We're just a couple of days from one of Scotland's biggest annual cultural events - Burns Night commemorates and celebrates the life and work of Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard, or poet.
(In Scotland another word for poet is 'makar', and in 2004 the Scottish Parliament introduced the formal title of Scots Makar for a national poet. The current Scots Makar is Jackie Kay, but the two previous holders have been Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan.)
Burns remains one of Scotland's great cultural figures, and on 25th January each year - Burns' date of birth - dinners are held to consume traditional dishes and recite Burns' poetry. The highlight of such occasions is the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties - a veritable Scottish trinity of foodstuffs!
Although these days visitors often seek a 'gourmet' version of haggis, the dish originated as a dish suited to the lifestyle and means of shepherds, combining cheaply available ingredients and a form which allowed it to be transported. The liver, heart and lungs of a sheep - known as the 'pluck' - are minced with suet, oats and spices, and stuffed into a casing to enclose it.
Originally the casing would have been a sheep's stomach or similar, today they are generally stuffed into synthetic casings. The effect was to create a bulbous sausage, something which could be stuffed into the belongings of the shepherd as he trailed his charges across the exposed Highland landscapes, and which could then be taken out, boiled over a fire, and then sliced open to eat the spicy contents.
Today, haggis is often served in different forms, deep fried in small balls as a bar snack, grilled as part of a cooked breakfast, stuffed into chicken to create Chicken Balmoral (after Queen Victoria's Highland estate), or even - purists should avert their gaze now - crumbled onto pizzas...!
Burns himself wrote an 'Address to a Haggis', which is recited at Burns' suppers as the haggis is brought into the dining room - often accompanied by bagpipes! - in which he describes it as "Great chieftain o' the Puddin-race" - the king of pies and puddings!
At such events the haggis is generally served with the other two staples of the dish, neeps and tatties. Neeps are mashed swede - a Swedish form of turnip, 'neeps' a shortening of 'turneeps' - which is much more golden and yellow than ordinary turnip. Boiled and mashed roughly with butter and salt, it's a rich and sweet vegetable dish. Tatties, then, are simply mashed potatoes - together the three elements don't offer a hugely varied palate of textures, but they do accompany each other well in terms of flavour!
A sauce may be added - whisky or pepper sauce is a good match - but for most people a liberal knob of butter is enough, without detracting from the rich flavour of the haggis itself.
In recent years the haggis has achieved a kind of mythical status, partly as a result of its scarcity in some parts of the world - the use of sheep lung as an ingredient put it beyond the limits of American health regulations, making it illegal to import or produce commercially in the United States.
Most surprisingly of all, considering the haggis is uniquely associated with Scottish culture today, some historians and food experts now believe the haggis to have been invented in England originally, before being 'exported' to Scotland!
Whatever its origins, and however it's served, be sure to try to sample this iconic dish sometime during your visit to Scotland...
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