Monday, August 15, 2011


I have discovered that the haggis is an endangered species.  I should probably have known this already.  Of course, in America the haggis has scarcely ever lived.  A true haggis contains sheep lung (part of the “pluck” – along with liver and heart) which is illegal here, dismissed as unfit for human consumption.  There were some reports in 2010 that the ban was to be lifted but it came to nothing, and frankly I never expected it to.  Most Americans seem to be untroubled by this situation.

But even in Scotland there are problems, apparently, and they are, wouldn’t you know, caused by global warming.  Because the Scottish climate is now less icy and windblown than it used to be, the lungworm parasite that affects sheep is suddenly thriving.  The rest of the sheep remains good, but the lungs become inedible.  Consequently Scottish butchers are importing lungs from Ireland; though I must say I’m slightly baffled by that.  Has global warming not affected Ireland?  Is Ireland now colder than Scotland? Or are their sheep simply more resistant to lungworm?

I didn’t know about these development when I recently bought a haggis in one of those American shops that specializes in all things English, from Branston Pickle to models of double-decker buses.  These places always make me uneasy – but where else are you going to buy a haggis?

You could certainly argue that the thing I bought wasn’t a “real” haggis.  As you see, it came in a can for one thing, and it was “skinless”  i.e. it was just the filling, without the stomach, though how else would you be able to can it? And despite calling itself “Scottish Haggis” it was actually “prepared in the USA” for Stahly Quality Foods, of Fife.  Still, beggars can’t be choosers.   I bought it, took it home, and only then did I start wondering how, and if, they’d got around the problem of the illegal lung.

Well, a quick look at the list of ingredients told me they’d managed to avoid the issue completely.  There was lamb heart and lamb liver in there, but no lung.  That, of course, made me wonder how authentic it was going to taste.  I mean with any haggis it’s not as though you sit there eating it, savoring the heady taste of lung: the contents are ground up and largely unidentifiable, but I wondered if the lung might be a vital component of the overall flavor, or indeed “flavor profile.”

         Other ingredients included pork, pork fat, oats and “natural flavors.”  Authenticity seemed to be flying out the window here, and yet, and yet. Maybe it wasn’t the best ever, and of course I couldn’t enjoy the Burns Night ritual of piercing the stomach with a dirk, but all in all it was very good, meaty, oaty and peppery in all the right ways.  And with neeps and tatties it made a meal for which you didn’t need teeth.

         Actually, when I was in Scotland a few years back, well before the lungworm scare, I had a surprisingly hard time finding haggis.  I ended up going to a fancy restaurant that served “ostrich haggis” which was very good, but Rabbie Burns would surely have had a fit.

          Having eaten my canned “Scottish Haggis” I read a couple of the “serving suggestions” on the label.  The most improbable was “Haggis Jacobean” – a couple of ounces of haggis in an individual serving dish with a teaspoon of whisky added, heated up, then served with fresh cream. 

         As far as I can tell, this dish is an invention by the food technicians at Stahly Quality Foods.  A browse through my books on the history of British cooking didn’t bring up anything remotely similar.  I did however discover the wonderfully named “Haggis Royale” (sic).

         Fans of Pulp Fiction will naturally think this involves the addition of cheese.  But no.  I found the recipe in Antony and Araminta Hippisley Coxe’s Book of Sausages, and they claim it comes from The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Meg Dods, which it does, though she calls it “royal” not royale (Antony and Araminta were getting a bit fancy there).  

Dods claims she got the recipe from “the Minutes of Sederunt of the St Ronan’s Club.”  In any case it bears almost no relation to a traditional Scottish haggis.  You mince three pounds of mutton, add the crumbs of an oatmeal penny loaf, suet, marrow, egg yolks, anchovies, red wine, cayenne pepper, wrap the whole thing in a veal caul and roast it.  There are no lungs whatoesever.  You could legally eat it in America.


  1. When preparing haggis, is there a preference for any particular stomach compartment? The whole one in the picture appears to be omasum (though I might be wrong)- is that traditionally the stomach of choice? Wikipedia is silent on the subject, astoundingly.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You ask a fair question Anonymous. The Time Life Good Cook on Offal says use "a large sheep's stomach" which is not very helpful at all. Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food says that haggis uses "the large stomach of a sheep" which isn't absolutely cast-iron, but I think he's indicating "the large stomach" as a specific ingredient. The omasum, as you so rightly say, is the largest of the sheep's 4 stomachs - but who's to say that somebody somewhere hasn't stuffed a rumen, a reticulum or even an abomasum?

  4. Interesting. Yes, I would agree that "large stomach" is meant as a specific item, though the rumen is actually the largest compartment, not the omasum. I suppose it doesn't make too much difference, at least between rumen, reticulum and omasum; you could choose your desired size of stomach to match the number of people you're feeding.

    The abomasum may be different, though. It's the only glandular stomach of the four. Wiki says it is unpopular as tripe- perhaps it has an strange flavor.

  5. The lungs, I suspect, are more for texture than for flavor. In the Roman dish coratella, lamb's pluck sauteed with baby artichokes, the liver and kidney are strong-tasting, but the lung is just pleasantly gristly and chewy.

    I'm not sure you'd want to eat it in the forms in which it is sold, but in the U.S.. you can buy as much lamb's lung as you like as long as you swear you're feeding it to your pets. Fancy lambs' lung crisps?

  6. Mr Gold is right (of course). A website named sells freeze dried lamb lung - "this single ingredient treat breaks easily into small pieces for training. Dogs find this treat extremely palatable, and a welcome change from the regular diet!" However, they cost $12 for a half pound bag strikes me as very steep.