(A friend was asking me the other day about our earlier trip to Scotland, and was especially interested in Haggis. It reminded me of this incident, so I decided to post it here—the feelings are relevant for anyone trying this dish for the first time, I think!!)
“Think of this as your first kiss”, our Scottish host smiles impishly.“More like first dentist visit”, I think with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
What are we going to experience?
Well, it’s haggis. How can we visit Scotland and not try haggis, which has become an icon, part of the national food?
We’re at the Britannia Hotel in Aberdeen for a Scottish Evening, arranged by the Rowett Research Institute where my husband, Rod, is attending a conference. It’s a formal room, with round tables elegantly set with white linen and sparkling crystal, grouped around a small open dance floor, which right now has a table and a microphone, held by the chairman.
We ask our waitresses if they like haggis and their “not really” doesn’t reassure us.
There’s a rustle of voices and we all swivel our heads to watch a kilted piper enter the room. The pipe music begins the ceremony, the “bringing in of the haggis”. This is the signal for all the guests to stand. The procession is done with great ceremony. The piper slowly paces in, followed by the chef holding a large haggis on a platter above his head. It looks like an enormous fat sausage, gently steaming. Two waiters holding a bottle of whisky and glasses follow him. They all walk sedately around the room and come to a halt by the chairman. The piper stands to the chairman’s right with the chef opposite. The waiters place the whisky bottle and glasses in front of the chairman, then stand on his left.
The chairman fills a glass and raises it.
“At this conference, the microbiologists and the nutritionists often don’t understand each other’s language. Well, now I’ll even the score and we’ll read something that none of you will understand”.
He calls on a colleague, who comes forward and reads the “Address to the Haggis”, a poem by Robbie Burns.
There are eight verses, much of it in Gaelic, a beautiful lilting language, but many words we cannot understand. When he gets to the third verse and says ,”His knife see rustic labor dight/An’cut you up wi’ ready sleight..” that’s the signal for the chef to stab the haggis with his long knife.
At the end of the poem, the piper pipes the chef and waiters out of the room and then returns to the chairman, who pours a dram of whisky into a silver quaitch. The piper lifts the two-handled shallow drinking bowl, drinks the whisky and turns round to us. He turns the quaitch upside down, to show it’s empty, and kisses it.
Waiters and waitresses now enter, and begin serving our meal. The menu reads:
Rabbies Favourite (Haggis, Neeps and Tatties)/ Raspberry Cranachan/Coffee served with cream, and of course, whisky.
(Supposedly Robbie Burns really liked all these)
On each plate are two rounds of haggis, topped with mashed yellow turnips (neeps) and mashed potato (tatties). We gingerly slice off a small piece and taste it. Well…what was all the fuss about? The haggis contains a lot of oatmeal to bind it all together, so it’s rather solid and heavy. The taste is bland and indefinite, except for being chilli hot (is that to mask the real taste, we wonder?). We try washing it down with whisky, but that doesn’t seem to be the right thing to do with whisky somehow.
For many years the haggis was regarded as an uncivilized dish, for poor uncivilized people, probably because of what it is—the stomach bag of a sheep, stuffed with minced organ meat, oatmeal, and onions—a way for those people to use up every part of an animal. But, now that it has become an accepted, almost gourmet dish, there is even a vegetarian version.
Anyway, we did it! We tried the haggis and our final verdict is…”Much ado about nothing”.
For the pics below: the dessert was much nicer than the haggis; & tasting the whisky)