Food & Drink: For starters catch your Haggis

Michael Bateman eschews the traditional Burns Night supper for a Sassenach alternative which includes haggis on toast, pickled turnips and deep-fried dumplings in batter
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The Independent Culture
COME 25 January, it's unlikely that many of us south of the border will be tucking into the traditional Burns Night supper of haggis, neeps and tatties. But we've taken a few liberties with the culinary side of this national festival to offer a reconstructed version of the dinner, dreamt up by a Sassenach.

Henry Harris, head chef at the acclaimed Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols, is the Sassenach in question. He is a thoroughly modern English chef. The son of a Brighton restaurateur, he spent the early part of his career as sous-chef to Simon Hopkinson (at Hilaire, and then at Bibendum) until he took over at Fifth Floor. His mother, however, is of Scottish descent (a McMillan) which might explain why haggis is one of Henry's hundred favourite ingredients (though not ahead of garlic, chillies and Scottish beef, which he reckons is "the best on the planet").

Scottish malt whisky is also something of a passion with Henry, a few wee drams of which may have given him the courage to attempt this mod- ern version of a traditional meal which goes back 200 years. But then, as his Glaswegian chef says: "If Mel Gibson can play William Wallace, then Henry can cook Burns Night supper."

Robert Burns wrote the words of Auld Lang Syne with which we welcome in the New Year. It is another poem, his famous To A Haggis which is remembered next Sunday during an evening of steamy toasts, accompanying the piping in of the haggis. The poem goes like this:

Fair fa' [may good befall] your honest, sonsie [comely] face,

Great chieftain o' the puddin'-race!

Aboon them a' ye tak your place,

Painch [paunch], tripe or thairm [intestines or chitterlings]:

Weel are ye wordy o' a grace [worthy of a grace]

As lang's my arm.

Did Robbie Burns really think haggis a great dish? Probably not, says Scottish food historian Catherine Brown. At that time it wasn't even a specially Scottish dish and 18th-century English cookery books featured the same pudding, usually spelt "haggas". Roast beef was probably a more popular Scottish festive choice. So why did Burns choose to nationalise the haggis? "We can only assume that Burns, the iconoclast, looked around for the best example of Scots ingenuity and thrift," says Brown, "the most plebeian dish. This would best symbolise honest peasant food. He needed a worthy challenge to the city food fripperies and their attendant pretensions which he so detested. He found it in the haggis."

Marian McNeill, author of that marvellous history of Scottish food, The Scots Kitchen (written in 1929), defines haggis as a super-sausage. She dismisses claims that it might have been of French origin, deriving from the Auld Alliance. Not so much haggis from the French hachis (meaning chopped or cut up), she says, as haggis from the Scottish hag (to hack).

But haggis certainly did find its way to those Scots exiled in France. There it was known as le pain benit d'Ecosse (blessed bread of Scotland) and, according to McNeill, was to be found on French menus as Pudding de St Andre.

The basic ingredient of haggis is oatmeal, not the flattened oatflakes of Sassenach porridge but the tough grains which the Scots know as pinhead oatmeal. Into this is mixed chopped offal from the "pluck", that is to say the liver, heart and lung, as well as beef suet, onions, black pepper, salt and gravy.

All are mixed together, then stuffed into the paunch (the stomach bag of a sheep). It is only half-filled, in order to let the contents expand in the cooking. Prick the haggis with a needle as it swells to prevent it from bursting. Simmer for three hours and eat with mashed potatoes and mashed neeps (turnip).

Variations are many. Minced lean mutton, for example, can be used instead of lungs. Or the addition of nutmeg or dried herbs, lemon or vinegar. The famous Scottish food writer Meg Dods described a Haggis Royal which contained no offal but 3lb of best minced leg of mutton, with beef suet and beef marrow, breadcrumbs, anchovies, eggs, red wine, parsley and cayenne.

In today's menu for Burns Night supper Henry Harris has not ventured to disturb the actual recipe. But he does serve the haggis as a starter on brioche, and gives the neeps a Japanese twist.

For the main course, he gives prominence instead to that great glory of Scottish waters, the salmon, creating a recipe which isn't a million miles from a properly made Swedish gravadlax.

Henry puzzled over the dessert, wondering how to dramatise cloutie dumpling, the seasonal Scottish suet pudding cooked in a cloth (cloutie). In Glasgow, his Scottish chef confirmed, they deep-fry everything in batter. Why not cloutie dumpling? Henry decided to dip fingers of the suet pudding into a beer batter and then deep-fry them.

This is not a dish for slimmers or for those watching their hearts. But there can be no better prompting to clean the palate with a glass or three of one of Henry's favourite malts - Rosebank Lowland Malt, a 21-year-old Coal Ila and a 10-year-old Teaninich - all three of which he has cunningly incorporated into the dishes below: the haggis on brioche, the roast salmon and the deep-fried cloutie dumpling.

