BLOOD AND GUTS, WITH WINE
By RJ Furth
Those of us who love the adventure of traveling – not merely sitting on a beach or visiting museums and churches – are usually adventurous eaters. I recently met a woman who is a serious hiker, including treks in Pakistan and an attempt at Mt. Everest. However, she is one of the pickiest eaters I’ve ever met: no red meat, nothing spicy, nothing ‘gross’, the list went on and on. During her attempt on Everest she ate only eggs and rice. While I hold her in the highest regard as an adventurer, I can’t help but feel that she has failed to ingest a vital chunk of the adventure. Food, after all, is a vital part of any culture. To listen to a people’s music, view them at work and play, study their art, experience their festivals, play their games, yet live on MacDonalds burgers and boiled rice, is to miss something at the core.
I certainly understand skipping the extremes, though I rarely have. Dog is not to everybody’s taste – literally and figuratively – and the dog I ate years ago in Indonesia had little to do with culture and everything to do with poverty. I was on a boat on Lake Toba, northern Sumatra, slowly circling Samosir Island. We stopped briefly at a village where a young man offered us some bites of a tough, chewy meet. After chewing a bite for a few minutes, we asked what it was. (Asking before eating would have reduced the adventure factor.) When the man began to bark and pantomime a panting dog, a few in our group gagged, though most seemed amused. I was disappointed with the quality. I may try dog again someday, though in a country like Korea or Taiwan where it is not unusual and of a higher quality. I have also eaten live fish in Japan, which is not uncommon. I selected a small fish from a tank, the sushi master caught it in a net, gripped it firmly and filleted the meat while the critter was still alive. The master then artistically placed the still live fish – minus it’s meat – on a bed of seaweed. Driving a wooden skewer from the tail to just below the head, he positioned the fish on the seaweed so that it look as if it was leaping out of the water. Finally, he carefully placed the filleted pieces back on to the fish. When it was set down in front of me it looked like a completely intact, live fish, one that I could simply have tossed back into the tank. Instead, I used my chopsticks to lift off a square of fish flesh, dip it into shoya sauce, and place it in my mouth. As I chewed that first bite the fish’s mouth continued to open and close, and the tail twitched. The fish tasted incredibly fresh, though no better than most sushi I ate in Japan. I’ve eaten plenty of other exotic foods: rattlesnake, ostrich, guinea pig and various parts of the body that most people take a pass on including kidney, liver, intestines, and heart. Unlike some television personalities who seek the odd – penis, testicles, lungs, brain – I usually prefer the mildly exotic. Which leads me to a recent trip to Scotland.
Scotland, much like England, is blessed with marvelous ingredients yet historically has produced food that is best described as lousy. Both nations have an abundance of fresh fish and outstanding meat that come direct from the farm: lamb, beef and pork stand out. Both nations – in spite of climate conditions – have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. However, both Scotland and England are rightly known for putting crap on the table. Chips (french fries) are served with nearly every meal, including pasta. Vegetables are boiled until they lose all color and flavor. Meat is overcooked until dry and tough, then often served with the ubiquitous ‘brown sauce’. (At least the French give sauces a classy name, like mayonnaise. The English would have called it ‘white sauce’.) An English breakfast, similar to a Scottish breakfast, contains good ingredients: eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, brown bread. The problem is that all these fresh, locally produced ingredients are fried in oil – every morsel in the same oil – so that all acquire the same oily taste, Even the bread is fried in the oil rather than toasted.
To be fair, England and Scotland have experienced a quality revolution that relies on fresh local products prepared with health and flavor in mind. I have had brilliant meals in both countries that rivaled the finest meals I’ve had in France, Italy, the US or Japan. (All right, I’ll admit it: I’ve had meals in France that are incomparable.) Scottish oysters are among the tastiest in the world. Scottish lamb is superb. Yet, if one is trying to absorb a culture, one needs to delve deeper in order to experience something unique. After all, French oysters are equally as good as their Scottish cousins. So is Colorado lamb. If you really want to taste Scotland, you have to chew – and swallow – black pudding and haggis.
