By Alastair Sadler
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed
The trembling earth resounds his tread
Clap in his walie nieve a blade
Robbie Burns, Address to a Haggis
Just a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station, in the heart of the City of London, Devonshire Square hosts a clutch of restaurants and bars under a six story high glass roofed piazza. We walk through the outdoor seating noting the ‘lodges’ – a shed by any other name – and enter the reception through main doors made from upcycled shotguns.
Mac & Wild Devonshire Square boast a private dining room, basement whisky bar, and virtual gunroom where you can virtually shoot virtual game. We are guided to the bar which boasts over 200 whiskies, Scottish craft beers and gin, and behind us in the restaurant they’re serving all fine things Scottish: venison, beef, seafood, haggis, mac and cheese… even a whisky sticky toffee pudding.
We’re here for a Haggis Master Class presented by Andy Waugh, chef and Mac & Wild co-founder, who’s taken the business from a stall selling venison burgers to a group of successful restaurants. He’s a tall, young, kilted man with a genuine warmth and bonhomie, which is good, because he’s got a large knife and a long, glistening string of sheep’s innards in his hands.
We’re presented with chopping boards, mixing bowls, and latex gloves. We all look on sheepishly as Andy inflates the animal’s lung with a straw to show how they’re still operational.
To steady the nerves, Andy offers a wee dram of Balblair ‘05, a single malt from the east coast. The distillery bottles by vintage rather than age, and I get a note of a crisp green apple just plucked from the tree with a hint of toffee and vanilla. Aye, it’s the good stuff, al’rite!
A Note About Haggis
As Andy instructs us to chop liver – this truly is a very hands on experience – it’s time for another dram. This time we sip back the Balblair ’99. What have I been up to since 1999? Well, not spending half my time in American oak, ex-bourbon barrels, and the other half in Spanish oak, ex-sherry barrels. As before, I get the green apples and honey, but now the coppery tanned liquid has the lingering warm spice of a fruitcake and leaves me glowing like a three bar heater.
And it’s time to learn a little more about the dish we’re preparing. Wherever man has farmed sheep, a dish made from offal is made. The Vikings may well have brought the idea with them to Scotland. Icelandic slátur, or ‘slaughter’, is made from sheep’s innards. The lifrarpylsa (liver sausage) is similar to the haggis although it doesn’t have the same spices and is much smoother in texture.
Food historian Catherine Brown found the first written reference to the dish in an English cookbook, The English Hus-wife, dated 1615. English! The earliest Scottish reference she found was 1747, but I’m not brave enough to suggest that haggis is English.
Haggis was immortalized as the Scottish national dish by Robert Burns’ in his famous poem, Address to a Haggis. This is read at the beginning of every Burns Night Supper (Jan 25th) after the haggis is piped into the room on a silver salver to a rousing tune on the bagpipes. And what an opener:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Stuff the Haggis
To the thwack of latex gloves being pulled on, it’s time for mixing, which I find strangely de-stressing. And, even more of a stress-releaser, it’s time for another dram.
Some haggis recipes use juniper, red currant cardamom, and lots of other fancy things. But let’s face it, those ingredients are best used for making gin. We’re going for the traditional homespun haggis: lung, heart, liver, shoulder, onion, oats, and seasoning. Or, to quote Burns: “Painch, tripe, or thairm” (stomach, tripe, or intestines).
Then it’s time to… stuff the haggis! No, literally, stuff the haggis into a plastic piping cone. And it’s the City of London, so the group’s competitive urges come to the fore. So naturally, I didn’t want to produce just a haggis. I wanted to make the ultimate haggis, the greatest-ever “chieftain o the puddin’-race!”
The technique was simple enough: firmly grip the base, then steadily squeeze until the mixture was ejected into the sausage casing forming a perfectly formed haggis. With my partner onside, our plan was simple: grip the base hard and squeeze. Not working? Try twisting it, I urge. She does, and to our horror, the mix comes out the wrong end!
Andy gives a sympathetic smile as we dissolve into giggles. No doubt he knew Burns had us in mind when he wrote: “Poor devil! See him owre his trash, As feckless as a wither’d rash.” Indeed.
As consolation, Andy brings out plates of haggis cubes in breadcrumbs to be dipped into Red Jon sauce, which is redcurrant and Dijon mustard. Mouth wateringly scrumptious and complimented by a dram of the Balblair ’90, liquid gold with hints of honey, raisins, vanilla, chocolate, and citrus fruits.
Proud of my accomplishment, I took my proto-haggis home, wrapped it in a muslin cloth and tied the ends before steaming, just as Andy had instructed. Delicious. The flavour evoked Scotland and, of course, a memorable and hilarious evening at Mac & Wild Devonshire Square.
And as Burns said:
But, if ye wish her grateful prayer,
Gie her a Haggis.
To learn more about this unique haggis making experience, along with other fun Mac & Burns events around Burns Night including whisky / beer pairings and whisky / chocolate pairings, visit their website at http://www.macandwild.com/burns/. (The celebrations take place from Jan 21st – 27th.)
Contributor Alastair Sadler teaches salsa professionally and created the world’s first Salsa Rapido 1-Day Intensive Salsa Course. His hobby is stand up comedy, and in addition to acting as MC of Streetbeat Comedy, he regularly takes his show to the Edinburgh Fringe. You’ll find him at www.streetbeat.co.uk.