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How I Brought Black Market Haggis to Four Different Countries

After it’s paraded around the room to the accompaniment of bagpipes, an ode is recited to this giant sheep sausage. Then it’s stabbed and ripped open to reveal its warm, reeking, and rich innards. It’s perhaps the most iconic of offal dishes, the great...
Photo via Flickr user Jannis Andrija Schnitzer

After it's paraded around the room to the accompaniment of bagpipes, an ode is recited to this giant sheep sausage. Then it's stabbed and ripped open to reveal its warm, reeking, and rich innards. It's perhaps the most iconic of offal dishes, the great chieftain of the puddings: Haggis. Considered by many to be a "trust dish"—they don't want to know what's in it—I'll tell you anyway. Roughly equal parts of lung, liver, heart, fat, and mutton (or perhaps venison) are minced, mixed with oats, seasoned with white pepper and spices. The mixture gets stuffed into a casing, such as the large intestine of a cow, or a sheep's rumen. Making haggis from scratch is a mission and—due to some of the ingredients—is illegal in much of the world. I've made it in at least four different countries, and getting hold of the different ingredients is invariably a headache.

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In order to make it in Denmark, I had to go back to Scotland and get two black market sheep killed early on a Sunday morning before smuggling their still-warm guts back in a freezer box. In Italy, I could only get the pluck (lung, heart, and liver) of tiny little lambs, and had to bulk it out with an emergency supply of rabbit liver. In France, all the organs arrived frozen on the day I was meant to serve it.

In Scotland, however, haggis is everyday fare. The ingredients are easily available from any sympathetic butcher and the ready-made product is quick at hand. It's available from every supermarket for your microwaving pleasure, or battered and fried at any chip shop. It is consumed without the slightest of ritual on every day except one: This one is the exception that interests us.

Tonight, the 25th of January, is Burns Night, an evening to celebrate the life and works of Scotland's national Bard, Robert Burns, who lived from 1759-1796. It is a literary night centered around the recital of poetry and the singing of songs—alongside the consumption of haggis and whisky. What could possibly be better than offal, poems, and strong alcohol? Burns was a pioneering thinker of the Romantic period, a humanitarian, a political critic, and a poet; he remains a cultural icon to this day, and rightly so. Held annually on the anniversary of his death, Burns Night commemorates the Bard's life and work and has become something of a drunken literary celebration of Scottish identity.

Especially for Scottish expatriates, Burns supper can be an excellent way of celebrating heritage away from home. For global whisky aficionados, it's an excuse to get nerdy and spend money. For everyone, it's a wonderful reason to bring friends together around the table, and make them drink way more than they want to. It's that rare excuse to wear your kilt, and everyone else's excuse to finally get round to asking "that question" about kilt-wearing.

Haggis, the star of the meal, is eaten alongside traditional garnishes neeps and tatties—mashed turnips and potatoes—and liberal lashings of whisky. But the important part comes after dinner, as inhibitions lift when the alcohol soaks in. Burns supper can be quite proper, with guests arriving dressed up in formal highland attire and being treated to whole programs of ritualized, rehearsed, and hopefully-amusing speeches and toasts. But they can also be much more convivial and casual, consisting of small groups of friends or strangers. Regardless of the formality of the event, an important part of the Burns Night ritual is the opportunity for everyone around the table to share a poem, song or story. Scotland's folkloristic history is an oral one, and these recitals hark back to times when the spoken word was the main form of entertainment. Even in modern Scotland we are marinated in this culture. We read Burns poems at primary school, learn our folk dances in our teens, and sing our songs in the pub.

In Scots, a cèilidh traditionally refers to an evening where people gather to recite poems, sing songs, and tell stories. In its modern form, a cèilidh implies music and dances. But a Burns supper is the example par excellence of its more traditional form. There is something special about having an agreed-upon time and space to recite poems. It brings out a warmth in people; they show their roots with pride. The highly inclusive atmosphere of a communal dinner table seems to get people to remember poems they wrote, read or learned in their younger years. Often guests are shy, but a few drams and a supportive table soon sort that out.