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Chieftain o' the puddin' race


Last Updated: 12:01am BST /01/2001

HAGGIS is a thing that people either love or hate. Fans, largely Scots, expat and stay-at-home, come over all SNP and start spouting Burns at the mere mention, but despite their enthusiasm, very often only get round to eating it once a year. Haggis detractors focus on the ingredients and moo in horror at the prospect of a cocktail of internal organs served up in a sheep's stomach.

But in these days when sweetbreads and black pudding top many a menu, why should diners take such a scunner against this old sausage, which Burns himself described as "warm reekin' rich"?

Which is what Ranald Macdonald Younger of Clanranald, managing director of Boisdale restaurant in London, thinks it is. "Haggis is, in essence, an unevolved medieval sausage," he says. "It was a staple food of the peasantry, made using the less expensive parts of the animal, and it has stuck in its original form. Neeps and tatties, its traditional accompaniment, were introduced as fodder crops, so it was truly a low-budget affair. I love it." Clarissa Dickson Wright thinks the origins are more likely to be Scandinavian, a hangover from Viking incursions - the Icelandic word haggw, meaning to hew, could credibly be linked to haggis. Either way, it is a cheap food, but undeniably warming and robust. Boisdale serves it all year round.

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"It is a very democratic dish," says Colin Bussey, managing director of Simon Howie Butchers, award-winning meat producers and alpha-haggis makers. "It can grace any table." Howie seems to have found the magic formula, and makes a variety that has both good spicing and texture.

It took Bussey (formerly head chef at Gleneagles Hotel), Howie and his team at the plant in Dunning, Perthsire, several months to produce a recipe balancing the ratio of meat to oats and spicing. Having achieved it, the dynamic and steely-eyed Howie is determined that it will grace tables nationwide and not just on Burns Night next Thursday. Indeed, he expects to make some 250,000 haggis in both synthetic and natural casings, and sell in the region of 170,000 through Sainsbury's alone.

Howie's slightly dour demeanor belies his determination to excel at whatever he tackles. There can't be too many award-winning butchers who can claim a patent for a laminate (laminates are his other business, when he's not winning Best Butcher in Scotland) and double as the frontman in a band. Howie is not beyond taking up his button accordion and heading for Dubai or wherever to promote his product (the day I met him, he had just stepped off a plane after two weeks' promotional gigging in Korea).

This relentless energy pays off, however. Non-meat eaters can't get enough of his vegetarian haggis: according to Bussey, he recently took a call from a woman in York who felt moved to congratulate them for having made a dish that is a superb vegetarian meal at any time of year.

On hearing about the hot and spicy variety, her meat-eating husband promptly ordered 10 cases.

They are in good company, because Howie supplies some of Scotland's smartest hotels, including Gleneagles, The Old Course and One Devonshire Gardens, and orders are pouring in from around the world. Everyone from the Princess Royal to former racing driver Jackie Stewart has devoured Simon Howie Haggis.

So how do you serve it? According to cookery writer Sue Lawrence, haggis in natural casings should be roasted in the oven, not boiled as you would a plastic-wrapped haggis. Roasting crisps the skin and also extrudes a lot of the fat.

In her excellent book Scots Cooking, Lawrence recommends that the haggis be wrapped in foil and heated in an oven set at 350F/180C/gas mark 4 for about 45 minutes per 1 lb/450g. From Dubai to Dundee, it will be eaten with mashed swede, potatoes and a dram. Or two.

On January 25, as an expat Scot, I will as I do every year, roast a haggis, bash neeps, champ tatties, souse myself in whisky and recite as much as I can remember of Burns's Address to a Haggis.

As Florence Marian MacNeill says in her book The Scots Kitchen, people who regard haggis as a thing "that the lips should not allow them to enter . . . are, begging their pardon, fools." Quite.

  • Simon Howie Haggis is available from Sainsbury's.
  • Scots Cooking by Sue Lawrence is available from our retail partner, Amazon, for 15.19. Click here to order a copy online.
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