Saturday, 25 January 2014

All hail the mighty haggis

Burns Night (2011)
It was on the Isle of Skye, in something or other BDC (before digital cameras) that I first tasted haggis.

On one our relatively rare holidays – and helped enormously by generous friends that we were with – we spent a week on the island, based in Uig.

The name derives from the Norse Vik, meaning bay. And with a population of 200 it could make Tebay – population 728 and the first place I lived – seem like a veritable metropolis.

Many of the few locals spoke Scots Gaelic and would pointedly do so in front of we Sassanachs on occasion.

The trip was memorable for a number of reasons.

There was a sighting of the Northern Lights – very lucky for October.

There was the rather puritan B&B in which we stayed, where disapproval of the unmarried state of The Other Half and I was clear, together with a complete inability to take cheques.

Then there was my first ever horse ride – which culminated in being thrown after the horse behind mine bit the bum of the mount I was just starting to get used to, and left me with massive bruising all down one thigh and leg: and that after I’d landed well, according to the woman in charge.

Then there were all the walks – the Quiraing is an amazing sight to behold, like stumbling into a fantasy world, but I do not do unprotected heights very well at all, and pea gravel is a nightmare to try to scramble up.

And finally there was the food.

Now this was in the days before I ‘discovered’ food, but two things still stand out.

First, the vast, magnificent Staffin Bay prawns that I tasted after surviving the Quiraing, and second, the haggis.

For most of the week, we ate in the pub/caff next to the ferry terminal. And after a debut taste of haggis on our first evening there, it became regular fodder.

The place was presided over by a delightful woman who, rumour had it, doubled as the local tart, the place was welcoming and warm. And it also boasted a pool table, which was about the sum of Uig's night life.

So ever since – even if only when Burns Night hoves into view – we have quaffed haggis.

With Andy’s game stall now sadly long gone from Broadway Market, I ordered one from Waitrose to make sure.

It was, however, a Macsween – very traditional and with nary an additive to be found.

Larousse Gastronomique, that bible of matters culinary, says: “Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour”.

Although it’s synonymous with Scotland, there’s no historical evidence to make it certain where it originated.

The first known written recipe for anything like it – ‘hagese’ – made with offal and herbs, is in the verse cookbook Liber Cure Cocorum dating from around 1430 in Lancashire.

Try reading the following in your best Chaucerian:

For hagese’.
_e hert of schepe, _e nere _ou take,
_o bowel noght _ou shalle forsake,
On _e turbilen made, and boyled wele,
Hacke alle togeder with gode persole,

And there’s another printed recipe from in 1615’s The English Huswife by Gervase Markham.

Haggis is a doddle to cook. Either simmer in water for an hour or so, or remove the outer casing, wrap tightly in foil and roast in a dish with 2cm of water in the bottom and cook for an hour at 160˚C (fan).

I tend to go for the former, but decided that, since a change is as good as a rest, I do it the other way this evening.

Then there’s the question of the accompaniment. ‘Tatties and neeps’ is, of course, the properly traditional one, which is only a tad confused by English regional differences in whether a ‘neep’ is a swede or a turnip.

The former again, for me.

So some plain boiled spuds on the side, with diced swede, cooked and then crushed roughly, and with butter and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper added.

All of which leaves the small matter of the sauce.

Now the really traditional way to do it involves whisky. A sauce can be made with this and mustard, but since neither of us is a particularly big fan and haggis can be a bit dry, I decided to look for something else this year.

Nick Nairn – a Michelin-starred chef and a Scot himself – has recipes for using Scotch, but suggests reducing half a pint of beef stock and some red wine, before whisking in a knob of butter and seasoning for an alternative to the whisky route.

So that was what I decided to do this time around.

The complication was that I had no beef stock in – and I’m increasingly reluctant to use any form of bought stock, whether cubes of powder or liquid: they’re all far too strong a taste.

So instead, I started with sweating onion, carrot and celery in butter, before adding water and wine, plus bay leaves and black peppercorns.

After you’ve reduced that, you can strain and then add the butter to give a little gloss and thicken slightly.

We don’t do any ceremony with our haggis, but it’s a most enjoyable meal and, in this case, the sauce worked excellently in providing moisture without the whisky.

Unbeatable fodder for a cold, dark January night.

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