Haggis!

     Everyone knows what haggis is, right? It’s chopped up cow and sheep bits stuffed in a stomach. Well, no. Not exactly. Haggis is made from lungs, liver and heart from a cow or sheep. These components are cooked, minced or ground, blended with spices, fat and toasted oats, then stuffed into a stomach or ox runners and sealed, then boiled or baked. At this point I need to clarify: I am not an expert on haggis. I am a rank amateur dabbling in ways to stretch the bounty of my hunt a bit further. As it turns out venison haggis is a good way to accomplish this.
     Fortunately my deer season went well. That’s the first step in making haggis (obtaining haggis fixings from farm raised deer is cheating. Remember, haggis is Scottish and the Scotts aren’t namby-pamby. If you aren’t up to killing a deer, stick with sheep or cow). I got very lucky in that my bullet only hit the top of each lung and the heart so damage was minimal. This is where bow hunters have something of an advantage. Even if the arrow passes through both lungs and the heart those organs will remain solidly intact. Gun hunters can always try head and neck shots although the former is tough on antlers and the latter will ruin some meat. Chest shots remain a matter of luck.
     I had never had haggis prior to my deciding to make it. So when it came time to collect the necessary organs I opted to take only one lung and essentially cut the recipe in half.  I didn’t want to make a bunch of haggis only to find that I didn’t particularly care for it. I knew I was not going to be able to start my haggis project anytime soon so I bagged up my deer organs and put them in the freezer for a few months. When my schedule freed up and I had done my research I thawed them out and was pleased to note that everything survived the process nicely.


The essential organs of haggis. From left, venison liver, hear and a single lung. Only the one lung and half the liver were used for this culinary experiment.

     The first thing I did was cut the liver in half. Since I was only using one lung it seemed logical to not use a whole liver. I suppose I should have cut the heart in half as well for the sake of ratios but what am I going to do with half a venison heart? The next step was to cut everything into large but manageable bits. This was done to reduce cook time. Most recipes called for boiling the whole organs for approximately two hours. I didn’t want to take that kind of time. By cutting up the organ meat I figured I could reduce the time by approximately half. I made some observations during this time that are worth mentioning. As most hunters and folks who have cooked liver already know, liver has a strong, distinct smell. Deer heart and lung also have a robust smell, reminiscent of the inside of a deer. This blend of scents is not a bad thing, but it is not altogether pleasant either. It will not stink up your whole house but your kitchen is likely to take on a visceral smell for an hour or so. Once the boiling begins the liver aroma dominates and the overall bouquet mellows. If you live with a spouse or domestic partner who isn’t particularly keen on cooking the contents of an animal’s chest cavity, or the smells that accompany the process you’ll do well to undertake this project when they are not home.
     After approximately 45 minutes of boiling everything was cooked through. Next I cut the pieces finer until they were small enough to be run through my hand grinder. After grinding through a large plate I blended in the seasoning and other additions. This is the part most people overlook when they think of haggis. It does, in fact, contain seasoning. Chopped onion, salt, pepper, fat and toasted oats are essential (toasting oats is easy: spread them on a baking sheet put it in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes). Beyond that it is largely up to individual taste. For the sake of keeping it simple the only additions I made to the aforementioned were allspice and thyme. I also added half a pound of ground venison. I had found several sources that mentioned this as a traditional component to venison haggis. The mixture will be very dry so it is essential to add liquid. The broth left over from boiling works well. Add it slowly while blending until a moist, slightly sticky consistency is achieved.  At this point the haggis blend had a distinct liverwurst smell on account of the liver and allspice.

Blended haggis, ready to be stuffed into casings. Meat grinder at left for scale.

     Haggis has an interesting quality I have never observed in any sausage I’ve made. Typically when blending ground meat and seasoning it is possible to compress the mixture into a ball. When haggis is squeezed it will slowly but visibly expand when pressure is removed. This may be attributed to the porous, airy nature of lung tissue.
     The next step is packing the blended components into casings. Sadly I do not have the option of using cow or sheep stomach and I have no idea how to prepare a deer stomach. Nor do I have a source or ox runners or beef bungs. I’m not entirely sure of what runners and bungs are because I cannot find any information regarding them. It seems that bungs are in fact stomachs and runners are analogous to hog casings, but I am not positive. It’s irrelevant at any rate since hog casings are what I have to work with. I used a fine grind plate to stuff casings and proceeded as I would with any other sausage.
     Cooking was a simple matter. I simmered the links in a small quantity of water just as would be done with other varieties of sausage. This method easily accommodates making gravy, a traditional accompaniment. Scotch is also traditionally served which may very well be the key to making it agreeable to those who are squeamish about the whole business.
     Which brings up the issue at the heart of haggis’ foul reputation in America. Haggis has never been judged on fair terms. It has always been discussed in a manner that is intentionally unappealing. When haggis comes up in conversation the constituent offal is emphasized and the subject is then quickly changed. It has always been the butt of the joke.Very few people who criticize it have ever tried it. After having tried haggis I can honestly say it is quite good. I would not want to eat it all the time but I would certainly not turn my nose up at it were it offered to me. It is rich with a deep, complex, slightly nutty taste and crumbly texture. I found it to be quite filling, not the sort of thing I would want to eat on a 90 degree August day but something that would be appropriate to a cold January evening.  It doesn’t taste quite like anything I have ever had but the closest comparison I can make is to scrapple.
     So if you have the opportunity to try haggis, by all means do it. Finding a Scottish restaurant or pub that serves it shouldn’t be too difficult, so take advantage of the opportunity if it presents itself.  And if you are in a position to make it, try making your own venison haggis. It freezes well and can make a great addition to meals at hunting camp. Remember, you paid for the hunting license, you put in the time and effort to hunt and shoot the deer and get it out of the woods. You might as well explore one more way to get the most out of your labors.

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