The gas company I work for has some major projects in Scotland. As a result, over the last few years I have travelled there many times, and have developed a taste for the oddities of Scottish cuisine: black pudding (essentially a sausage where the filling consists of oats and congealed blood), Scotch eggs (a hard-boiled egg wrapped in a coating of sausage meat, then deep-fried) and tablet (Scotland’s own version of fudge, super-sweet and made in a way where the sugar granules don’t melt completely, so the fudge has a grainy, slightly brittle texture).
Not to mention what I personally regard as being Scotland’s greatest contribution to modern British cuisine, the deep-fried Mars Bar.
This delight involves taking a whole Mars Bar, coating it liberally in the same batter used for fish, and then deep-frying the whole concoction in the fish-n-chips oil, so that the batter is crisp and the Mars Bar inside becomes hot, semi-melted and gooey. The result is an odd fusion of sweet and savoury, soft and crunchy, and is sinfully delicious. It is also, of all the foods I have ever eaten, the dish that most closely lives up to the promise of inducing an instant cardiac arrest on consumption.
And, of course there is the humble, slightly bizarre but weirdly satisfying haggis, undisputed king of Scottish cuisine. A traditional haggis consists of a sheep’s stomach lining, stuffed with a mixture of minced sheep offal (heart, lungs and liver), onion, oatmeal, spices and fat. This appetizing mixture is then simply boiled for about three hours before being sliced up and served, usually accompanied by turnips and potatoes (“neeps and tatties”), and often a dram of fine Scotch whiskey as well.
Haggis is in fact the official national food of Scotland, and is much-loved by the Scots. Indeed, the haggis is so adored that there is even a sport called haggis hurling, in which the principal object is to toss a haggis as far as possible (current world record – over 55 metres).
Robert Burns, Scotland’s favourite poet, went so far as to write a poem in 1787 called “Address to a Haggis”, which commences with the lines: “Fair is your honest happy face, Great chieftain of the pudding race, Above them all you take your place, Stomach, tripe or guts, Well are you worthy of a grace”. Who said the Scottish have no sense of humour? Every year since, around the anniversary of Burns’ death in late January, Scots everywhere hold a Burns Supper (a.k.a. an excuse to get blind drunk) where Burns is celebrated, the poem is recited, and haggis is devoured in massive quantities.
Anyway, I mention all this because last week, while walking through central London, I found myself passing by a restaurant that specialises in Scottish food. It was lunchtime, I was peckish, and so in I went. I ordered a terrific black pudding as a starter, and for my main course I gorged myself on a big plate of haggis, neeps and tatties.
You know you have been hanging around in Scotland way too long if voluntarily ordering black pudding and haggis doesn’t strike you as being even just a teensy bit weird, and I am pretty sure that not too many people I know would have made the specific decision to stop and eat this stuff. But, as I mentioned, I have developed a taste for Scottish foods. This was far from my first close-up encounter with a haggis, and two previous meetings in particular are stories worth retelling.
The first time I ever visited Scotland, I flew to Edinburgh airport, collected a hire car, and then drove about 50 kilometres north-west to Stirling, where our company’s Scottish office is located. Looking down over the centre of town stands the majestic Stirling Castle, for which the town is best known. Apart from this, Stirling is a lovely and slightly sleepy place, surrounded by lush, rolling green hills.
It was a Monday night and quite late by the time I arrived, owing to a few map-reading errors made while trying to escape from the tangle of freeways that surround Edinburgh airport. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and was particularly famished. I had assumed the hotel in Stirling would, at the very least, offer some form of basic room service, so I took it quite badly when the receptionist told me that there was absolutely no food to be had in the hotel until the breakfast service began at 6.30am the following morning. She looked at me like I was slightly deranged for having even asked.
I then enquired of the receptionist if there was a restaurant in town that I might be able to have dinner at instead. Now her eyes widened in sheer disbelief – imagine wanting food after 9pm! I had obviously just confirmed everything she had ever heard about Australians being complete lunatics. She took a few minutes to compose herself, racked her brains, and eventually mumbled unconvincingly: “Giuseppe’s might still be open”.
Armed with the receptionist’s hastily scribbled walking instructions, and rugged up from head to toe against the bitter cold (it was well below zero), I set off for Giuseppe’s. The receptionist watched me leave, waving goodbye from the front steps of the hotel as if she never expected to see me again.
Four minutes later, I was standing outside the only lit up shop-front anywhere in the vicinity, although there was no sign on the door, and nothing else specifically identified the place. Still, it was open, and my hunger pangs were so acute that I was in danger of starting to gnaw at my own arm if I did not find food soon. Not to mention that it was seriously cold outside. So I pushed open the door and went in.
