WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 1
click on photosFor Vince Milewski and his wife Morganne MacDonald , it’s all about the haggis. Born and bred Wisconsinites, he grew up in Trevor and Morganne in Bristol. They now live in Dover, which is a far cry from Glasgow, even if ye take high road. The two partner with a burgeoning Gaelic food business, called Macski’s Highland Foods. Get it? “Mac” from MacDonald and “ski” from Milewski.
In addition to creating their haggis, pasties and other goods, Milewski remains an architect , owner of Milwaukee Architects & Planners, Inc. MacDonald writes romantic fiction with heavy Celtic influences and is also a mediator and attorney with Child First Mediation Services, LLC. They share an office at 10859 W. Bluemound Rd., Milwaukee. Macski's Highland Foods is also headquartered there.
Milewski tried haggis for the first time in 1991 when the couple traveled to Scotland on vacation. “I loved it from the first bite and ate it every chance I could that trip. I was determined after that trip to come up with a recipe so that I could enjoy haggis at home,” he recalled.
McDonald’s first memory of eating haggis was at the Topps Farm near Stirling, Scotland, in 1991. “It was served almost like a mousse and I spread it on warm bread. I loved it! Between that trip and becoming a vegetarian in 2001, I ate all the haggis, served in every way possible, that I could get my hands on. Now I eat our vegetarian haggis and I love it, too,” she exclaimed, emphasizing there is a haggis for everyone’s taste.
According to Milewski, one cannot find a good traditional recipe for haggis online because most simply list “spices” in the ingredients list and don't say what those spices actually are. “Over the course of a decade, we researched old cookbooks and conducted a great deal of trial and error cooking until we came up with what is now our own recipe,” he said.
“Our haggis is different from that made in Scotland in that we are not able to use sheep lung. For some unknown reason, the USDA does not allow its use in food production,” he lamented. But for Macski’s bulk haggis, cook-in bags are used rather than sheep stomach in a nod to a modern alternative to Old World resourcefulness.
“Stomachs, which are readily available today, were traditionally used because they were available and cook-in bags had not yet been invented,” Milewski pointed out, praising modern cook-in bags because they are more durable, less expensive and provide an attractive haggis for presentation. “One thing that we do that no other producer we're aware of in the U.S. does, is stuff our haggis into hog casings. We created our Highland Links to allow people to put haggis in a bun and eat it like a bratwurst. This has been a very successful product for outdoor events,” he said.
The two “Ms” both love to cook, so creating new foods is a lot of fun for them. When they were at a food show in Chicago a few years ago, they saw a device that made handheld pies or pasties. Since a traditional Scottish dinner consists of haggis, neeps (rutabagas), and tatties (potatoes), and two of those ingredients are already common to pasties, they decided to add haggis and create Highland Pasties.
“They are quite delicious and are one of our best selling products. The most challenging part thus far has been trying to translate home recipes into production recipes and processes,” Milewski said. For them, It's one thing to spend a lot of time at home adding a pinch here and there, but to go into production with a food product they must have exact measurements, as well as efficient production means.
“Creating great food at home is the most fun for me. Experimenting with new recipes is exciting,” said MacDonald. “Sometimes it works brilliantly. Sometimes what we create fails, especially like the time I thought putting rose water in the shortbread dough was a good idea. Ick!“
“Once we have a great recipe, the next step is sourcing the ingredients. Our goal is to use as many all-natural Wisconsin ingredients as possible. Organic sourcing is our first choice. Once we have everything sourced, being at the factory when the test runs are conducted, that's fun too. That's when the real creative tweaking happens. I guess it's all fun, and all challenging,” she said
According to Milewski, Macski’s is probably the healthiest haggis available anywhere. “We make sure that all of our ingredients are of the best quality possible. Our lamb is pasture-raised in an ethical manner without hormones or antibiotics and we actually flew out to Colorado to visit the lamb processing facility. Our oats are organic and we've substituted vegetable oil with no trans fats for traditional lard. We are also planning on producing a gluten-free line of haggis,” he explained.
