“Men are tormented by the opinions they have of things, and not the things themselves”

Michel de Montaigne (1533 -1592)

In 1980 the New York publisher Time-Life began releasing a series of cookery books in Britain and America by way of monthly installments. Entitled The Good Cook, they were curated by Richard Olney and, in line with his other publications, immediately became gastronomic game changers.

Olney was an American artist and writer who settled in an isolated village in the south of France. Here he lived for 50 years where, alongside his cooking and his painting, he wrote prodigiously on food and wine until his death in 1999

In 2010, the Observer Food Monthly voted Olney’s French Menu Cookbook as No.1 in its 50 Best Cookbooks Ever supplement, unwittingly relegating the likes of Gordon, Nigella, Delia, Jamie, Rick and Ottolenghi to glamorous also-rans.

Along with parallel publications in the UK, he was credited with introducing a reticent American public to an extensively illustrated, step-by-step engagement with European cuisine. The Good Cook consisted of 28 seminal volumes, each dedicated to a specific culinary aspect; Beef, Eggs, Cheese, Fish, Grains, Pasta, Sauces etc. and it continued to release titles until the early part of 1990. Over the years I have managed to gather all 28 titles – the 28 destined exclusively for the UK that is.

George Bernard Shaw is credited with having said that “England and America are two countries divided by the same language.” 

Not surprising then that some of Olney’s UK editions carried alternative titles for American households. The initial release of the volume dedicated to Biscuits made its appearance in the States under the heading of Cookies and a later edition featuring Confectionery, conveniently morphed into Candy. The most astonishing substitution, presumably with a squeamish American public in mind, was the 1981 UK volume entitled Offal, which made its debut in the USA under the bewitching title of Variety Meats. Although those sporting a delicate constitution might find themselves becalmed by this smokescreen, it has traditionally been offal (sorry, variety meats) that have been the mainstay of mankind’s unrelenting obsession with encased ground meats – sausages, or bangers to many of us in the UK. They even managed to find their way into Homer’s Odyssey some 3,000 years ago as “goat sausages, turning it this way and that…besides a great fire…very eager to get it quickly roasted” – a classically impetuous BBQ method I’ve come a cropper with on occasions myself.

And whilst many around the world are familiar with endless incarnations, be it sundry pork, mutton, beef, fish (an early Roman favourite) blood or even Grecian goat, we tend to patriotically exalt our own local version of these collagen wrapped extrusions. Morcilla, Weiner, Cumberland, Frankfurter, Black Pudding, Anduoillette, Chorizo, Saveloy, Bratwurst, Salami or Loukaniko (this last one being Homer’s clear favourite…the Greek not the Simpson), and are merely the tip of an offal iceberg.

But whilst loyal, flag-waving butchers across the globe were looking the other way, Scotland apparently sneaked into the party sporting a visceral clutch-bag that was later to be universally known as Haggis.

Scholarly opinion remains divided as to its true origins. Early Roman and Scandinavian invaders have been held accountable for its introduction, even France, unsurprisingly, has weighed in with a claim, but the popular consensus is that Britain was the mother of this culinary adaption. Even a medieval monk from Kings Lynn here in Norfolk; Geoffrey the Grammarian, attempted a sassenach’s appropriation in his 15 th c Latin/English Dictionary with the unmistakable tag, haggas puddynge. But as an aspirant Scot with a matriarchal claim amounting to some 25% Dumfries DNA on board, I naturally remain supportive of Scotland’s claim to haggis primacy.

So in advance of poet Robert (Rabbie) Burns’s birthday, celebrated on January 25th each year, I patriotically sourced the nucleus of my Burns Night supper from a couple running Hardiesmill Farm way up on the Scottish Borders (within Slow Food’s pivotal Ark of Taste they are disarmingly cited as Masters of Meat). Their haggis is made up of ‘pluck’, a burlesque verb which defines an alluring assembly of heart, liver and lungs sourced from pure-bred, Aberdeen Angus cattle. The boiled pluck is minced, along with mace, nutmeg, onions and pinhead oatmeal, and then eased into another of the animals’ comedy organs – the diaphanous yellow intestine.

Again I suspect the average American diner might wince on hearing Burns’s ode to the ritual piercing of the boiled, swollen, vessel;

“His knife see rustic Labour dight, An cut you up wi ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; 

And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich!”

Pretty much nails the poet’s romantic outlook I guess.

But looking back over a variety of Burns night suppers the drawback for me has never been the pendulous contents of the haggis, more the accompanying vegetables and the determined method of their cooking. Neeps an tatties’ (turnips and potatoes) are invariably boiled to submission then followed by assertive maceration, a process so unforgiving that the end result has more in common with a vegetable-based slurry than an alluring collection of bright autumnal tubers.

So, although I have little sympathy with France’s fruitless attempt at cultural appropriation (but always eager to be seen as a multicultural person) I’ve given them a shoehorn into my Burn’s night supper courtesy of a chef with (tenuous) Celtic roots – Raymond Blanc. I feel this alternative vegetable assembly offers a greater tactile purpose to the supper.

Although Richard Olney offers you a fine haggis recipe in his book, I see no  point in making your own. Farmers as accomplished as Robin and Alison at Hardiesmill, seem very pleased to send the finished article along to you (even I draw the line at going three rounds in the kitchen with some “…gushing entrails bright”).

Alternatively Macsween of Edinburgh, with a family lineage unfazed by their provision of more than 500 tons of haggis each year, now make a vegetarian model too. Seems Olney just missed out on Variety Vegetables as America’s 29th title.

Gratin Turnip and Potato Dauphinoise from Kitchen Secrets (2011) by Raymond Blanc

500ml whipping cream

10 pinches of sea salt

2 pinches of freshly ground black or white pepper

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

550g medium Desirée or other floury potatoes, washed

550g turnips, washed

50g grated cheese, preferably Gruyère

In a small pan over a medium heat bring the cream to a simmer.

Add the seasoning and crushed garlic, remove from the heat and set aside to infuse while you prepare the vegetables.

To prepare the vegetables: preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4. Wash the potatoes and turnips, pat dry and cut into fine (2mm) slices, using a mandoline.

To assemble the dish: layer half of the potato and turnip slices in a large gratin dish, then pour on half of the warm cream through a strainer.

Layer the remaining vegetable slices on top, making sure you finish the gratin with a layer of potatoes only. Strain the remaining cream over and press the potato slices gently with the back of a spoon to ensure the cream is evenly distributed.

To cook: cover with foil and bake on a baking sheet in the oven for 40 minutes.

Remove the foil and sprinkle the grated cheese, if using, evenly over the surface.

Bake, uncovered, for a further 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the vegetables are just cooked through. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Wine thoughts

Notwithstanding the traditional Scottish beverage of choice being a dram of whisky – some tipped into the chef, some directly onto the haggis – Highland or Island is still a moot point on Burns Night.

I took an outsider’s view, opting for the slightly more refreshing grape over the more intoxicating grain.

For me, beef invariably calls for a red wine. But this meal has a lighter, more earthy style that clearly does not need the heft of wines such as Barolo or a Châteauneauf-du-Pape. By the same token it  would not welcome the rich fruit-driven powerhouse of a new world Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. My choice errs on the side of the more yielding gamier flavours frequently found in a Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc or Nebbiolo.

But for those looking for a less traditional, more adventurous partner, the emerging frisson for ‘Orange’ or skin-contact white wines may provide both surprise and delight here. A Slovenian or Georgian orange wine would certainly warrant high recommendation for our Haggis supper.