Recently I was asked to join the judging panel for the Scottish Haggis and Pork Sausage Championships 2017; it was my first exposure to judging and I was keen to see how it was done. Would it be all scientific and serious? Or all foodie and nerdy? So when I entered Dewar’s Rinks in Perth on 14th May I was delighted by the buzz of activity and that lovely, fresh, light, sweetish scent that comes from being in close proximity to large quantities of top quality meat. The place was buzzing with butchers and meat industry suppliers demonstrating their wares and gearing up for a range of competitions.
I made my way to a large area cordoned off for the haggis and pork sausage judging. There was a circle of chairs with a package on each, containing an apron and baseball cap. Depending on which colour of apron you’d chosen, you were allocated to either pork sausages or haggis – mine was black and that was the haggis camp. We paired up to work in twos, and were shown to long tables with lines of haggises (haggi?) laid out in rows. Five pairs had a table each (and the sausage judges had the same at the far end of the space) – as it transpired, each table represented a specific region of Scotland. However I was unaware of that at the time, and have no idea which region of Scotland our particular haggises came from. There was complete anonymity; each haggis was placed on a paper plate with a raffle ticket to identify it. My friends have been asking me if I was taking bribes! But actually it would have been impossible to do so, even if I wanted to.
Our table had 24 haggises and we had to work through each, grading them with points from 1 to 10 on five different characteristics – appearance raw, appearance cooked, smell, flavour, and ‘mouth feel’. Microwave ovens were supplied, and we had to cut off a slice and zap it in the microwave. Nobody told us what the ideal haggis criteria might be – it was entirely up to judges’ own taste and experience. Water was available as a ‘palate cleanser’ between each tasting. The outer appearance of the whole haggis was not part of the scoring – the judging was all about what the eating experience would be like on your plate at home (or even at your Burns supper). In some ways this was a pity, as there were some real beauties; the type that would inspire a poet to wax lyrical about sonsie faces. However it wasn’t a beauty competition!
After all the pairs had worked their way through this process and totted up the scores, the top three haggises for each table were identified. Then the judging pairs all changed places, and using the same system, chose the best of the three. These would end up as the regional winners (although we didn’t know that at the time). And finally, the top five haggises were placed on a table with all ten judges tasting and choosing the best of the best.
You can imagine by this time that taste-bud inertia might have set in. I think certainly we were very focused, and consensus about the final winner was reached without much disagreement. But it was interesting how important the various criteria became. Obviously, the choosing of a ‘best’ haggis has a lot of subjectivity to it; how could my choice be the same as yours? Haggis making is as much art as science. But as it turned out, most judges were looking for a relatively open texture, both in the raw and cooked state; this usually translated to an appetising ‘mouth feel’; whereas the closer-textured ones could seem a bit gluey in the chewing. Smell wasn’t as easy to differentiate as flavour, which surprised me. And for flavour, the differences were marked mainly by a general meaty savouriness, and how liberally the salt and pepper had been shaken in. One had an obvious rosemary flavour, and this divided the judges’ opinion. A sprig of assertive rosemary is great with lamb, so you can see why a creative butcher would think of this as a way of adding individuality to a traditional haggis recipe. But for me it was a bit too off-beam; haggis is such a traditional meal, served in the most traditional of ways with little variation in the accompaniments, and it just didn’t seem right to bring in something quite so different. Top marks for innovation but no banana. What I personally was looking for was something that would have a different texture to the mashed tatties and neeps that it would inevitably share a plate with. When I used to cook for older people, they enjoyed a haggis, but weren’t so keen on the ones that were highly peppered. So – I’m sure it’s quite a challenge for a butcher, to produce a top quality product in a world where there isn’t much room for individuality, and I doff my baseball cap to all the entrants.
That was that; and the following day the organisers emailed the judges to thank them, and reveal the winners (listed below). It was a really interesting experience and I hope I get to repeat it. What would be really interesting now, would be to watch a craft butcher at work, to see the provenance of his/her ingredients, and see how the recipe is put together. Well done to all the competitors.
2017 SCOTTISH HAGGIS CHAMPIONSHIP sponsored by Grampian Oat Products Champion: JB Houston, Dumfries Reserve Champion: Findlays of Portobello Third Place: Mearns T McCaskie, Wemyss Bay North of Scotland Champion: Davidsons Specialist Butchers, Elgin East of Scotland Champion: Minick of St Andrews West of Scotland Champion: Mearns T McCaskie, Wemyss Bay South East Scotland Champion: Findlays of Portobello South West Scotland Champion: JB Houston, Dumfries
THE 2017 SCOTTISH PORK SAUSAGE CHAMPIONSHIP Competition sponsored by Lucas Ingredients Champion: The Buffalo Farm Reserve Champion: Hendersons of Hamilton Third Place: Ewan Morrice, Stuartfield North of Scotland Champion: Ewan Morrice, Stuartfield South East of Scotland Champion: JC Douglas, St Boswell East of Scotland Champion: The Buffalo Farm, Kirkcaldy West of Scotland Champion: Hendersons of Hamilton South West Scotland Champion: Hendries of Girvan
More results for Meat Skills Scotland and the Craft Butcher Awards are at:-