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By Elizabeth AtiaJanuary 25th 2014
Elizabeth Atia

Burns Night, the annual celebration of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, is still celebrated here in Shetland in venues throughout the islands. Although the number of halls hosting events has dwindled over the years there are at least three on this year, as listed on the Shetland.org Events page.

No Burns Supper is complete without a traditional haggis, the obligatory Address to a Haggis recital and a dram (or more) of whisky. I was quite lucky in that the first time I ever tried haggis I was in a 15th century Baronial Tower in the Highlands of Scotland. The haggis was piped in with all the ceremony expected and a very Scottish-accented man recited the required poem before stabbing the haggis with his sword. It was an unforgettable experience.

Last week I was invited to watch the butchers in J.K. Mainland's Butcher and Farm Shop on the high street of Lerwick prepare their own haggis for Burns Night. I donned a butcher's apron and headed into the mysterious room behind the counter to watch the process with avid curiosity.

The recipe J.K. Mainland's use for their haggis was over 100 years old when it was acquired by a Mr. Bill Smith in the 1930s, a butcher trained by the Galloway's chain of butchers in Glasgow, and he brought it to Shetland in 1947. Smith was the owner of Smith & Co., a butcher greengrocer located in the premises which is now Vaila Fine Art at the foot of Church Road. He was also the father-in-law of Jim Grunberg, the first butcher in Shetland to make reestit mutton commercially. By the 1990s three tonnes of haggis used to be produced each year! When Smith & Company shut its doors the recipe passed via Jim to J.K Mainlands. The only thing which has changed over the years is the gravy salts, as the original ones are no longer available.

J.K. Mainland make their haggis with local Shetland lamb, Scottish oatmeal and a heavily guarded secret blend of seasonings. It is a well rounded traditional haggis; moist with good texture with a flavour neither too spicy or peppery. They only add a small quantity of salt and pepper so you can season it to your own liking at the table. The co-owner of the butchers, Ronnie Obern, insists it is a favourite amongst children. Mainland's also grow their own tatties, neeps and carrots, so you can get all the ingredients for your haggis supper at their shop in on the high street.

They pre-cook the haggis themselves on their premises, saving the consumer the often fiddly process of doing this at home. All you need to do, Ronnie says, is heat the haggis up.

He recommends chopping up your tatties, neeps and carrots and placing them all together in the bottom tier of a steamer and placing the haggis in the top tier. Simmer away for 20-25 minutes until the vegetables are tender and the delicious flavours have dripped from the haggis into the vegetables. Drain well, mash your veg with plenty of butter and serve the mash with the haggis laid alongside on its own or with a plain gravy, if desired.

I did just that for our evening dinner after my visit to the butchers and the meal turned out splendidly. I served the haggis and veg with some home made chicken gravy (the village shop was all out of cream for my intended whisky sauce) but the haggis was so moist and flavoursome that a gravy was not really required. My father, visiting from the west coast of Canada for our wedding last week, declared it to be one of the top three haggis' he has ever eaten.

Although haggis is traditionally eaten on Burns Night, it can make a wonderful meal any time of the year. Me, I am going to thoroughly enjoy my haggis tonight at the Burns Supper at the Walls Hall on the west side of Shetland! A special thank you to the organizers of the event for inviting me along!