It was a chore at first to get products into Macski’s various outlets because not everyone had a clue about what haggis was. “ Word of mouth and having people taste our products has been our greatest sales tool thus far,” said Milewski. “We started making haggis for the St. Andrew’s Society of The City of Milwaukee several years ago for its fundraising dinners and have gained quite a following.”
In addition, the Scottish government purchases Macski’s haggis for events that they hold in the U.S. Milewski said that receiving a payment check from Glasgow was quite thrilling and let them know that their haggis is worthy of acknowledgment from the homeland.
The haggis has received great reviews from critics and has been served at such notable outlets as The Signature Lounge at the 95th floor of the Hancock Center in Chicago, The Cleveland Clinic and Whistling Straights Golf Course in southeastern Wisconsin.
“The Scottish community generally knows what haggis is, but the rest of society is still somewhat in the dark about this fine food. We aim to change that,”
Starting in late January, Woodman's Markets started carrying Macski’s haggis in one-pound. logs, quarter-pound haggis sausages, and six-packs of haggis pasties. Products can be purchased directly by calling 414-727-4471. Since the products are produced in USDA inspected plants, Macski’s can ship to all 50 states. The firm also offer local pickup of food at the corporate office in Milwaukee. “We sample product from each batch to ensure that the flavors, textures, and appearance are up to our quality standards,” said Milewski.
Macski's is a family business, with MacDonald as president, acting as the brains behind the company’s strategic planning. Milewski is vice president of sales and marketing and conducts most of the day-to-day buying, selling and marketing of the products. Daughter Aidanne is vice president of media and public relations. Since she is away at Madison studying genetics, her duties are limited to summertime involvement with trying to get greater exposure for the family’s operation. Son Cian is vice president of product development and has come up with many of the new food ideas Macski’s is considering for production. “He is our creative genius. If he thinks it, we try to make it happen,” said his proud dad.
Naturally, the family has its favorite Scottish foods, eating it regularly. “ We love haggis, shortbreads, scotch eggs, cock a leekie soup (Scottish chicken soup that Macski's will soon make available), cullen skink (Scottish fish chowder with smoked haddock) and especially our Highland pasties. “We don't eat them every day, but do so quite often. If allowed to do so, Cian would eat highland pasties or our versions of Scottish soups and stews every day. He absolutely loves them, said Milewski.
Both MacDonald and Milewski emphasized that haggis should be eaten however one best love it. Bulk haggis is generally eaten without sauce alongside neeps (mashed rutabagas) and tatties (mashed potatoes), they said. Yet they agreed that haggis has a wonderful full flavor that is best experienced alone. Some top end restaurants will use haggis as a main ingredient in fancy entrees and accent it with whisky cream sauce, making it truly wonderful. Macski’s haggis links are great in a bun with spicy mustard, HP sauce or horseradish sauce.
The couple know firsthand how difficult it is to launch a haggis-making enterprise. They cited the incredible number of state and federal regulations that must be complied with in order to produce food products.
“Since we were not already in the food business, we needed to learn a lot about ingredient sourcing, production processes and product marketing. It's been quite a learning curve, but one that we are having a great time learning. We have been fortunate to have been helped along the way by many friends and business acquaintances,” said Milewski. “Our unique way of looking at this business is food first. Great food produced ethically by good people. We are building a business based upon a community model - from our Scottish community to your table.”
There are probably many haggis makers in the U.S. that cook for themselves and friends, according to Milewski, but only three or four businesses that produce haggis on a large scale. “Worldwide, we venture to guess that there are very few outside of Scotland,” he said.
For value-added during a meal, Milewski asserted that a sup of whiskey now and then goes good with haggis. “We love whiskies from the Speyside region of Scotland: Macallan, Balvenie, Aberlour. They are full-bodied without an abundance of peat or iodine. The sweetness of sherry casked whisky pairs quite well with haggis,” he indicated.
