By David Hammond
Mention “haggis” to a random group of people and the likelihood is high most will screw up their faces and squeal “Eww.” The likelihood is equally high that none of those people have ever actually tasted the stuff. They may not even know what, exactly, it is.
Haggis is a type of sausage, popular in several parts of the U.K., but mostly Scotland. Haggis traditionally contains sheep’s pluck (lungs, liver and heart), onions, oatmeal, spices and mutton fat, boiled in a sheep’s stomach. That’s the real thing, which you may not have in the States because the sale of lung was banned in this country in 1971.
The Scots love haggis, or so it’s said, and with the current interest in head-to-tail eating, it’s possible you might, too. It’s fair to assume that the Scots traditionally made haggis with whatever offal they had on hand. Haggis is enjoyed on Robert Burns Day, January 25, when we celebrate the birthday of the Scottish poet with this ceremonial sausage and a ritual reading of his “The Address to the Haggis,” which begins (in this translation from the Scottish dialect):
Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Brad Knaub is the meat man at Oak Park’s Carnivore, which he runs with fish guy Erik Williams. He’s making haggis for Burns Day, and he gave us a preview.
Knaub says, “I use whatever guts I have on hand. Sometimes I can’t give the stuff away, and haggis is a way to use gut meats that are not super pleasant on their own. You stretch them with barley or oatmeal to get as much nourishment out of them as possible.”
For this preview tasting, Knaub wasn’t able to source sheep’s stomach, so he’s used a standard sausage casing. He sliced off circles of the finished sausage, pan-fried them in lard and added two over-easy eggs.
This haggis was very good, not just tolerable but very good. The organ-y undertones were not overwhelming, and the barley had deep richness and an outer crispiness that made this a hugely flavorful, texturally intriguing mouthful. “The combination of liver and oats smells like straight-up peanut butter,” says Knaub, and there was a definite nutty note to the delicious mess.
Knaub served the haggis with three small pancakes of shredded turnip and potatoes—neeps and tatties—and the turnips in particular hold their own against the haggis.
Here’s Knaub’s recipe for a big-ass haggis:
- “Salt the ever-living hell out of” twelve ounces of liver and heart (ideally sheep, but pork or beef also work), and sear until nut brown
- Chop a large onion and sweat with one tablespoon each dry thyme, ground mustard, marjoram, curry powder and mace
- Cool everything, then put through a grinder with one pound suet
- Dice twelve ounces of pickled tongue into half-inch cubes and combine
- Add 1.5 pounds of toasted steel cut oats, one-half cup cheap Scotch, three cups beef stock, one-eighth cup salt, and mix
- Stuff into your casing of choice and poach until internal temperature is 165 degrees
Or, instead of making haggis at home, you can get a ready-made “chieftain of the sausage race” at Carnivore, where it’ll be going for about $10 per pound. “I love having this kind of thing on the shelf,” says Knaub, “so that people know this is where to come for all the cool stuff they can possibly imagine.”
And Carnivore is an excellent place to purchase more than just unusual sausages. Williams sources hard-to-find seafood like puffer fish, sand dabs and wolf fish, as well as fresh whole sardines and octopi.
For Burns Day, Knaub plans to make several whole haggis sausages cooked in a full sheep’s stomach. For that, though, you need to give Knaub at least three days’ notice—and you must commit to the whole bellyful, easily enough for your entire clan. Carnivore is the best thing to happen to food in Oak Park in a long time; click to see a video I just produced with the Village of Oak Park about Knaub’s preparation of traditional Bavarian weisswurst.
If you’d like the full Burns Day presentation—with haggis, neeps, tatties, homemade shortbread and flights of Scotch—The Peckish Pig in Evanston is doing it up right, and yes, there will be dancers and bagpipes.
1042 Pleasant Street, Oak Park
The Peckish Pig
623 Howard, Evanston
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org