Why elegantly spiced haggis is the only way to celebrate Burns Night

Brave would be the man who dared meddle with Burns Night, the Scottish feast held in honour of their great bard, Robert ‘Rabbie Burns.’ And this year in particular, as tonight sees the 250th anniversary of the bonny poet’s birth. It’s an evening steeped in whisky and tradition, filled with endless toasts and merry orations.

History dictates the haggis – ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!’ – is borne into the room to the screech of bagpipes and serenaded with Burns’s great paean to the stuffed sheep’s stomach, Address To A Haggis.

After a ceremonial piercing, the haggis is toasted with a traditional dram of whisky.

Scottish Haggis

Yet Jo Macsween is not convinced. ‘My own view,’ she says from her Edinburgh base, ‘is that whisky is strong and complex. I prefer it as an aperitif or later in the evening, when I’m putting the world to rights. But to drink with haggis, I think beer is the best match.’

I put down the phone, sheet-white and shaking with shock. As an Englishman, I would never dare broach the subject.

Yet Macsween is more than qualified to speak her mind – she is not only a scion of the great Macsween haggis maker, but a co-director of the company, too.

However controversial her words, they’re totally grounded in sense. Because haggis is a much-maligned beast, seen, by non-Scots at least, as some offal-stuffed horror-fest,

up there with tripe and onions and cow heel pie. True, it’s hardly an easy sell – sheep’s lungs, liver and heart, minced with oatmeal and suet and stuffed into a sheep’s stomach. Served with ‘neeps’ – turnips (or swedes) swimming in pepper and butter – and champit tatties, or mashed potato, it makes a robust spread.

But the flavour is superb, comfort food at its best. The taste is surprisingly soft and gentle, cosseting the tastebuds into a blissful reverie. There’s no offally assault of the mouth, no chunks of gristly lung to catch in the throat. Think an obese, lamb sausage, elegantly spiced, and you’re halfway there.

A decent strong beer will hold up to the rich flavours, smoothing any rough edges.

Jo recommends Belgian beer, with Duvel and Chimay Blue especially well matched. Closer to home, darker beers such as Orkney Dark Island and SkullSplitter are winners, I’d also try a Porter, probably a Fuller’s London, though Scottish patriotism might hurl that choice out of the window as if it were a caber made from MDF.

And it’s not just the choice of tipple that’s changing. Blackface, the firm renowned for sheep and game, has created a haggis-stuffed pheasant.

A rustic variation of the classic Balmoral chicken (where the stuffed bird is a fowl), it’s selling out fast, and looks set for Burns Night tables everywhere.

Would Rabbie be turning in his grave?

Hell, no. Both the beer with haggis and the haggis stuffing just enhance the experience, rather than detract from it. If you really want to cause some mayhem, substitute the real haggis for a vegetarian version and sit back with a dram to watch the real fire- works explode.



MACSWEEN (top left)


The gold standard for me, packed with a wonderful flavour and perfect texture. And the spicing is great too – nutmeg, lots of black pepper and even a whiff of cayenne.

BLACKFACE (top centre)


First-class haggis made for Blackface by Stuart Houston, their local butcher in Dumfries. It has a natural casing and is stuffed full with lamb of the very finest quality.

STAHLY (top right)


Tinned but the best you’ll find, adored by ex-pats the world over. Tonight’s biggest Burns Night Supper is at Central Park, New York, where Stahly’s is the centrepiece.

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