By Francesca Arniotes
Vegetarians, please look away.
Sit down with me and enjoy some Forfar Bridies, Clootie Dumplings, Stovies, Cullen Skink and Finnan Haddie, with perhaps some Pitcaithly Bannock or Petticoat Tails for dessert. For all the colorful nature of the names, traditional Scottish food is an incredibly simple affair based on root vegetables, fish, lamb and beef, some dairy and oats, put together without much fuss, few seasonings, made and served with loads of warmth and love. With more sheep than people, Scotland’s modern pub menus offer wonderful savory pies and broiled chops along with batter-fried fish too big for the plate and sticky toffee pudding. Hearty, satisfying, mostly standard wherever you are.
Haggis is considered Scotland’s national dish. Robert Burns wrote a poem “Address To A Haggis”. When it is served at banquets, its entrance to the dining room is accompanied by an escort of bagpipers. My first encounter with haggis was in the little butcher shop near our flat in Edinburgh when we first arrived in Scotland. An open case was piled high with neat brown balls of various sizes, sheeps’ stomachs filled with… whatever the heck haggis is, ready to be boiled up by home cooks in our neighborhood’s kitchens. Alas for me, it was too soon. I was too green in the ways of the Scottish kitchen and my traveling companions were unprepared for such a culinary leap in those first days of our month-long adventure. I tasted my first haggis at a little pub in Drumnadrochit and I fell in love with it. It was served with tatties - the most lovely minced potatoes – and the quantity of both laid upon the table in front of me was plainly embarrassing. Of course I rose to the occasion and finished every bit, as though preparing to single handedly tote our barge along the Caledonian Canal into Loch Ness the next day. Perfectly spiced, perfectly balanced, perfect texture… it was divine. Traditionally haggis is made from lamb’s “pluck” – heart, liver and lungs – boiled in salt water and then minced, or grated in the case of the liver, seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, chopped onion, and mixed with chopped beef suet and oats. A glassful of good gravy is added before filling a cleaned and inside-out sheep’s stomach to half, pricked with a needle and sewn up. You can only eat traditional haggis in Scotland. If you’re curious, try this benign version - no offal involved, though I think heart, liver and tongue are very good. (Sorry to shock you, vegetarians who didn’t heed my warning.) We can’t get lamb lungs in the US anyway as my Greek inlaws have lamented for the past 45 years. They miss this special Easter soup, you see. But I digress.
Sorta-like Haggis with Neeps (or Swede) and Tatties
¾ lb ground lamb
¼ lb 75 - 80% lean ground beef
½ lb chicken livers
1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground coriander
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup stock
4 oz steel cut oats
Preheat oven to 350.
Finely dice onion.
Trim the connective bits from the chicken livers and roughly chop. 15 minutes in the freezer ahead of time makes this easier.
Melt 1T butter in a large skillet, or LeCreuset if you have one, and brown the meat and the livers.
Add another 1T butter to the pan and add the onions, cook about 2
minutes. Adjust flame so they do not brown. Stir in the spices and cook another minute.
Add the stock, turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for 15mins.
Off the heat, add the oats and another 2T butter, mix well and transfer to a baking dish if you aren’t using the LeCreuset. Cover the dish and put in the oven for 30 mins. Remove the lid and cook another 10 mins.
While haggis is cooking, boil peeled, chunked potatoes and rutabagas if you want
“swede” or turnips if you fancy “neeps”, in salted water. When tender, mash each
separately with butter and milk. Add salt to taste and serve alongside your “sorta” haggis.
As living in a state of emergency shifts to living with just another endemic disease, you might be eager to travel again. Please consider Scotland and absolutely include a few days in the Mainland in Orkney, an archipelago about 10 miles north of northernmost Scotland, which has been inhabited for almost 9,000 years. There, a 5000-year-old Neolithic culture comes stunningly alive at Skara Brae, looking into its 8 spacious houses, all identical, connected by an enclosed corridor, each with a toilet, running water below taking waste away, beds along the side walls, hearth in the middle and a large shelving unit, like a dresser, as a focal point directly opposite the door. All this furniture remains because it is all made of stone. The village of 50 to 100 people was occupied for 600 years and would have appeared as a mound with eight bumps – the roofs of each house poking up above the midden the village was built into. It was discovered by local people after heavy storm seas washed away the seashore and exposed one of the houses in 1850. The sea is now encroaching on the site and the outlook for preservation was not optimistic when we were there. Besides Skara Brae, you can crawl into a Viking burial mound from the 1100’s, visit no end of standing stone henges, castles, the wild landscape, quaint villages and the kindest, happiest people anywhere. Food, history, landscape… Scotland was one of our most dramatic adventures.