Sunday 30 January 2011

Haggis and Burns, Fish and Hugh

As a self-confessed foodie – a word surprisingly first used by Graham Greene in the New York Magazine in 1980 – it was delightful that last week was the annual opportunity to indulge in haggis to commemorate Robert Burns’s birthday.

Regardless of having no Scottish ancestry, the idea of eating a particular meal to remember an eighteenth century poet who immortalised the foodstuff in verse is too appealing to miss. While I know little else about Burns (apart from his poem To a Mouse providing the title for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men), his apostrophic poem Address to a Haggis is a celebration of both food, and its importance to Scottish society.

Where is the English equivalent? I know food is seen throughout literature and I have read some intriguing (and some less so) academic studies on the subject, but I cannot think of any text celebrating English food in such a patriotic way. While opinion is divided over the national food – is it fish and chips, roast beef, the fry-up, or chicken tikka masala? – no writing seems to have captured the public’s imagination in such a way as Burns. Or possibly, it could be the lack of interest in literature. Burns’ night celebrates a poet and, apart from the RSC’s local celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon in April, England has not chosen a writer to remember as Scotland has adopted Burns.

The other glorious thing about haggis is its ingredients. My supplier uses a mix of lambs’ lungs and liver (eschewing the oft-included heart) and oats and while the ingredients do not necessarily have the enticing ring of most people’s shopping lists, I have yet to serve it to someone who has not enjoyed it; three of my twenty-one diners had not had haggis before and all had their preconceptions pleasingly dashed.

Haggis is made of the bits of the animal that the poor were obliged to eat centuries ago (the first written record of ‘hagws’ is a fifteenth century cookbook), but in doing so, little of the animal was wasted. I have just caught up with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent series of programmes bringing the issue of discards to the public’s attention. The problem is that for conservation reasons, fishermen have a quota for each species of fish they are allowed to catch. If they catch a species which has reached their quota while fishing for another species, they are obliged to throw over-quota fish back into the sea, dead. Figures show about 50 per cent of their catches are wasted in this way. Jeremy Paxman is quoted as saying ‘Humpty Dumpty said that “words mean what I choose them to mean”, but if this policy is ‘conservation’ then I’m the Mad Hatter’: this summarises the issue succinctly.

Haggis is a delicious historical example of preventing food being wasted, and in the twenty-first century it is ridiculous that food is being thrown away when prices are soaring and people are starving. While I did not intend this blog to be political, in the case of Hughs Fish Fight I will make an exception.

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