When I traveled to Edinburgh and environs, I ate haggis at almost every meal — encased in pastry, atop a tattie-and-neeps tower and, of course, fried for breakfast. It was an epic deep dive into this Scottish specialty (a sausage made of oats and all the odd bits, stuffed in a sheep's stomach) but my favourite was the vegetarian version.
Words and Photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
EDINBURGH - With the annual Robert Burns Night dinners looming, there may be no better time to explore the topic of haggis, so I took my appetite off to the Scottish Highlands.
I’d barely landed in Edinburgh, when a dinner at the funky Urban Angel offered an opportunity to sample a locally-made haggis, and the ultimate culinary oxymoron, a vegetarian haggis.
For those who don’t know – or don’t want to know - the traditional haggis is classic Scottish peasant food, a sort of sausage, made with leftover bits of lamb innards mixed with oatmeal and onions, seasoned with lots of black pepper and stuffed into a sheep’s stomach. Since the Scottish bard penned an ode to this odd local delicacy, every January 25, the Burns birthday celebration includes an address to the haggis, after said stodgy ball of mystery meat is piped ceremoniously into the dining room, and a dagger is plunged into the heart of it.
While one chef graphically explained to me that the haggis is traditionally made with the lamb “pluck” – “all of the entrails that come out of a sheep when you pull out the windpipe” – most admitted that the best haggis includes better quality ground lamb and organ meats like liver or kidney, with a lot less of the awful offal included.
When my Urban Angel haggis arrived – the specialty of Findlay’s, a local artisan butcher – it was a rich, meaty version, freed from it’s casing (that part's never eaten) and piled in a bowl, in a puddle of creamy leek sauce, with “clapshot mash” (potatoes and turnips) alongside. Because I couldn’t make up my mind, the hearty portion delivered included both this true meaty haggis and MacSween’s veggie facsimile.
The latter was a healthy combination of beans, lentils, carrots, mushrooms, chopped mixed nuts and the obligatory oats — sort of a deconstructed veggie burger — and delicious enough for me to think about creating my own vegetarian haggis at home (scroll down to the bottom for my easy recipe).
VARIATIONS ON THE WEE BEASTIE
In Edinburgh, everyone, from cab drivers to beauticians, offered me advice on where to find the best haggis and I learned that it fills spicy haggis samosas and pakoras, is rolled into haggis “bon bons” for finger food, stuffed into chicken breasts and baked into phyllo pastry haggis spring rolls. You can even buy haggis in a can and “1 minute haggis” – two slices of vegetarian haggis in a convenient, microwavable package – or “Asian haggis” spiced with cumin, coriander and garam masala.
But as I made my way north from Edinburgh, through Perthshire and up to Loch Ness and into the spectacular Trossachs, it was the more traditional meaty haggis that appeared on menus, and I indulged at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
NEEPS, TATTIES OR EGGS ON THE SIDE
Haggis, like fish and chips, is typical pub food, and I had a warm slice of it topped with a big quenelle of potato/turnip mash (a.k.a. Tatties & Neeps or clapshop) at the The Ship Inn pub in Elie, a beachside town across the Firth of Forth. After a chilly late fall walk on the broad sandy beach, it was the perfect way to warm up, with a drink of Scottish ginger wine.
At the Mains of Taymouth, a luxury self-catering condo set-up near Aberfeldy, the gourmet food store had Ramsay’s and MacSween’s regular and vegetarian haggis in the cooler - in baseball and golf ball sizes for small dinners and appetizers along with other Scottish specialties.
At the resort’s Courtyard restaurant the haggis was more refined. They served haggis "bon bons" to start and a Haggis Tower – a round of grilled haggis perched artfully atop a layered stack of mashed potato and golden mashed rutabaga, in a pool of local Aberfeldy whisky sauce.
In North Ballachulish, at a quirky old hotel overlooking Loch Leven, we stopped for lunch, where the chef Dieter Hoffmann-Rollauer baked individual-sized haggis balls in a puff pastry crust and served them with a savoury sauce.