Of course, if one owns a Scottish food production operation, he should have a kilt, or at least 10. Milewski has two MacDonald Moderns, a MacDonald Lord of the Isles, Saltire, Scotland the Brave, Lionheart, Silver Thistle, Scotland's Heritage, St. Patrick, Boulder, St. David, and Maple Leaf. He’s looking forward to someday getting a Wisconsin made from the state’s its own tartan. He admitted that Morganne spoils him.
MacDonald has six: MacDonald Modern, Black Watch, St. Patrick, Boulder, Edinburgh, and Pride of Scotland. Next, she’s eyeing getting a MacDonald of Glencoe, plus a Wisconsin and ultimately a World Peace Tartan.
Then, naturally, there are several Scottish animals in the household. “We have two Scottish deerhounds named Fingal and Puck. We had three but lost our dear Somerled a year ago. We show them at both of the Highland Games that are held in the Milwaukee area. With dogs the size of ours, we don't need to have any coo (Highland cattle) in our back yard,” said Milewski.
The family hasn’t been back to Scotland since they started Macski's, but are hoping to visit again in the summer of 2014. I'm sure we'll strike up a few conversations with locals regarding our Highland food business. We've been to Scotland five times since 1991 and have tasted dozens of different varieties of haggis, Milewski said. “We've traveled throughout most of mainland Scotland, as well as Skye and Orkney. We don't have any difficulty understanding anyone in Scotland, unlike the difficulties we faced in northern Wales,” he chuckled.
When they travel in Scotland, they like to eat pub food since it is generally better and more affordable. Any pub with tap beer, a dog or two, and perhaps local musicians, is a great place for them to share time with the locals.
For the Macski clan, the outgoing, fun loving nature of the Scottish people and absolute beauty of Scotland draws them there. “Visiting neolithic sites that predate the pyramids is quite enjoyable, and exploring the majesty of the Highland hills and lochs is breathtaking,” said Milewski. MacDonald loves the myths, legends, and magic of the Celts. All of her books have some tie to Scotland, Ireland or Wales.
Her favorite Scottish author and book is Leigh Morgan, of course (Morganne's pen name), MacDonald’s laughed. But Robert Burns holds a dear place in the couple’s hearts. Milewski delivered Burns' fabled “Address to a Haggis” in 2013 at the Romantic Times National Convention in Kansas City during a workshop entitled “Hunks, Haggis and The Highlands.” In addition, MacDonald is a huge Ian Rankin fan, a Scottish crime writer acclaimed for his Inspector Rebus novels
MacDonald and Milewski are happy to share recipes, including one for Scotch eggs that is in the book Food Lovers' Guide to Wisconsin: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings (Hintz/Percy, Globe Pequot, 2013).
Their favorite recipe for Scottish shortbread is quite simple and delicious. Take three sticks of softened butter, one-half cup sugar, four cups of flour and one teaspoon of vanilla. Mix all ingredients and roll out to one-quarter-inch thickness. Cut cookies using a favorite cookie cutter and bake for about 20 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet in a 350º oven. Remove from cookie sheet and cool on a wire rack. “Caution, you can't just eat one, warned Milewski, for good reason.
As Milewski explained, Scottish food and other peasant foods have seen a resurgence due to their hearty and natural attributes. Quality natural foods without artificial ingredients and flavors have been on the rise in the U.S. as well as organic, whole foods, he said, adding that over the past few years, the rise of cooking shows on television has helped give exposure to haggis as a viable product for the gourmet market.
“Our haggis has been served at many upscale events where chefs have created wonderful dishes. Our food does uptown very well, but at heart, it is still food for the people,” he said.
The couple plan is to grow in sync with their
values of community and good food. “We want to grow Macski's with our children,
grandchildren, and hopefully, great-grandchildren. Now that we are entering
the retail market, we would like to expand our product offerings and introduce
more traditional foods to the public, Milewski asserted. “Currently, our
products fit into a niche market. With proper exposure, we are convinced
that Scottish food can become as mainstream as any other ethnic food. We
at Macski's want to be known as the premier producer of Scottish style
foods in the U.S “
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