Toasting the haggis

The Dorset Inn's chefs put their own twist on a Robert Burns dinner staple

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DORSET — It's common knowledge that you don't want to see what goes into the sausage. But in this case, you actually do.

Haggis is a well-known — infamous, some would say — Scottish dish made by The Dorset Inn using its own recipe.

It's a mainstay of annual Robert Burns dinners, such as the one held annually at The Dorset Inn, in honor of the Scottish poet best known for "Auld Lang Syne" and celebrating Scottish tradition, culture and cuisine. Burns dinners are usually held on or near the poet's birthday of Jan. 25, and they're steeped in Scotland's literary, culinary and distillery traditions.

At The Dorset Inn, chefs Neil Phillip and Jon Gatewood put their own twist on this historic dish.

At one time, haggis was made with sheep lung, heart and liver. In 1971, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that sheep lung is not safe for Americans to eat. There has since been negative mythology surrounding haggis that the crew at the Dorset Inn has set out to demystify.

"Be adventurous," Phillip said. "Keep the customer engaged and coming back."

Haggis is a poached dish, which makes it taste different from meat that is sauteed or grilled. Poaching causes the haggis to come out crumbly, so it is best paired with something sweet and juicy.

Phillip and Gatewood made an apricot currant compote to satisfy the need for a little moisture. They also prepared some "Tatties," a traditional side to haggis made out of rutabaga, and "Neeps," fingerling potatoes.

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The chefs started the day early to prepare the meal. Gatewood broke down the lamb meat and liver, weighing the amounts (4 to 1 ratio) and added oats and other seasonings, especially allspice, to his ingredients. After grinding it all together in a large food processor, the haggis was ready for stuffing.

Pork bung is the intestine of a pig and is used as the casing for the haggis. The bung is not meant to be eaten; it is a pouch to contain the meat. The chefs washed and soaked the bung for an hour before stuffing it with haggis. They used a sausage maker, lined the bung over an opening and cranked the meat inside.

Formal occasion

A haggis dinner involves pomp and circumstance. The Rev. Jim Gray, of the United Church of Dorset and East Rupert, blessed the haggis and recited a Burns poem, "Address to a Haggis," written to honor this occasion. A procession led by bagpiper John Skinner began the five-course meal with a presentation; Gatewood paraded through the dining room with the haggis on a cutting board, bending down on one knee at each table to present the dish for inspection, the expectation being that it would be admired.

Traditionally served alongside haggis is a pairing of Scotch whisky. A common theme of toasting the haggis with Scotch celebrates the gift of such a dinner. When pairing any alcohol with food, "you want to start light and end dark," bar manager Patrick Honan explained. "This is the way the palette works best."

Honan and the chefs work closely before the event to taste the food and decide which flavors will blend well together. For each course, they paired a Scotch. First came Auchentoshen, a lighter floral blend with a ginger aftertaste, followed by Highland Park 12 Year from Orchrey Island, the northernmost island still making Scotch. This had a Viking influence giving it a subtle smoky flavor, while remaining very smooth. The third was Aberlour 12 year, a scotch from the Speysey region with hints of sherry and other fruit. Bruichladdich, from Islay, came fourth. This Scotch was chosen particularly to toast the haggis and had a fruity flavor which lingered on the tongue. Finally, the dessert course, a Drambuie fruitcake, was served with Drambuie, an Isle of Skye liqueur.

Honan explained how he chose his whisky, making great connection with the food. The third pairing he used, Aberlour 12 Year, was this writer's favorite. There were hints of sherry and fruity aromas that made it the perfect contrast to the meal. I could really taste the palette Honan was trying to create for his guests, deciding light to dark, fruitiness and smokiness. This was a great learning experience and I suggest that everyone check out the Robert Burns Night next year at the Dorset Inn.

Skinner, the bagpiper, said you never know what to expect from these occasions. "Everyone has a different palette," he said. This is true, whether it comes to the food or the alcohol pairing. However, at this dinner the response was clear: Everyone cleaned their plates, loving every bite.

Adam Howe writes about food for Southern Vermont Landscapes from Manchester.


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