Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’ Race
The other day we had a delightful online festivity with Slow Food Scotland, UK & Wales to celebrate Rabbie Burns & St Dwywen’s Day. St Dwywen is the patron saint of lovers, meaning it’s the “Welsh Valentine’s Day.” With collaboration from Scottish haggis experts, a supper synopsis from Walter, Slow Food Scotland, a fascinating talk from Bryce of Mossgiel and an entertaining movie clip from Nia with her traditional Snowdon Pudding, thanks to everyone who participated and there will be a link here from Slow Food UK when the recorded event is online.
I was invited to talk about the origins of haggis and I thought I would share them with you here… remembering a haggis is not just for Burns Night!
For the Burns Supper, two Ark of Taste products were featured: Hardiesmill haggis with their Native Bred Aberdeen Angus, and John Lawson butchers, (also home of the Ark’s fresh blood black pudding) collaborated with Jack at Ardoch Hebridean mutton to create an Ark of Taste Hebridean mutton haggis specially for the event. If you haven’t tried them, there might be some in stock so I highly recommend you try them, not only for your own enjoyment but also to support our local producers. In addition to the Ark haggis Macbeths Peelham Farm and Ramsays were also recommended for other excellent online options.
Celia Pickup, from Craigadam by Castle Douglas, tells her guests We always have a little bit of fun with guests when they ask what is a Haggis and where do they live? The story of the Haggis running around the hill anti clockwise because one leg is shorter than the other sounds plausible as it is greeted with exclamations of wonder! Can they go and see and can they take a photograph? We have to explain they are very shy timid little creatures. The myth of the “Haggis” lives on… Craigadam Country House
A haggis dish gets a written mention as early as 1390 in a recipe book and by the 18th Century is well-established. When Burns wrote his Address to the Haggis in 1786 the deed was done and the rest is history.
Describing traditional specialties, I have heard oatcakes described as porridge cookies but a haggis, ‘the Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’-race’ is an altogether different beastie! The origins of haggis are contested but I support the Scandinavian theory, based on pretty good evidence. For over ten thousand years Scotland has had strong associations with the Nordic countries, granted not always friendly but nevertheless many settled and trade followed. Indeed during part of these ancient times you could even walk between the two landmasses over Doggerland, flooded around 6,200BC. Scandinavia has long had a similar tradition of a dish exactly like haggis. In Swedish hackas = chop up. They call their haggis dish pölsa, and a similar dish, hakkemat in Norway.
We generally think of haggis as sheep-based however there is no doubt that it would be whatever they had to hand. A good day’s hunting? Then venison would be the order of the day. Otherwise it may just as likely be beef, pig or even goat as there were many on highland smallholdings in days gone by. It was made with the ‘pluck’ or offal: liver, heart and lungs, kidneys minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal's stomach bag, ‘maw’ or ‘paunch’ and boiled. Although liver and kidneys could be fried or grilled, the remaining offal needs more attention to become palatable and as all offal is highly perishable it makes sense to consume it first in the form of a high energy food in a cold climate.
Nowadays we take spices for granted but in bygone days they would certainly have needed to use what they had to hand, likely using horseradish – the pepper of the north – wild caraway, marjoram or sweet cicely. There was also local sea salt to be had. Nowadays Blackthorn Salt resides on Saltpans Road, a sure indicator of Ayr’s salty heritage!
Traditionally we serve haggis with clapshot, a combined mash of turnips – tumshies, swedes, neeps - and potatoes, although haggis is significantly older than either vegetable. Scotland is world famous for its ‘clean’ potatoes. Ask Andrew Skea. Thanks to Brexit, our European cousins cannot currently source our fabulous tatties but hopefully that will be resolved.
The turnips are interesting and again have Nordic roots…
In ancient times Scots would have eaten wild brassicas but it was the Swedes that commercialised the neeps we know today – easy to store, frost-proof (as opposed to our smaller white turnips), and a nourishing food for both animals and humans. Tumshies for haggis are the yellow variety of Swedish turnip, known as swedes, a cross between a cabbage and a turnip, starting life in the mid 17th Century on farmland that today is part of Finland. Its popularity spread west, through Scotland and onwards to the rest of the world. This hardy brassica was perfect for growing in Scotland.
Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, 1674-1738, was a politician but will forever be remembered as Turnip Townshend, pioneer of the four crop rotation method. He dedicated his later years to promoting crops, in particular turnips, as a field crop for livestock and became a major figure in the Agricultural Revolution. Not only did this rotation assist soil health it also paved the way for more animals to be sustained over the harsh winter months.(Neeps pictured with Fiona Pollock at Ardross Farm)
Neeps are known as kålrot in Swedish, are neper in Norwegian. That cannot be a coincidence. Over the English border, ask for a turnip and you won’t get a neep - you have to ask for a swede!
Personally I like my neeps mashed and steaming hot however at school, Bosse and his classmates were given slices of raw turnip at morning break when they were sent out into the bracing winter Swedish air!