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Faggots - a blast from the past

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"They’re just like a meatball, you know, but way better: with the offal and plenty of fat in there, too, you get this amazing, melting thing that happens.”

Josh Eggleton

As I have mentioned before, each week The Guardian's foodie newsletter lands in my inbox with a variety of posts on this and that. And today there was one on faggots, which suddenly made me remember that it was one of the very few things that my dad used to cook. He called them armpit wonders. I think he meant that they were shaped under the armpits - which sounds somewhat revolting - and of course he didn't do that. He just thought it was funny.

Now faggots are a sort of large meatball. The thing about them is that, as well as, the mincemeat contained therein they also contained various bits of offal. I'm not sure what would have been in ours - maybe liver, or kidneys or hearts, and today I instantaneously recoil but back then I used to love faggots.

Would I like them now I wonder? We've lost our taste for offal haven't we? Back in the day I would eat lamb's liver, with bacon and spinach on a fairly regular basis. As a child we often had stuffed lamb hearts and I really used to love them. I wasn't so keen on the steak and kidney things and I definitely didn't like kidneys on their own, although we were sometimes served them as a component of what was called a 'mixed' grill, and, moreover, expected to eat them, I guess we were served such things because they were cheap, although in a way one has to wonder why as there is a much smaller quantity of these things in an animal, than of steak or roasting meat.

We did not eat tripe at all and the thought of that is still very off-putting to me. Tripe is more of a Northern England thing I think. We also never ate brains. I was absolutely horrified at the thought, indeed still am, of eating brains. And yet here in Australia you will see more brains than kidneys. I never saw any in England.

Over there in England offal has come back into fashion, interestingly in the posher establishments, such as Fergus Henderson's St. John restaurant in Clerkenwell. Incidentally it's housed, I think, in a house that one of my eighteenth century ancestors inhabited. Here in Australia I don't think that it is yet a thing, although I could be wrong. You can get liver, lamb and chicken in the supermarket, but I'm not sure about anything else.

Faggots are food of the poor of course. Because of the offal. Indeed they are really a receptacle for offcuts of meat, leftover meat, anything really. Even more than a sausage. I could not say that there is a definitive recipe and I'm sure none of you are about to launch into trying, although if you want to there are plenty of recipes out there. Here are what some of them ended up looking like - the more presentable ones that is:

Traditionally the mixture in the middle was wrapped in caul fat - that lacy sort of stuff, which I think was the lining of the stomach or something similar. But even over there in England you won't find that very easily these days, and so lots of the recipes I saw had them wrapped in bacon. I guess the other thing to note is that they are larger than your usual meatball.

I believe they originated in the west midlands and western England generally and migrated into Wales. The Welsh seem to think it's a welsh dish. But from there they spread throughout the countryside.

They are economic, and can be tasty. It depends on your liking for those various kinds of offal. But then I guess the individual cook would put in what the family liked. Lots of the recipes I saw, for example, had no kidney.

The French, of course, are big into offal. They use just about every part of the animal - as do the Italians. Some of it is made a big thing of. Some it just absorbed into delicious terrines and sausages and salamis. Some is an absolutely priceless delicacy - foie gras anyone?

As I say I used to really like them. I can almost recall the taste, but I just can't see me eating them today. Is this because of a late aversion to offal, or a change in my taste buds? I guess as children we don't really know what we are eating, although I do remember being somewhat, shall I say embarrassed, when one of my children asked me what animal we were eating. Embarrassed isn't quite the right word - guilty is probably more like it. But then we are probably all becoming much more aware of where our food comes from these days, and turning more and more to vegetables.

In the north they call faggots ducks or savoury ducks for some reason. The Americans get all uptight about them because of the name - now a homophobic term. Which is a bit stupid. I mean the name has nothing to do with homosexuality - it just means a bundle. They're often served with peas and mash - well lots of things are in England.


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