The tourist’s guide to Scottish Haggis
There is a list of rituals that seemingly every visitor to Scotland must partake in.
You know what I’m talking about: the whisky appreciation class; researching the ‘family tartan’ (and dropping a couple of hundred on a generic Royal Stewart kilt that’ll be worn once); cornering anyone too slow to escape and boring them silly about their tenuous Scottish heritage.
Great grand-daddy’s cousin’s interior decorator was a proud Campbell, doncher know?
Of course, being newly-arrived in the country myself, I’ve spent a fair bit of time visiting tourist attractions, from the Royal and Ancient Museum of Golf to a faux-ceilidh that was dodgier than Mel Gibson’s Scottish accent.
In fact, during my short time here I’ve probably been involved in enough bagpipery, Buckfastery and tours of Bannockburn to qualify as a full-blown menace to Scottish culture.
There’s just one thing left for me to do before my complete desecration of Scotland and her people is complete – something so hideously Caledonian that it’s been banned in the USA for nigh 40 years:
I need to tackle the Haggis.
History of the haggis
The haggis, (plural haggi), like mink, vole, or the Scottish wildcat, was once endemic across Europe but is now found only in highly restricted ranges – and, even there, is becoming rarer.
Along with the common otter, wild haggi were hunted extensively in the British Isles for both fur and oil. In the northern reaches and especially in the Scottish Highlands they were prized for the quality of their tasty tasty meat, and because they were readily available during leaner winter months when the oat farms went dry and many other sources of food disappeared.
To reduce wastage, most elements of the haggis were used rather than thrown away. Thus, it was common at the point of a hunt to quickly cook the delicious internal organs and blood rather than discard them or let them spoil.
As the best hunter was the one who received the largest organ – the stomach – it became, over time, a point of honour to be able to serve your guests multiple haggis stomachs, indicating that you’d recently led several successful haggis-chases. Other products such as sporrans and even prestigious sets of bagpipes were produced from haggis fur or the stomachs of now-extinct greater haggi.
All good things come to an end, and humans being humans we’ve now wiped out most of the haggis population. Scotland still has some (protected) wild haggis reserves as well as a thriving haggis farming industry, but most of the haggis that’s available these days is imitation made from beef and pork.
However, with a little searching, it’s still possible to enjoy a haggis steak with its traditional accompaniment of french fries and cheese sauce.
Prepare your taste buds
The first thing you’ll notice about haggis is the smell. Best described as eau d’ fermented dog meat, it’s not necessarily the most attractive aspect of the meal.
The appearance will strike you next. A well-plated and presented haggis will appear as a tower of dark, succulent mince above a crispy tower of curly fries, covered in a cloak of melted cheese – like a Philadelphia cheesesteak in the form of a squat little silo. A poorly-plated haggis, however, will not disguise the fact that what you are eating is essentially porridge made out of colon and blood.
The taste and texture are not as confrontational as you might expect, and in fact put me in mind of chicken stuffing. A really well-cooked haggis will be moist with a little bit of gravy, and the tang of the cheese sauce will overpower any lingering je ne sais quoi of animal cloaca, (which connoisseurs grow to love).
Scots, being miserly and miserable, are wont to try to offload the cheaper stuff on unsuspecting tourists – especially in popular areas like the Royal Mile. Here’s a few tips to avoid the common tourist scams:
Speaking very loudly and slowly, (so that they can’t misunderstand your accent), inform your waiter that you’re an American and you know your rights. Tell him that you demand the highest quality wild haggis meat (or from a sustainably farmed haggis beast if you’re a greenie).
The waiter may deny knowledge of what you’re talking about. Assert again – as loudly and firmly as you can – that you’re an American and you know your rights, god damn it. Ask to speak to the manager.
They should know by now that you mean business, especially if other diners are taking an interest. When the manager comes, let him know that you’re here for the finest haggis meat and that you won’t accept any substitute.
And whatever you do, make sure you ask for extra cheese sauce.
Those stingy Scot bastards will do anything to save a penny.
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