If you have bagpipes, kilts or a copy of the Burns Supper Companion in your home, stop reading now. I am about to commit Scottish heresy. I want to broach the subject of wine with haggis.
Haggis is, of course, the most maligned of Scotland's cornucopia of off-putting dishes, followed perhaps by battered, deep-fried chocolate bars.
Here is the recipe: Take a sheep's stomach, stuff it with the animal's hacked-up heart, liver and lungs, add pinhead oatmeal, suet and spices, then boil the crap out of the sucker.
As the old joke goes, a haggis is a sheep that swallowed itself.
Haggis is also the centrepiece of ceremonial suppers honouring the great poet Robert Burns, held around the world on Jan. 25. Burns died in 1796 at the age of 37, but not before working his way through more whisky and bonnie lasses than a rock band. In addition to Auld Lang Syne, he wrote Address to a Haggis, helping to elevate what was basically a medieval peasant hot dog to a national totem.
The traditional haggis accompaniment at Burns blowouts is Scottish whisky, naturally. To the uninitiated, it might seem a ghastly pairing, like Sean Connery and Highlander II: The Quickening. But it works. The spirit's bracing spice and heat cut through the fat, while the bold flavour and long finish match up against the richness of the dish.
Do you know what else works well, though? Cabernet franc, shiraz, barbera, dry oloroso sherry and - you're not going to believe me - icewine. In fact, haggis is among the most versatile canvases for the grape that I've come across. Haggis loves wine.
On the assumption there is no tradition that can't be tweaked to capture a broader audience (and a tradition founded on garbage meat and tipsy bagpipers can probably use the help, I figure), I sat down on the weekend with a five-pound haggis and an array of randomly chosen wines. There were winners. There were many competent runners-up. And there were a few clear duds (pinot noir and chardonnay, come on down!).
Haggis itself has been evolving to capture a wider audience. John Higgins, Glasgow-born-and-raised director of the George Brown College Chef School in Toronto, has a signature dish he calls Glaswegian spring rolls: deep-fried pastry tubes containing haggis, mashed potatoes and turnips, served with Scottish smoked salmon.
Mr. Higgins's wife, Arlene Ferguson, also of Scottish roots, has perfected a haggis pizza with tomato sauce, onions, a big smearing of haggis innards and cheese. ("She's a haggis freak," he said.) There is even now the pointless "vegetarian haggis," a contradiction in terms whose only "organ" is kidney beans.
So, why not haggis with wine? Burns even wrote a cool love song to somebody named Anna that opens "Yestreen I had a pint o'wine."
For my five-pounder, I ventured to the best source I could find, Allen's Scottish Butchers on Weston Road in Toronto. (It's Mr. Higgins's favourite.) If you think haggis is mostly talked about but seldom eaten, consider this: In January alone, Allen's will prepare and package three tonnes of the stuff, roughly 200 to 400 organ sacks a day, each weighing from 1 1/2 to 10 pounds. When I walked in on proprietor Stephen Allen, he was hacking away at a baseball pitcher's mound of bright-pink lung. If there is a hell for vegetarians, this is it.
Taking his cue from the modern-day haggis practice in Scotland, Mr. Allen adds a considerable amount of lean ground beef. "I tell people there's not enough sheep in Ontario for me to make haggis for one year," he said. For his casing he uses beef cap (the large intestine) instead of sheep's stomach because it extends to a wider variety of sizes. Two of his secret ingredients are fatty tissue from lamb shank and a subtle dusting of nutmeg.
"A spicy meatloaf is the best way you can describe it," he told me. And it has a slight undercurrent of liver flavour. The texture, unlike meatloaf, is loose, so it's meant to be scooped rather than sliced.
If you're a fan of haggis, but not the whisky headache, consider the highlights of my tasting. Generally, you'll want a gutsy, full-bodied wine, preferably a red with strong acidity and pronounced fruitiness. Musically speaking, haggis is a bass note, so you'll want some treble and a good melody of flavours to play over top.
And one final recommendation: Don't eat a kilo of haggis in one sitting. While I genuinely enjoyed the flavour and texture, haggis ought be consumed in wee doses - the way you'd sip whisky.
Wines to offset the offal
Mine was from South Africa: Flagstone Dark Horse, fruit forward but smokier than most Australian shirazes. Its bold, jammy plum and blackberry fruit complemented the earthiness of the meat, and the chocolate managed to make the liver taste a little less livery, and in this case that wasn't a bad thing. This roughly also applied to Burrowing Owl Syrah, made from the same grape but with slightly more restrained fruit.
Specifically, a dry, amber oloroso called Don Nuno from the good Spanish producer Lustau. The nutty tang of the fortified white wine dissolved the fat, while the dried-fruit character complemented the offal essence.
No joke, a killer match. Reif Estate Riesling Icewine from Niagara was no worse for wear after a mouthful of gutsy meat. The acidity cleansed the palate and the sweetness and ripe apricot-like flavour complemented the dish. And why not? The classic match for fattened goose liver, or foie gras, is sauternes, a sweet white from Bordeaux.
Italy's widely planted workhorse red is high in acidity and performed nicely. The combination was like two rugby forwards shaking hands.
This was among the top performers, for reasons similar to barbera. I used a top wine from the Loire Valley, Catherine & Pierre Breton Bourgueil, which is medium-full-bodied with a solid backslap of acidity and perfectly-ripe-berry flavour. Paired with the haggis, the red actually improved in flavour, becoming brighter and livelier, stimulating the palate in the process. It almost made me want more haggis. Almost.
Among the best runners-up: riesling, sauvignon blanc, malbec, cabernet sauvignon.