Now, call me stupid if you like, but given the place was supposedly called Giuseppe’s and was open late at night (if 9.35pm can be called late), my natural inclination was to expect a pizza parlour. I had imagined a slightly rotund, moustached Giuseppe, standing behind the counter layering fresh mozzarella on the crisp pizza bases, bantering with customers in Italian-accented English.
On entering this particular establishment, however, I noticed immediately that there was not a single pizza or mozzarella ball to be seen. It was instead a takeaway fish-n-chips joint, and it looked like the faux wood-panel interior decor hadn’t been touched since the 1950’s. On a shelf at the back of the shop a small TV was on, tuned in to a football game. Behind the counter was a wafer thin fellow, keenly watching the match. There was not a facial hair in sight, and he didn’t even look away from the screen as I entered.
“Excuse me, is this Giuseppe’s?” I asked.
“Aye, that’d be me” was the reply, delivered in a Scottish accent so thick that I could barely make out that Giuseppe was, in fact, speaking English. I was so surprised by the unexpected accent attached to someone with such a uniquely Italian name that before I could help myself I blurted out, almost in disbelief: “You’re Giuseppe?”
Giuseppe turned to look at me. He seemed annoyed that I was interrupting his soccer viewing, and for the second time that night I found myself being examined as if I was mentally defective. “Aye. Can I help yer?”
I looked up at the blackboard menu above the counter, and hurriedly said: “Can I get some fish and chips, please”. Giuseppe slowly shook his head, and informed me that he was out of fish until he went to the market the next day (actually, he informed me twice – his accent was so heavy that I had to ask him to repeat himself).
It was then I noticed that apart from fish and chips, Giuseppe also offered haggis and chips, and black pudding and chips. I asked if these were available, to which I received an ever-reassuring “Aye”.
I really was very hungry. So I changed my order to one portion of haggis and chips, and one portion of black pudding and chips. And some onion rings, for good measure. Giuseppe’s eyes narrowed – I was by now completely indifferent to what was evidently a Scottish custom of looking at any out-of-town visitor like they are stark raving mad – but he shrugged his shoulders and put the chips and onion rings on to fry. He then bent over to rummage around in a freezer below the counter, and eventually emerged with some strange-looking sausage-shaped items in a small metal bowl. I swallowed hard, realising that these blobs that looked a lot like frozen organs being delivered to an operating room were, in fact, my dinner.
Up until that point in time, my admittedly limited understanding of haggis and black pudding was that they are foods that are usually prepared steamed, boiled or grilled. It was thus with a mounting sense of horror that I watched Giuseppe unceremoniously toss the haggis and two blood sausages into the bubbling vat of oil, alongside the frying chips and onion rings.
While we waited for it all to cook, Giuseppe asked where I was from. I told him Australia. He said he had a distant cousin who lived in Adelaide. We began chatting, and Giuseppe asked me more questions about my background. After I finished telling him about my Moroccan-Lithuanian-Israeli-South-African-Australian-Singaporean background, he said rather dryly: “Aye, you’re a wee bit exotic, aren’t yer?”
It was my turn to ask questions, and so I asked him how it was that a guy with a seriously heavy Scottish accent running a fish and chips shop in Stirling came to be named Giuseppe.
Giuseppe told me that since the early 1900’s, a steady stream of Italians, including his grandparents, had migrated to Scotland (today about 100,000 Scots can claim Italian descent). These migrants came to Scotland to escape famine and poverty back home, finding Scotland (and, if Giuseppe is anything to go by, the Scottish accent) easy to assimilate into. Many of the Italian community in Scotland found work in the food industry, and according to Giuseppe a good number of chips shops, ice-creameries and other take-out food stores in Scotland are nowadays run by Scots of Italian heritage.
By now my dinner was ready, and Giuseppe assembled the chips, onion rings, haggis and black pudding in a cardboard box, and then proceeded to coat it all with salt, and then gave everything a thorough dousing in brown vinegar. He passed the box over, and I ate standing at the counter (I may have mentioned it was really, really cold outside), all the while chatting with Giuseppe and watching the football.
Tentatively, I bit into my first ever haggis – deep-fried no less – followed closely by mouthfuls of deep-fried black pudding, then chased down by a small mountain of thick-cut salty-vinegary chips and super-greased onion rings. The haggis tasted nothing like I expected: nutty and peppery, mildly spicy and with a soft-ish texture. The blood sausages had an earthy mineral taste. Everything was coated in the same crunchy batter, and the paper towel at the bottom of the cardboard box was quickly saturated with oil. Truth be told, it was all super-tasty and I was so hungry that I ate the lot (much to Giuseppe’s amazement), even though after a while it did begin to feel like I was trying to push a well-oiled brick down my throat.
