In recent times, Scotland’s most famous contribution to gastronomy has been the deep-fried Mars bar. What began in 1995 as a novelty in a fish and chip shop in Stonehaven, an apparently shortlived joke, was taken up and sensationalised by the national press and soon was widely adopted. Just as rapidly it became a useful shorthand term for anyone wishing to moralise on the evils of fast food in general and the notorious unhealthiness of the current Scottish diet in particular.
More recently the technique has been rehabilitated for aspirational foodies – Nigella Lawson offered a deep-fried Bounty Bar in her TV series, Nigella Bites.
But Scotland’s traditional national dish, the haggis, is also more than just a food. It might seem perverse that a country that produces so many superlative ingredients – beef, salmon, venison, grouse, game of all types – should have elevated such a homely dish of oatmeal and lamb’s offal (that’s the pluck: heart, lungs and liver) into its national culinary icon. In the 18th century haggis was not regarded as a Scottish dish – versions of it were eaten throughout the British Isles. The Swedes still have their own version, Polsa, and primitive haggis is mentioned in Book 20 of Homer’s Odyssey. However, what began as a joke by Robert Burns eventually managed to transform it into a symbol of Scottish identity. Tonight is Burns Night, which this year celebrates the 254th birthday of Scotland’s national poet. Burns Suppers across the world mark the annual high point of haggis consumption. And the high point of the evening is its ceremonial arrival at the dinner table, to bagpipe accompaniment, and the declaiming of “The Address to a Haggis” by the most flamboyant thesp available.
Burns is supposed to have composed the final stanza of the poem extempore at a family supper at a friend’s house in Mauchline, Ayrshire. It’s meant to be funny and should be if properly done – an extravagant ode in mock-heroic terms to a boiled sheep’s stomach, “great chieftain of the pudding race”. It ridicules French ragouts and fricassees in contrast to the simple honesty of the haggis.
It was this that romantic nationalists seized as a suitable self-image for a country poor in material resources, but rich in moral virtue, skills and resource: a half-ironical, half-serious defence of unsophisticated peasant worth over the decadent, citified frivolities of the city. This is a country whose national emblem is the prickly leaved thistle. The address is an injunction to not judge by appearances, but on character.
Burns has always been and remains a poet of remarkable global appeal, even beyond the extent of the former British Empire. He was already popular in 19th-century Russia and after the October Revolution he was cherished in the Soviet Union. The democratic egalitarianism of “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” made him a hero of socialism and internationalism. Bob Dylan has said that “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” was his greatest creative inspiration.
The first Burns Supper was held in 1801 and as they grew in popularity at home and abroad throughout the 19th century there was the simultaneous making of haggis and a national myth. In the 1920s, Marian McNeill, a folklorist and one of the early members of the Scottish National Party, wrote: “The choice of haggis as the supreme national dish of Scotland is very fitting. It is a testimony to the national gift of making the most of small means; for in the haggis we have concocted from humble, even despised ingredients a veritable plat de gourmets. It contains a proportion of oatmeal, for centuries the national staple grain, whilst the savoury and wholesome blending of the cereal with onion and suet… is typically Scottish. Further, it is a thoroughly democratic dish, equally available and equally honoured in castle, farm and croft. Finally, the use of the paunch of the animal as the receptacle of the ingredients gives that touch of romantic barbarism so dear to the Scottish heart.”
And so it seems to remain. Ranald Macdonald, proprietor of the Scottish restaurant Boisdale in London’s Belgravia (and its outposts in the City and Canary Wharf ) has haggis on his menu throughout the year and finds that it is the most popular choice. They get through 3,000kg of the stuff annually (sourced from the famous manufacturer, MacSween of Edinburgh).
Most of the commonly available versions you are likely to find in butchers and supermarkets have a nutty, savoury flavour, distinctive but not overpowering. Although it’s composed of minced lamb’s heart and liver, the toasted oatmeal means it’s not meaty like a pork sausage but has more a moist open texture like couscous.
It is certainly still a part of the regular Scots’ diet – not least because it has been incorporated into the standard repertoire of the Scottish chippy, along with cod, haddock and, er, the deep-fried Mars bar. I grew up in Aberdeen, a fine city but with a challenging climate. The recent freezing weather and snow blanket that has unusually covered so much of the country last week is an annual event there. I can assure you that on a Saturday in January after an evening in the pub the haggis supper – haggis in the form of a substantial sausage coated in batter and deep-fried till crisp, with a bag of chips – is the ideal antidote to standing on a frozen pavement waiting for the last bus home.
But haggis is at home everywhere in society. Somewhat to my surprise at a smart west London dinner party recently the six sat down after champagne and gravlax nibbles to haggis with the traditional accompaniments of mashed tatties and neeps (swede). My English hostess, who puts in long hours in the City, assured me that haggis’s ease of cooking and gamey sophistication make it a godsend for midweek entertaining.