Every January 25th in the Scottish Borders town of Selkirk there is a haggis hunt. Except this year because, as it turns out, the wild haggis (Haggis scoticus) is unusually susceptible to COVID-19. So, to avoid any risk of wiping out this rare and sought-after delicacy, the traditional annual haggis hunt has been cancelled. No tartan-clad hunters will gather on Selkirk Hill to roust the elusive hairy beasties out of their burrows by playing bagpipe music at ear-splitting volume. No eager young hunters armed with home-made arrows and catching nets will have the opportunity to bag their very first haggis. And no Selkirk lad or lass will get to enjoy their own freshly murdered haggis as part of their socially-distanced 2021 Burns Night celebrations. The Selkirk Grace seems hollow indeed this year.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Burns Supper, it’s an annual event enjoyed around the world by Scots and those of Scottish descent. It’s supposedly a celebration of the birth of the famed Scottish poet Rabbie Burns. In reality it’s an excuse for gluttony and glugging down the last of that single malt you got for Christmas, with some poetry thrown about to make the debauchery seem more respectable. Haggis is usually the unalloyed star of the Burns Supper, but in these straitened times it seems only right and proper to give more attention to the no-less-essential supporting acts – neeps and tatties.
Neeps and tatties are two staple crops that are easily grown in many parts of the world, but particularly so in Scotland. As well as being nutritious and filling, they are two of but a few garden crops that are readily available in January. Stored in a frost-free place, they should remain in good condition well into the New Year. Neeps can even be left in the ground until needed, although it’s worth lifting them and storing in sand before hard frosts make the ground undiggable or they become woody and only suitable for feeding sheep.
Tatties, as most folk will undoubtedly be aware, are what non-Scots quaintly refer to as ‘potatoes’. Planted in mid-spring they will, as long as they’re kept well-watered, go on to produce heavy yields by late summer. Traditionally they are grown in trenches, but I’ve found that popping tubers individually into holes is easier on the back and results in comparable yields, at least in my well-amended loamy clay. If you have plenty of mulching materials available you may be able to grow your spuds the no-dig way.
Neeps, Swedes, Turnips or Rutabaga?
Neeps on the other hand cause considerable confusion, even among Scots. Neeps are also known as turnips in Scotland, but then so are turnips. In fact, neeps are what are commonly known elsewhere as ‘swede’, ‘Swedish turnip’, or ‘rutabaga’. So if you mention turnips in Scotland there is the potential for great misunderstanding, but if you call them neeps, everyone knows exactly what you mean. In general, it’s best just to avoid mentioning the word ‘turnips’, unless you want to talk about turnips of course, but I won’t be held responsible for the consequences!
Like tatties, neeps don’t need much foutering with to ensure a good crop. Plenty of water will encourage them to swell into nice chubby roots, and a mulch of organic matter such as compost will help keep roots moist and cool. Consistent moisture is key – avoid watering heavily after a dry spell or they may split. A neutral or slightly alkaline soil may give better results, but they don’t usually need feeding or any special soil. I always have to protect mine from brassica pests such as cabbage root fly and cabbage aphids. Growing them within a tunnel of fine mesh neatly sidesteps this problem.
The Burns Supper
Rather pleasingly, neeps can be sown around the same time that your tatties are planted, which means that this reliable pair enjoy a lifelong partnership from plot to plate.
Rewarding to grow and simple to cook, neeps and tatties are my kind of vegetables! Black pepper and salt are all the flavouring neeps need, plus a splash of milk and a knurl of butter (or vegan alternatives) for the tatties. They’re usually cooked and mashed separately before adding them as individual yellow and orange molehills to the plate but, at the risk of shocking purists, you can boil and mash them both together in the same pan. (Anything to save on washing up…) My personal preference is to have mashed tatties and roasted neeps.
All being well the haggis vaccination program will go ahead as planned, and next year we’ll see healthy herds of antibody-packed haggi roaming the glens to be picked off in their hundreds at the Haggis Hunt. In the meantime, try pairing your neeps and tatties with veggie or meaty sausages or mince instead, or just ask your local butcher for the contents of his spare parts bin. Alternatively, like me, opt for vegetarian haggis instead – it’s not only the more ethical choice, it’s actually preferred by some of the more squeamish meat-eaters.
Now, who’s up for a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne?