Romania - Heidi's Haggis, by Mike Lewin (1971)

Shortly after I arrived to open up BEA services to Bucharest, the British Embassy was giving a Burns Night dinner. I had heard from a number of friends that very often in these remote outposts BEA or BOAC would provide, and fly in, the haggis itself, as a gesture of goodwill. I checked with the catering department to see if they could do this; they confirmed that they could, so I promised the embassy that we would provide the haggis for their dinner. After dealing with catering department in London about when it should come, they agreed that they would fly it out on the Tuesday flight – we had two flights a week in those days – for the Burns Night dinner on the Thursday evening.

I met the Tuesday flight and asked the crew if they had a haggis on board. “No”, was the reply. I checked the in-flight stores – no haggis, so desperately again tried to contact catering, not an easy job, because in those days you had to wait 3-4 hours to get a telephone call to anywhere outside Romania, and then only if it were politically approved (haggis could quite well have been code for something else).

Telex was just as difficult because we had no automatic connection, so we had to telephone SITA (the airline common communications network) and hope that they would give us a connection while we waited for 2-3 hours beside our telex machine.

After some lengthy waiting and correspondence with the catering department, they told us not to worry - they would send the haggis the next day. There happened to be a charter flight going to Arad in northern Romania, carrying the Tottenham Hotspur team who were playing Arad in the Fairs Cup, and there would be a catering inspector on board who was looking after the catering needs of the Tottenham team. He would come down to Bucharest on the Thursday morning early and would carry out a catering inspection of the kitchens, as we were considering whether to start using the facility for some of our catering. He would bring the haggis with him.

“Fine,” I thought. Early on Thursday morning I went to the airport to meet the catering inspector off the flight; he got off looking a little pale, almost green. I asked him if he was OK, and he said it had been a very late night and very early morning and he thought perhaps that the ice they put in the drinks was not made from as pure water as he was used to. He assured me he would be fine, so we entered the kitchens, which were fairly sparse.

He took one look at the food that was being prepared there and promptly threw up all over the floor! We then had to try to persuade the management of the catering establishment that this was not really his view of the quality of their catering, but that he had been taken ill, as he was unaccustomed to the kind of food he had taken the previous evening.

We rescued him from that situation, took him into town and asked him, “What about this haggis?” “Ah,” he said, “we have little bit of a problem there. After your call the catering department realised that they had actually forgotten your haggis and contacted Harrods and everywhere else they could think of to try to get hold of one for you. They were all sold out, but they did come up with this”, and he opened up his bag to produce two dog-food sized tins of Baxter’s haggis.

I said, “We have to feed 75 people with a haggis ceremony this evening – how are we going to do that with two tins of haggis?” He said, “Don’t worry, BEA catering is never beaten! Why don’t you take me to your home and we’ll see what we can rustle up,” so we went home and my wife Heidi and the catering officer sat down together to work out a recipe.

Heidi is Swiss and understandably her first question was, “What is this haggis anyway?” He said, “Here are the ingredients as shown on the tin, so we can just go out to town and buy those and we can make the haggis ourselves.” She then pointed out, “This is Romania, midwinter, 1971, and there is nothing to buy in the town except pickled cabbage - although I did hear a rumour that there might be some leeks in one of the suburbs.”

“Oh. Well, what have we got in the freezer?” We looked in the freezer and found two shoulders of frozen lamb, which was a start, as haggis is based on sheep’s meat.

Rolled oats were the next item. “Rolled oats in Romania – no chance.” I telephoned around every contact we knew and found that the US marines had some ground rice. OK, ground rice it had to be, so we sent off to fetch the ground rice. The next most important ingredient, of course, was sheep’s offal – liver, kidney, heart and that kind of thing. We had no idea where to go for that – none of our friends had any, none of the embassies had any, eventually we found one hotel that said they could provide two kilos of liver.

One of my two staff said she had a hairdressing appointment at that hotel over lunchtime and so she volunteered to pick up the liver and drop it down to us. Off she went, while the rest of the concoction was bubbling away, some of it on top of the cooker, some of it in the oven because that is all the space we had.

At about 2.30 came a plaintive call from the staff member who was to get the liver, “I’ve got the liver, but I can’t get out of the hotel. It’s Ceaucescu’s birthday today, and he’s decided to address the populace from the balcony of this hotel. The square is ringed with troops and police and nobody is allowed in or out.”

At this point, having kept the situation quiet from the embassy, I had to ring the political secretary at the embassy and explain the problem to him. “Can you use your influence to go into the hairdresser’s at the Palace Hotel and collect two kilos of liver?”

He needed a bit of explanation for that one, but in the end understood the urgency, and eventually was able to get through the throng and deliver the precious liver to our home. It was then chopped and added to the mixture.

The next problem was the fact that it was all supposed to be packed into a sheep’s stomach, which was about the last thing we were likely to find. So Heidi went off to the bedroom, cut up all the pillowcases, sewed them up to the size and shape of a sheep’s stomach, so that we had six lumps of pillowcase filled with meat, being roasted and boiled, both on top of and inside the cooker. Eventually all the juices came through and the ‘haggises’ looked sufficiently brown so that nobody could actually tell whether they were pillowcases, sheep’s stomach or what.

Finally we had to get the haggis to the embassy. The only receptacle large enough was our baby’s bathtub. When we arrived, we were ceremonially piped in to the dinner, (Black Tie or Scottish Dress preferred) bathtub on our shoulders and six lumps of pillowcase stuffed with haggis for ceremonial butchering at the top table. It tasted wonderful – nobody knew the difference.

Image: bea

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