Haggis in HistoryDavid and Susie Arnold
Haggis, or foods like Haggis, have been around since time immemorial. The notion of preparing a savoury dish by boiling or steaming minced ingredients in the stomach or intestine of an animal must have occurred to humans very shortly after the discovery of fire and of cooking.
The oldest recipe on record for a Haggis-like preparation comes from Apicius (80BC - 40AD), the Roman gourmet/gourmand who wrote the oldest surviving cookery book. This recipe uses pork rather than lamb or mutton:
[BOOK VII, CHAPTER VII, NUMBER 285]
CLEAN THE PAUNCH OF A SUCKLING PIG WELL WITH SALT AND VINEGAR AND PRESENTLY WASH WITH WATER. THEN FILL IT WITH THE FOLLOWING DRESSING: PIECES OF PORK POUNDED IN THE MORTAR, THREE BRAINS -- THE NERVES REMOVED -- MIX WITH RAW EGGS, ADD NUTS, WHOLE PEPPER, SAUCE [garum or liquamen, a Roman condiment similar to Thai fish sauce or Vietnamese Nuoc Mam] TO TASTE. CRUSH PEPPER, LOVAGE, SILPHIUM [an extinct seasoning belived to have been similar to asafoetida], ANISE, GINGER, A LITTLE RUE; FILL THE PAUNCH WITH IT, NOT TOO MUCH, THOUGH, LEAVING PLENTY OF ROOM FOR EXPANSION LEST IT BURST WHILE BEING COOKED. PUT IT IN A POT WITH BOILING WATER, RETIRE AND PRICK WITH A NEEDLE SO THAT IT DOES NOT BURST. WHEN HALF DONE, TAKE IT OUT AND HANG IT INTO THE SMOKE TO TAKE ON COLOR; NOW BOIL IT OVER AGAIN AND FINISH IT LEISURELY. NEXT TAKE THE BROTH, SOME PURE WINE AND A LITTLE OIL, OPEN THE PAUNCH WITH A SMALL KNIFE. SPRINKLE WITH THE BROTH AND [WINE]; PLACE THE [PAUNCH] NEAR THE FIRE TO HEAT IT, TURN IT AROUND IN BRAN [or bread crumbs] IMMERSE IN [i.e. sprinkle with] BRINE AND FINISH [the outer crust to golden brown]1
This cooking technique was certainly not a novelty in Roman times. Apicius was reknown for setting a lavish table; so much so that, when he discovered that his expensive habits had drained his treasury, he committed suicide rather than abandon the lifstyle to which he had become accustomed. His recipes reflect the very finest of Roman dining.
Although Haggis is considered a Scottish country food, it is clear that Robert Burns's family was so impoverished as to subsist on much ruder fare. In fact, the staple of the serf or peasant from medieval times until quite recently has been little more than porridge, gruel, beans and cabbage.
Burns wrote his Address to a Haggis during his stay in Edinburgh in the Fall of 1786 after the success of the publication of the Kilmarnock Edition of his poems:
"Robert Burns, on his first visit to Edinburgh, has come from Ayrshire seeking approbation from the great and illustrious in the land. Already he has made a good impression on the intelligentsia and they clamour to invite him to their private and social functions at the Assembly Rooms and St Cecilia's Hall. But, the truth is that, while enjoying the adulation, he finds their affiars unbearably stiff and formal. Though he needs their help, their accolade means little to him -- a bubble quickly burst -- and he would much rather spend his time socializing in the less sophisticated taverns where the atmosphere is more relaxed, where the homogeneous mix of social classes allows Lord Povost to sit with the humble caddie...
"The tavern fare is more to his taste, too, and particularly at Dowie's. Not a claret and French fricassee man, he describes brandy as 'burning trash'. His drink is ale and the 'rascally' Highland Gill, not yet fully nationalized as whisky... Johnie Dowie takes great pleasure in hospitality and every sort of kindliness and discretion. He is one of the finest landlords Burns has come across; in caring for his customers nothing is too much trouble.
"Tonight the smiling John brings in a fine gamy dish of jugged hare and rich apple pie flavoured with lemon and cinnamon, raisins, almonds, and some finely chopped lemon and orange peel. They have this around nine o'clock, and then later Dowie tempts them to a tangy Welsh rarebit: his wife melts some ripe hard cheese on a plate in the hot hearth and then mixes it with ale and secret spicing while Dowie toasts the bread in front of the glowing coals.
"It is not the hamely Ayrshire fare that Burns is accustomed to. His family are poor farmers and food is limited to the daily contents of the kail pot along with bowls of brose (meal and hot water) for filling up and hard oatcakes and ripe cheeses for taking to the fields...
"Not long after he arrives in Edinburg an Ayrshire friend, the merchant Andrew Bruce, invites him for a family supper. Bruce's wife has made haggis puddings that day specially for the supper. Using the pluck (innards) of the sheep which she bought from the Flesh Market first thing that morning, she has spent the best part of the day boiling, chopping, and then stuffing the stomach bags, until the muckle pot is eventually filled full of plump haggis puddings tumbling in the bubbling boil. And they eat them that night, appreciating their quality and feeling the satisfaction of eating something good made out of odds and ends -- bits and pieces which separately have no real value...
"To celebrate the haggis and the special supper with his Ayrshire firends, Burns wrote a tribute to the 'Great Chieftan o' the pudding-race!'. 'The Address' appears in the December issue of the Caledonian Mercury and in the January issue of the Scots Magazine."2
It would appear that, when Burns chides him "that owre his French ragout" and the "Poor devil" one sees "owre his trash", he is not referring to Continental customs, but rather poking fun at the Edinburgh Upper Crust!
Here is a recipe for Haggis that might very well be like the one that Burns enjoyed, from Suzanna MacIver, Cookery and pastry. As taught and practiced by Mrs MacIver, teacher of those arts in Edinburgh, 3rd edition, 1782:
Make the haggies-bag perfectly clean; parboil the draught [lung]; boil the liver very well, so as it will grate; dry the meal before the fire; mince the draught and a pretty large piece of beef very small; grate about half of the liver; mince plenty of suet, and some onions small; mix all these materials together, with a handful or two of the dried meal; spread them on the table, and season them properly with salt and mixed spices; take any of the scraps of beef that is left from mincing, and some of the water that boiled the draught, and make about a choppin of good stock of it; then put all the haggies-meat into the bag, and that broath in it; then sew up the bag; but be sure to put out all the wind before you sew it quite close. If you think the bag is thin, you may put it in a cloth. If it is a large haggies, it will take at least two hours boiling.3