When Highlands opens this weekend, the Scottish gastropub’s menu will go where scant few others have dared: to the haggis, the most revered and reviled of Scotland’s traditional foods. That the mention of the dish, which is made by boiling a sheep’s organs in its stomach, still invokes disgust among Americans now accustomed to offal-saturated menus is due in part to the fact that it’s been illegal to import haggis since the British mad cow scare of the early 1990s.
And that’s where Andrew Hamilton comes in. As the proprietor of the New Jersey-based Scottish Wild Harvest, Hamilton supplies restaurants including Le Bernardin, Daniel, and Alto with everything from partridges to langoustines. And now, he’s supplying Highlands with haggis.
“I make the best haggis in America,” the transplanted Scotsman proclaims. “Other people make haggis, but it’s not haggis.” So what is it? “It’s disgusting.” The problem, he explains, is that what passes as haggis is really ersatz haggis, made with “greasy, horrible beef” instead of lamb. That’s what typically makes its way into widely available (through the Internet, at least) canned haggis, which, Hamilton sniffs, “I wouldn’t feed to my dogs.”
When Hamilton began working on his haggis recipe, he had to figure out a way to make it without lamb’s lungs, which are banned in the U.S. The lungs, Hamilton explains, stop the haggis from being sticky and give it a crumbly texture. So Hamilton did a lot of experimenting. “About 400 pounds of it went into the dumpster,” he recalls. Finally, he figured out a way to achieve the consistency he had sought: by boiling beef liver and then grating it, which mimics the same texture as the lungs. His finished recipe comprised about 10 percent liver, lamb meat, lamb heart, oatmeal, onions, and a blend of pepper, salt, nutmeg, cloves, celery salt, paprika, and chili pepper. And most importantly, it’s made in a USDA-regulated facility: Without a regulated facility, Hamilton explains, “you can sell it in your own shop, but you can’t sell it to someone else.”
Hamilton has found a wide and appreciative audience for his haggis: During the holiday season last year, he shipped 600 pounds of it to destinations around the country, and supplied numerous Burns Suppers, which are held in honor of the 18th-century poet Robert Burns, who, among other things, memorialized the dish in his Address to a Haggis. Hamilton also does brisk business at numerous Scottish festivals: Today, in fact, he’s on his way to Richmond, Virginia, to make a delivery.
Hamilton’s haggis, which is made for him by a French sausage maker, is available through Scottish Wild Harvest’s consumer website, Scottish Gourmet USA. Although his desire to promote haggis is in part motivated by financial considerations, it’s also informed by a hint of missionary zeal. “I’m happy to try to educate the American public,” he says. “People see haggis and go, ‘Ugh.’ They have some crazy idea it’s full of guts and innards, but sausages have worse stuff in them.” Haggis, he continues, “is just very Scottish because of Robert Burns, but basically, every country in what we’d consider the civilized world makes something in that form, using the intestines of an animal to boil its meat in. And once people try it, they like it.”