focused on what he felt he could do well. Then, what John considered the unthinkable, “I won the gold for the best haggis,” he exclaimed to me with as much excitement as I imagine he had that day. “I stuffed it with veal and I think that’s what did it. I’ve done it different ways over the years like stuffing it with veal and wrapping it with leeks – yum”.
From hero to zero, Higgins’ next career move meant he walked into a haggis void – he went to work at Buckingham Palace and cooked meals for the Queen, “they’d never eat Haggis…they don’t even eat garlic” says Higgins. But it makes sense when you consider that haggis was always and still is, a poor mans meal. Historically speaking, the Lords would take the tenderest parts of an animal and the farmers would get the leftovers. So they made haggis.
Haggis is enjoying a revival in the United Kingdom, especially in a small town called, Stoneaway. “They’ve perfected haggis in Stoneaway,” says John. “I think their secret is a little sheep’s blood in the Haggis”. Stoneaway is in Tweed, a region famous for Harris Tweed. “They’re also famous for their black pudding. It’s a most beautiful part of the world.”
While Scotland is perfecting haggis, Higgins is playing with it. One Christmas he put a bit of haggis in the turkey stuffing, “There were about two-dozen family members sitting around the kitchen table that year and everyone raved about how good the stuffing was. Most of them wanted leftovers to take home. I finally told them it was because of the haggis. I like my Haggis on the peppery side.” Higgins says you can slice haggis and serve it with a fried egg, stuff it into spring rolls or put it on pizza. “My wife made haggis pizza long before Dominos came out with their haggis pizza.”
One evening at a special dinner at the Chefs House (the restaurant at George Brown College) he met a woman who was telling him how obsessed Russians were with Robbie Burns and his poetry. “She asked why there were no desserts made from haggis and it got me thinking. What sweets can I make with haggis? Since then I’ve made brittle from haggis, ice cream, macaroons and many other haggis desserts.”
“When working with haggis you must start with really good haggis and then make sure you maintain the integrity of its flavour. I’ve not reached the limits of what I can do with haggis and it’s easy to work with because it’s so inexpensive.”
“I’m a lone wolf when it comes to promoting haggis,” says Higgins, “haggis gets a bum rap, many turn their nose up (at it) and I tell them – hey, do you know what’s in the hot dogs you eat?” Enthusiastically Higgins shares his hopes for a haggis world competition and I can’t help but think that haggis hasn’t quite reached the level of popularity for such status but, I wouldn’t tell Higgins that.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo