Burn Night (haggis again!)

Yep, it’s Burn Night. Every 25th of January, fans of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most favorite son (and most famous poet) gather to recite Burns’ poetry, eat haggis and have whisky.

I’ll be celebrating in a bit with:

  • the haggis I got from Costco
  • neeps (mashed turnip with salt, pepper and butter)
  • tatties (mashed potato with salt, pepper and butter)
  • whisky (Glenfiddich 18-year old, yum)
  • a couple of Burns poems (why the hell not! Traditionally, ‘Address to a Haggis’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at a minimum, but many others in between – get them all at Project Gutenberg)

A complete running order with videos of past televised Burns Night Suppers is here on the BBC web site.

I won’t be piping in the haggis, but maybe a small toast, just for tradition, is in order!

Haggis, haggis, haggis!

So I’ve been having haggis lately. It’s just £4 for a small one at my nearby Costco, that’s £1 per serving. That’s a large serving, too, about 120g for what I can get in the store – restaurants in Scotland serve less than half the amount I have, even less if you go to an expensive place.

The English folks here won’t eat haggis because a) it’s Scottish and b) they don’t even know what goes in it.

Well…here’s what goes in it, according to Wikipedia and many other websites:

Haggis is a dish containing sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally simmered in the animal’s stomach for approximately three hours.

Alright, I’ll admit that a sheep heart, liver and lungs doesn’t sound appealing. There’s maybe a reason why this stuff (plus stomach, kidneys, etc.) is called ‘offal’.

However…have you ever eaten sausage?

I won’t go into the old ‘lips and assholes’ myth (which is probably true for very cheap sausages), but let’s face it, unless you’re paying full whack for the best handmade, top rank gourmet sausages from an actual butcher you’re getting reclaimed meat and tendons at best, and at worst you’re getting fat with pink food coloring. Oh, and MSG, sugar and other crap.

Want to know what sheep eat? Grass. Pigs? They eat feed out of bags, and food scraps at best.

Here’s some facts and figures about British sausage, from Channel 4, one of the major TV networks:

A typical economy sausage recipe might look like: 30% pork fat, 20% recovered meat, 30% rusk and soya, 15% water and 5% assorted e-numbers, flavourings, sugar, flavour enhancer, preservatives and colourings.

Premium sausages look hand made. Good sausages use joints of meat, minced; you’ll be able to see the granules of fat and meat through the skin.

At the top end, the ingredients list is much shorter; something like 40% belly pork, 40% boned shoulder of pork, 10% breadcrumbs, 5% water and 5% herbs and spices.

What is meant by ‘meat’?

(I love how this even needs to be defined)

The definition of meat is hard to explain. Meat can contain certain percentages of fat, connective tissue and skin and still be considered ‘meat’. What most consumers consider ‘meat’ is what we call ‘visible lean’. A pork chop is 90 per cent visible lean. A sausage label may say that it contains 60 per cent meat but that could be as low as 15 per cent visible lean.

What is connective tissue?

Gristle and the tissue that holds muscle to bone. The definition of meat is understood to include some connective tissue; good butchers don’t abuse that understanding. In cheaper sausages connective tissue is used to bulk up meat.

Does it matter that economy sausages aren’t all lean meat? Isn’t this a good way of eating the whole pig?

You could construct an argument that using connective tissue and fat is better than wasting them but the fact that extra flavourings, salt and fat are added to the pork slurry undermines this. Nearly two thirds of sausages at standard and economy level contain MSG. Good butchers won’t use it.

So, pay loads for quality sausage, or get the stuff people won’t eat because of their sensibilities and pay much much less. How about that?

This doesn’t mean I don’t eat sausage – far from it. I love a good sausage, but only buy the good stuff. No frozen bulk variety packs for me. But the idea that haggis is disgusting or nasty or whatever…come on, if you don’t try it how can you know?

By the way, haggis tastes and looks like a meaty stuffing, like what you’d put in a turkey or duck dinner. In fact, some people use it as a stuffing for pheasant, grouse, goose, etc. And posh haggis is made with venison and other top-drawer meats, just like gourmet sausage…I’d love to try that stuff!