The presentation was his own but the haggis was from a local village butcher, a story I heard at almost every stop.
Most places that serve a full Scottish breakfast include a slice of haggis alongside the blood pudding, back bacon, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomato and fried egg, but it’s rarely made in-house.
Even at the upscale Monachyle Mhor, where chef Tom Lewis uses his own farm eggs, foraged wild mushrooms, Highland beef and black-faced lamb on the menu, and makes all of the bread and desserts from scratch, the haggis comes from the award-winning Aberfoyle Butcher.
And like many of the presentations I found, it arrives like a large salami, stuffed into a synthetic casing, and is sliced and broiled or fried for service.
Only at the Lovat Arms Hotel, at the base of Loch Ness in St. Augustus, did I find a whole traditional ball haggis on the menu - served for two and dubbed Chieftan o’ thae Puddin’ Race, as Burns did in his famous poem.
Back in Edinburgh, Mark Smith, the butcher and owner at George Bower Butchers in Stockbridge, specializes in wild game and traditional “puddings” – black, white and lumpy balls of haggis, stuffed into sheep stomachs.
They’re hanging in the window of the historic shop, alongside freshly-killed pheasants, their iridescent feathers glinting in the low afternoon light.
“There’s more meat in a good haggis these days,” he says, pulling out a £4 specimen and holding it up before a portrait of the bard, as the original butcher did here for a decades-old photo that still hangs behind the meat counter.
“It’s lamb and beef, fully cooked, in a natural casing – rich and meaty with a peppery edge.”
Simply add a piper and pour a dram. Sláinte!
I created this recipe after tasting a vegetarian haggis in a restaurant in Edinburgh. Like the popular MacSween products found in supermarkets across Scotland, it’s a kind of vegetarian loaf made with beans, shredded vegetables, chopped nuts and the requisite steel-cut (pinhead) oats. The caramelized onion gravy I made to serve alongside is good on this veg haggis or on meaty haggis, sourced from the local butcher, too.
1 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup steel cut oats
2/3 cup rolled oats
2/3 cup chopped nuts (mix of almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, etc.)
Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the oats and nuts and toast together for 5-10 minutes, stirring often, until starting to brown. Dump into a bowl and set aside.
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, shredded
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
8 mushrooms, chopped
650-750 ml vegetable or chicken stock (or water), divided
1/3 cup red lentils
½ cup kidney or romano beans (canned/cooked), mashed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried savoury
¼ teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
In the sauté pan, heat the remaining butter and oil over medium heat. Saute the onion until softened and starting to colour. Add the carrots, garlic and mushrooms and sauté 5 minutes longer. Stir in the lentils and 1 cup (250 ml) of the stock. Bring to a boil.
Mix another 250 ml of stock with the mashed beans and soy sauce, and add to the pan. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.
Stir in the toasted oats and nuts and seasonings, bring to a boil, then return the lid to the pan and simmer on low for 15 minutes.
Add another 100-200 ml of broth or water as necessary. This mixture should be moist, but not soupy.
Stir in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning. It may need salt, depending on what kind of broth you’ve used. Turn into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 375 F for 30 minutes. Served with mashed potatoes and turnips. Serves 6.
A nice caramelized onion gravy like this works well alongside this vegetarian haggis or a traditional haggis from the local butcher, too.
3 large onions, peeled and slivered
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups water or broth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
salt and pepper
In a sauté pan, heat the butter and oil over medium low heat and cook the onions, stirring often, until brown and caramelized.
Add the garlic and cook for 5 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with wine, stirring up any browned bits, then stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Gradually add the water or broth and bring to a simmer. Cook 1-2 minutes then add the soy sauce, Worcestershire and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cool slightly. Use a hand held blender (or food processor) to whiz up the sauce, leaving it a little chunky. Reheat and thin to preferred consistency with a splash of water or ale. Makes 4 cups.
© Cinda Chavich