Here are Henry's drinking notes. Rosebank Lowland Malt, made with soft water, matches the salmon, the least assertive of the dishes. Triple-distilled, light amber with golden and lemon highlights. Medium nose, greenish, good edge. Flavour, light, smooth, well-balanced. Pleasant light finish.

The 21-year-old Coal Ila goes with the haggis. Pale golden and peated. Not as heavy as south Islay malts, astonishingly fresh in style, with a powerful finish. Robust medicinal character from the heathery peat used in the malting.

The 10-year-old Teaninich, for the pudding, comes from the River Alness near Cromarty Firth. Pale straw yellow. Fresh, light nose with green peatiness. Medium sweet, apple character.

Henry recommends each may be drunk to accompany the meal, diluted 50- 50 with Highland spring water. But drunk after the meal as a digestive, he wouldn't insult a malt by adding water. "Water," he says, "is best left to wash your hands in."

HAGGIS ON TOAST

Serves 8

1 x 2lb/900g haggis

1 tablespoon butter

2 large onions

100ml/312fl oz white wine

150ml/14 pint whipping cream

8 slices brioche

50ml/2fl oz malt whisky from Islay

Simmer the haggis in boiling water for about two hours.

Meanwhile melt the butter in a small saucepan. Finely slice the onions and add them to the butter along with the white wine and a seasoning of salt and pepper. Cover and cook gently for 30 to 40 minutes. Then add the cream. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until a light creamy texture is achieved. Keep this onion sauce warm.

Toast the brioche, remove the crusts and arrange on four warm plates.

Remove the haggis from the water and cut an opening in the outer casing. Arrange some haggis as attractively as possible on top of each toast. Spoon the onion sauce around the edge and finally warm the whisky and set fire to it. Spoon a little of the flaming whisky on to each toast. Serve immediately with a dram of 21-year-old Coal Ila.

MARINATED SALMON

Flavoured with a rosemary, whisky and peppercorn marinade this salmon is baked and served with turnip pickle.

Serves 8

1 large side of fresh salmon trimmed and pin-boned, approximately 2kg/4lb 8oz in weight

1kg/2lb 4oz caster sugar

500g/1lb 2oz rock salt

100ml/312fl oz Rosebank Lowland malt whisky

2 teaspoons cracked peppercorns

1 small bunch rosemary, coarsely chopped

500g/1lb 2oz turnip

salt

4 tablespoons sugar

250ml/8fl oz rice vinegar

1 small red chilli, seeded and finely chopped

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Lay the side of salmon in a shallow dish. Combine the caster sugar, rock salt, malt whisky, peppercorns and rosemary, and spread this paste over the flesh of the salmon. Cover and then refrigerate for 24 hours.

Meanwhile, finely slice the turnips on a mandolin and sprinkle with salt and leave in a colander for one hour. Then wash the turnips in plenty of cold water. Pat them dry and combine with the rice vinegar, sugar, chilli and ginger and refrigerate for at least eight hours.

Preheat your oven to 240C/475F/Gas 9. Rinse the marinade off the salmon and pat dry. Divide the fish into eight portions, place on a heavy baking sheet and roast in the oven for 10 minutes. The salmon should be cooked until it is rare in the middle. Arrange the salmon pieces on eight plates. Then lift the turnip pickle out of the vinegar and use as a garnish.

Serve immediately along with the mustard sauce.

MUSTARD SAUCE

Serves 8

200g/7oz Dijon mustard

75g/212oz sugar

250ml/8fl oz white wine

Combine all three ingredients in a pan and bring to the boil, whisking continuously. Simmer for three minutes and remove from the heat.

CREAM PUDDING WITH DUMPLING FRITTERS

Serves 8

4 tablespoons porridge oats

75ml/212fl oz Teaninich malt whisky from the Highlands

500g/1lb 2oz blackberries

100g/312oz caster sugar and 3 tablespoons vanilla sugar

1 litre/134 pints double cream

500g/1lb 2oz fruit dumpling (traditional suet pudding with dried fruits, spices, grated apple and carrot)

plain flour

beer batter (your favourite batter recipe made with 2/3 lager and 1/3 milk)

The day before: place oats in small bowl with whisky, cover and leave overnight. In a small saucepan cook down the blackberries and caster sugar until they form a nice runny compote. Set aside to cool and refrigerate until needed.

On the day: preheat a deep fat fryer to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Combine cream and vanilla sugar and whip until it forms soft, floppy peaks, then fold in the soaked oats and the blackberries. Store in the refrigerator until required.

Finally cut the dumpling into slices and then into fingers. Roll them in the plain flour and then, in small batches, dip them in the batter and fry until golden brown. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper.

To serve, place a couple of spoonfuls of the cream mixture on each plate and garnish with fritters.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRANCESCA YORKE

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