“Aye,” they’ll shake their heads, “The haggis is a delicious dish, but they’re wily wee things and hard to catch.” A slight raise of the eyebrow, or a look of interest is all it takes to continue the story.
“As ye may know” (or ken, if they’re laying the highland on heavy for you), “th’ little beasties live on the steepest slopes of the highlands. So steep, that in order for the haggis t’ make their way wi’out falling over, their legs grow longer on the downhill side to keep them upright. This gives them th’ advantage when yer chasin’ em.” They pause long enough for you to nod that you’re following so far.
“So th’only way to catch ‘em is t’ surprise ‘em by coming at ‘em head on, so they have t’ turn ‘round and run th’other way. And of course, wi’ their wee short legs on th’ downhill side, they fall over and you can catch ‘em if yer quick about it.”
In Your Bucket Because…
- Haggis gets a bad rap; its ingredients – lamb innards, oatmeal, onion and spices — are far less a mystery than most American sausage, and it never ever contains pink slime.
- The beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the Address to the Haggis, which is read with great fanfare as the haggis is cut – what other food is regularly accorded a ceremony of its own?
- Good for those who need a good excuse for a wee nip at breakfast.
My haggis hunt took a slightly different turn. I was in search of a haggis that could be shipped safely to a haggis-loving expat in France. It would be without refrigeration for a few days and I had been told that Macsween makes a good tinned haggis. I knew the Macsween name from up-scale menus where it’s often credited, and I’d had it for breakfast a couple of times, so knew it was good.
To digress for a word about haggis: It is a noble and historic dish, and much maligned by those who have never tasted it. It is made from an assortment of lamb meats, including liver, kidneys and other pieces-parts ground and mixed with Scottish oats, onion and seasonings. The mixture is stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, in the same way that sausage meat is stuffed into lengths of intestine, known here euphemistically as “sausage casings.”
Haggis is boiled for several hours until the meat and oats have cooked and the flavors blended into a savory dish that bears not the least trace of liver or any other single ingredient, not even a “lamby” taste. The closest description I can come up with is that it somewhat resembles corned-beef hash, without being salty and without the potatoes. The oatmeal holds it together a bit, but a good haggis is still just a bit crumbly and has a pleasant chewy mouthfeel (thanks to the oats).
The Hunt is On
“You’ll find it everywhere,” I was assured, but that turned out to be almost as tall a tale as the short-leggedy beasties. Not wanting to haul around a can of anything for two weeks, and since we’d been on board the Hebridean Princess in out-of-the-way places with no stores nearby, our last two days in Glasgow seemed the best time to get it. I never saw it for sale, but just to be sure I kept asking, and everywhere I was told I’d have no trouble finding it in Glasgow at any shop that sold Scottish goods.
In Edinburgh these are on every corner and even thicker along the Royal Mile. But Glasgow sees fewer tourists, and makes less of its Scotch-ness, so nary a kilt shop in sight. I took my problem to the concierge of my hotel, the Blythswood Square, for whom finding things for guests is all in a day’s work. I posed this question along with where to find a good cheese monger.
Glasgow’s Best Cheese Monger
“Mellis,” he replied to the latter without hesitation. “They’re the best cheese monger in Scotland and they supply all the best restaurants.” Their shop, he showed me on the map, is across the park from the museum whose hours I’d just asked about. “It’s a nice walk, past the university buildings, and Mellis will know where in that neighborhood you can find haggis.”
Mellis was all he’d promised as cheese purveyors, but they weren’t so sure about the haggis.
“You’ll find it in grocery stores,” I was told. “There’s a specialty food store in the next block, next to the greengrocer. They’ll probably have it. Or they’ll know who does.”
Sure enough, at the food shop they nodded and pointed us to the cooler. “That’s all we have, not tinned,” they told me. And it was Macsween’s. I picked up the package and wondered how long it could safely keep. As I read the ingredients, I became very suspicious and turned it over. There in very tiny print under the Macsween Haggis logo, it said “The finest vegetarian haggis.”
I have nothing against vegetarians, but if it isn’t made from the unmentionable parts of a sheep, it’s not haggis. “Hmmm, we must have run out of the meat haggis.” And where would we find meat haggis? Meat haggis canned to ship or carry, safe to travel in the summer for five days? The answer was in a shop designed for travelers, in short, a Scottish shop
We hailed a cab and told the cab driver our story. Was there a Scottish shop in the downtown streets near our hotel? There was, but he thought it was mostly kilts. “You’d be better off in the food halls of Marks & Spenser” he suggested, and took us to Sauchiehall Street, as close as he could drive to the department store nearest our hotel.
I was becoming less confident of success by the minute. This is now late Monday afternoon and we fly out on Tuesday morning. I already had a box to mail it in, and nip-sized bottle of Scotch whiskey, (finding that is another story, since no Scotsman I asked could see any reason to want only a nip of whiskey). And now it was looking like I’d be able to send the wee dram of Scotch and not the haggis to put it on.
No luck at Marks & Sparks, so I headed to the last hope, a Sainsbury’s. That turned out to be a Sainsbury’s Local – a convenience store mini version of their supermarkets. Fat chance, I thought, as I asked the man at the door. To my surprise, he led me straight to a shelf of canned goods and pointed out the haggis.
It wasn’t Macsween’s, and it may be terrible, but it’s haggis and she can always pour a little more Scotch over it. Maybe that will confuse it as much as making it run the wrong way on its wee uneven legs.
The best haggis may be made by a good local butcher, but Macsween’s is served proudly by some of the finest country house hotels in Scotland. All haggis is not created equal, but Grant’s is another well recognized brand. You can’t bring haggis back to the United States. It will be confiscated on arrival, so enjoy it in Scotland. If you want a real experience, apply at a local Scottish constabulary for a license to hunt haggis.