Fair fa’ your honest sonsie face,
Great Cheftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ you tak your place,
Painch, tripe or thairm:
Weel are you worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my airm.
In Scotland, the 25th of January is known as Burns’s Night, the anniversary of the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scottish Poet, born in 1759. Coming from a humble background, and making a poor living as a labourer and a farmer, he wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the Scots language.
He also wrote a humorous ‘Address’ to a haggis, extolling its virtues as a food above all others – even tastier than ragout and fricassee!
Traditionally, Burns Night is celebrated with a Burn’s Supper – namely a meal consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties. The meal may, or may not, be accompanied by bagpipes, dancing and recitations, but the food is always traditional.
(Neeps are our word for the swede turnip – the large orange one, which gets mashed up. Tatties are, of course, potatoes, also traditionally mashed.)
More about haggis in a minute.
Now, I was aware that Burns Night is celebrated in different parts of the world, and not always by the Scottish diaspora. It is particularly celebrated in Russia, where Rabbie is seen as a people’s poet, who celebrates the working man. You really haven’t lived until you have heard a recording of the Red Army Choir singing one of Burns’ songs, Annie Laurie!
For some reason, I have never taken a photograph of haggis, but bagpipes are surprisingly popular instruments in many countries. Whilst exploring the Roman ruins at Jerash in Jordan, I was drawn to an amphitheatre by the sound of the pipes – and enjoyed jigging along to the Jordanian pipes and drums!
I have even celebrated Burns night in England, where I was living, although being served haggis, neeps and tatties with gravy and peas was just a step too far…
But, despite knowing that we shared the Immortal Bard with the rest of the world, I had always assumed that haggis, our national dish, was ours alone.
Oh, I was so wrong!
Haggis, I have to say, is absolutely delicious. Keep that in your mind, despite what you may read about the ingredients. Doing a quick bit of research online, I found a cookery site in the USA which warned that ‘some of the true ingredients of a Scottish haggis recipe are officially considered unfit for human consumption by the United States Department of Agriculture’. They don’t know what they are missing! In fact, the site suggests a recipe involving sausage mince, kidney beans and turkey meat as a replacement….
Haggis is traditionally made from ‘sheep’s puck’ (the heart, lungs and liver – usually from lamb), minced with onion, oatmeal, seasoning and spices, it is wrapped in a sheep’s stomach (more commonly synthetic these days), and cooked or boiled, depending on preference. A good spicy haggis is a hearty, tasty meal, with the neeps and tatties – and whisky – the best accompaniment. And it is probably one of the few dishes where the vegetarian version is just as good.
So when I was told by friends in Kenya that they had a traditional dish called mutura, which sounded suspiciously like haggis, I was intrigued. It was, as they described it, the insides of the animal, minced with spices and blood, and wrapped in the stomach of a sheep. I had my first (and last) taste of mutura one Easter when my friend Veronica took me to her family home up country near Mount Kenya.
Sitting on a grill, over glowing charcoals, were a bunch of small fat parcels, each fastened with a long acacia spike. These, I was told, were mutura, and of course I could have one!
As I sat in the warm Kenyan evening, I sliced open the pouch. Inside, it looked nothing like a haggis, which is dark and minced. This was, instead, filled with chunks of pale sweetmeats. Chunks of what looked like intestine and other internal parts which were only roughly chopped, and had the ridges and follicles of their original appearance. Once I got over the sight, I discovered that it was tasty, but incredibly chewy! In fact, I felt that I chewed and chewed on the same piece for ages. I was grateful for the fast Kenyan sunset, and the dog who became my best friend, who helped me to chew my way through that Kenyan haggis. I would still have been eating it the following morning if I didn’t get his help!
So, wherever you are, whatever the ingredients in your haggis (please, not turkey though!), I wish you a great Burns Night!
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But if you wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!