Black pudding doesn’t sound that inviting, yet it is far less repulsive than the name that truly describes it: blood sausage. Blood sausage is not uncommon in Europe. The Spanish have their morcilla, German’s make blutwurst, and boudin noir is a delicacy in France. Although most westerners have become squeamish about their food, most cultures historically did not have the luxury of throwing away any part of an animal. From snout to tail, every part of the animal was used for clothing, tools, instruments or food. People who have long memories of hunger and starvation are not picky about what they eat. Beef heart has as much nutrition as the sirloin. Pigs blood will keep you alive as well as a pork chop. The Chinese and Japanese continue to eat nearly every part of everything they grow, raise or catch. Westerners have become more select in their diets, yet some elements remain, albeit as the occasional oddity such as Rocky Mountain oysters: bulls testicles. Black pudding, however, is still commonly found in many restaurants. It is a staple of the Scottish breakfast and I’ve had it served as a side for dinner at a restaurant that was far from any tourist destination. By the way, black pudding contains more than blood, usually including onions, pork fat, oatmeal, and flavorings. I’ve never found a blood pudding I couldn’t stomach, nor one that I fell in love with. Black pudding is salty and a bit sweat and tender if not overcooked. It is not one of my favorite foods and I wonder if black pudding will soon become a topic about which old people reminiscence, like black and white TVs and typewriters. The sad truth is that young people raised on Japanese cartoons, American movies, sugary cereal and fast food have little regard for their own culture.
Haggis, on the other hand, would appear to have a long and healthy life ahead. Haggis is made from sheep’s offal, which is a polite term for all the rubbish that is left over after an animal is butchered. The windpipe, lungs, heart and liver of the sheep are boiled and then minced. This is mixed with beef suet (the hard fat that accumulates around the kidneys) and lightly toasted oatmeal. This mixture is placed inside the sheep’s stomach, which is sewn closed. The resulting haggis is traditionally cooked by further boiling (for up to three hours) although the partially-cooked haggis can be cooked in the oven which prevents the risk of bursting and spoiling. In my opinion, haggis tastes far better than its description would lead you to expect. Then again, when a food is described as containing windpipe, lungs and hard fat, your expectations can’t get much lower. The adventurous traveler is usually interested in a nation’s culture, and haggis plays an important role in Scotland’s culture. Three times I have been witness to the ‘piping in of the haggis’. The dining room is brought to a hush by the playing of bagpipes, the piper then leads in a procession that includes a kilt-wearing man carrying a sword followed by another man in kilt carrying a silver platter on which rests the haggis. When the piper stops playing, the man with the sword recites Robert Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis, which starts “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!” The sword is then taken from its sheath, the haggis is sliced and served. I’ve never understood a word of the great Scottish poet, yet Address to a Haggis is always recited with such passion that I can’t help but be moved by it.
Although I have always liked haggis, during my last trip to Scotland I was served a haggis dish that took this humble food to new heights. I asked the concierge at our hotel in Edinburgh to recommend a traditional Scottish restaurant. At first I thought he recommended a raunchy strip joint, the Stag Party. Upon asking for clarification he moderated his thick Scottish burr and repeated his choice: Stac Polly. Stac Polly turned out to be a mountain in northern Scotland, which is from where the restaurant took its name. The Stac Polly that Sandy and I visited (there are more than one) is situated in the New Town district of Edinburgh. (New Town is 200 years old, as opposed to the old sections of Edinburgh, some of which date back more than 1000 years.) The restaurant is located in the lower level of a building in a residential neighborhood. It is a dark, woody place, casual and welcoming, much like Scotland itself. The menu could best be described as modern Scottish, using traditional ingredients in new and unexpected ways: salmon with couscous, scallops with black pudding, calves liver with Dijon mustard mash. The appetizer that caught my eye was just such a blend of traditional and modern: baked filo parcels of haggis with a red wine and sweet plum sauce. As soon as I read the description I knew I would order it, along with a chilled Sancerre. I was not disappointed. The filo parcels were the size of walnuts. A tablespoon of haggis was wrapped in the filo dough, then tied off so that the ends of the filo folded out like flower petals. Baked until golden brown, the top pieces were crispy while the main parcel retained the moisture of the haggis. Drizzled over the top of the packets was a mildly sweet, fruity coulis of red wine reduction and plum sauce. When I cut the parcel in half it released a fragrant essence of haggis. I took a sip of the crisp white wine, then took my first bite. I was not disappointed. The haggis itself had a very mild lamb flavor that was enhanced by the nuttiness of the oats. The filo dough has assured that the mixture would be moist and warm, all topped off by the sweetness of the red wine plum sauce. Nothing shouted ‘lungs’ or ‘windpipe’. I cleared my palette with another sip of Sancerre, then turned by attention back to the haggis.
I would not hesitate to recommend haggis to anyone, especially the haggis I ate at Stac Polly. And no, I am not the type of person who insists that everybody should try every possible kind of food. I understand the aversion to dog and bulls testicles and live fish. What I am saying is that if you can get past the description and open your mind, you will be rewarded.