Suffice it to say I couldn’t bring myself to eat at all the next day. And I think the sudden shock to my system from the haggis-black pudding combo plugged me up so completely that it was another week before I went to the toilet.
The Murrayfield Temple
On another visit to Scotland, the folks in our Stirling office had organised tickets to a rugby match between Scotland and New Zealand. This was a big game, being played at Murrayfield, a massive stadium in Edinburgh that bills itself as the largest stadium in Scotland. If rugby is like a religion in Scotland, then Murrayfield is its high temple.
Arriving at the ground, it felt like I had been parachuted into a frenzied festival of all things Scottish. Every fifty metres or so stood a busker, squeezing a bagpipe and producing an assortment of mortifying noises that I imagine is what a cat-abattoir would sound like, if such were ever to exist. Every busker was impeccably dressed in full Scottish regalia – kilt, sporran, black jacket, white shirt and tie, beret, long socks and black shoes. I noticed that a good number of the men arriving to watch the match were likewise kitted out in kilts, et al. I am not sure why an item of clothing that is, after all, a dress, should make the wearer look so fierce. But believe me, it does.
Inside the stadium, as we waited for the match to start, it felt like I was standing inside a smouldering cauldron of naked aggression. Murrayfield was packed to capacity that night, with seventy thousand loud, singing, kilted Scots in attendance. Just behind us sat three New Zealand fans, all big burly tattooed guys – one had a mohawk and the other two had shaved heads. They were all wearing All Black jerseys and they had painted their faces black with a silver fern leaf on each cheek. Normally these guys would look tough to me but here in Murrayfield, surrounded by an army of fierce Scottish warriors, they looked like a cowering group of pathetic wimps.
Simon, the CEO of our company at the time who was at the game as well, went off to buy our group some pre-match drinks and snacks. He returned ten minutes later with beers and chips for everyone else, and knowing my love for strange foods, a Diet Coke and deep-fried haggis for me.
And then, just as he passed me the haggis, the stadium sound system began blaring out “The Flower of Scotland”. This unofficial Scottish national anthem describes how in 1314, the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, trounced the English at the battle of Bannockburn. Simon, who is English, leaned across and shouted to me over the noise: “so, this is the part where they sing a song about murdering Englishmen”.
And indeed, as the music started seventy thousand Scotsmen rose from their seats in perfect unison. I stood too, biting into my deep-fried haggis, while the crowd belted out the words of a song celebrating how the Scots had butchered an estimated 11,000 English soldiers over a short two-day battle.
It seemed like every single person in the stadium (except for me, Simon and the three hapless Kiwis in the row behind us) was singing forcefully and passionately, at the very top of their voices. Blue and white St Andrews cross flags waved. Bagpipes blared. The noise was deafening, and terrifying. It sent goose-bumps up my arm. I imagined the gut-churning fear that a medieval English soldier would have felt as a horde of kilted, face-painted Highlanders poured down from the hills, screaming “freedom” and waving their swords.
And then the game began. New Zealand beat Scotland, 49-3. For those not familiar with rugby union, this is as close to a complete, unmitigated flogging as you can get. The mood in the stadium changed from fierce warrior to “oh, fuck”. The Kiwis behind us began to find their voice. One of my Scottish work colleagues, clearly grasping at straws, explained to me that the last time Scotland played New Zealand they had lost by more than fifty points, so today’s result was a victory of sorts. “Scots are, if nothing else, very familiar with immense suffering on the sports field”, he said dejectedly.
Eating haggis at a rugby game at Murrayfield will be something that I will always remember. I could never forget the raw Scottish pride with which an entire stadium sang together. In my high-school geography lessons, Scotland was always lumped in as just another quirky appendage to the United Kingdom, home of the Loch Ness monster but otherwise indistinguishable from England. Britain is a small island, after all, and they all speak English, don’t they? But as I stood there munching a deep-fried haggis, while bagpipes sounded and seventy thousand men in kilts sang of victory over the English almost 700 years ago, I experienced something uniquely Scottish, and in that instant I came to truly understand – I literally felt it deep in my bones – how rich Scottish culture and tradition is, and how strongly felt the Scottish sense of national identity is.
In Beijing you can order scorpion on a stick, but really, why is that any stranger than eating a sausage made of coagulated blood and oats? Why is it that fried cow anal rings (I kid you not, this is something you can find in China), or dog-soup in Korea, is any more bizarre than a jellied-eel in London’s East End or tete-de-veau in Paris (boiled cow face – I mean, seriously, only the French could get away with that). By comparison to any of these weird foods, a haggis is pretty tame stuff.
If you put your culinary arrogance aside, you may find that even in your own cultural corner, you can wind up eating some really weird shit.