Haggis, Sporrans and Nachos

Haggis is not to everyone’s taste; this is a well-known fact. It seems to be one of those foods against which people take a firm position despite never having tasted it. Although, when compared to the Chinese 100 year old egg, the Japanese Puffer fish or the Icelandic Hákarl (fermented shark), haggis begins to seem as innocuous as a Saturday bag of pic-n-mix from Woolworths (nostalgic sob!). Clearly one’s taste buds evolve according to how and where we have been brought up. What one might find acceptable or unacceptable – be it around food, customs or behaviours – very often all boils down to culture and these days it is great to have a variety of dishes on offer from different cultures in the face of marching globalisation. You don’t have to eat these exotic foods, but (mostly) it won’t kill you if you try. Someone once told me he served a starter of chopped gartersnake sautéed in butter and garlic to dinner guests and told them it was fresh water mussels. All I can say is that they were as gullible as he was sneaky! I hope it wasn’t true.

My good friend J. from Canada was subjected some haggis hospitality when he visited Scotland last year. He had missed Burns night by a good four months, but, as the saying goes, ‘when in Rome… ’ and so his hosts thought it would be a suitable meal to serve up to their overseas visitor. J. claims he wasn’t feeling terribly well anyway, but he also thought that haggis on the menu was a joke; that the idea that Scots really did eat awful offal was an apocryphal notion, a bit like the way they say Canadians are polite, go canoeing in the wilderness and say ‘eh!’ all the time (all of which is true). Afterwards J. told me his off-balance stomach was churning as he tried, politely, to pile his plate with neeps and tatties* so as to disguise the haggis taste. Instead, this simply served to spread the taste further and prolong his misery. Later, when the shock of the dinner wore off, he laughed about it, bemoaning the fact he had not been wearing a sporran – the very thing into which one could surreptitiously scrape unwanted haggis.

Now, I do like the occasional serving of haggis, although given its less than universal appeal, I’m beginning to wonder if that was the original use of a sporran: a discreet receptacle for unwanted supper until you can get home and serve it to the pigs? Earlier this week, while on a visit to the National Gallery, A. stopped to point out a painting of a man wearing tartan trews and sporting a sporran on top. It was a portrait of Sir John Sinclair by Henry Raeburn. “I have never seen a man wear a sporran with trews, only with a kilt,” she said, perceptively. Whereupon we took two steps and there, in the next painting but one, was another man pictured wearing the trews-sporran combo. Unlike trousers, the kilt could not provide pockets and so the sporran was born out of necessity: it was the pocket they didn’t have. So how did the sporran find it’s way to be worn with trews? I’ve not got to the bottom of that mystery, and so I present my haggis hypothesis!

Do a sweep of Edinburgh’s cafés and bars today and you’ll find haggis on the menu in every guise. Your local takeaway will sell it to you with chips, battered and deep-fried. Top restaurant, The Witchery, is today serving a starter of haggis, curried pineapple, chutney, swede and potato bhaji (that’s one busy plate), and you can even get a plate of haggis nachos in some of the Taquerias in town. Enjoy your haggis this evening if you are having some for your Burns supper, and if it’s not your thing, have your sporran close and don’t let the cook see!

* Neeps and Tatties = mashed turnip and spuds, or swede and potato

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