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Bostin' faggots and pays; From Rome to Rowley Regis

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 04, 2014

A cooking scene from ancient Rome where the word "faggot" derives from the Latin for "bundle", as in bundles of twigs and branches tied together and used as fuel.

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FAGGOTS and pays have been close to our hearts and stomachs since the year dot. So much so that, here in the Black Country, we could be forgiven for feeling they belong exclusively to our region.

But, as with all good things, they don't stay exclusive for long. So this week, we look at some history and theories surrounding the humble faggot.

Purists may wish to look away now – but I hope you'll stay with me on this culinary journey from pre-historic times to the present day.

Many Black Country families have their own tried and tested recipe for making faggots. But if you want to buy delicious, ready-made versions look no further than our region's prize-winning butchers.

And, with the current revival of regional British food, faggots and pays feature on many a gastro pub menu.

One measure of the faggot's popularity is the fact that it has a whole book dedicated to it – namely The Good Faggot Guide, by Ghislaine Povey & Richard James (Brewin Books, 2002).

So, this was my first port of call when investigating the possible origins of the tasty, old favourite.

According to the authors, the word "faggot" derives from the Latin for "bundle", as in bundles of twigs and branches tied together and used as fuel.

And, just as the twigs are tied up in neat bundles, the meat and other ingredients in faggots are wrapped in caul – or flead, the lacy membrane surrounding the animal's gut.

Just like our ancient forebears, when Black Country folk got their hands on some meat, nothing was wasted.

Once rendered into a wide range of delicious hams, bacon, sausages and blood puddings, pigs could feed a family for months.

Traditionally, everything but the "squale" was devoured with relish, including cheeks, lips, trotters and offal.

Anything left over, like the gut lining and stomach, was used as sausage casing or to wrap faggots.

Povey and James link this practice back to the Stone Age hunter who cooked "the more delicate and perishable parts of the animal he had killed in its own stomach bag".

Pigs were domesticated around 7000 BC and from then on, cooks grew more inventive, using wild herbs and spices to preserve and flavour the meat.

Some further research took me back to Ancient Rome recipes for "Offellae" – a term referring to titbits or small pieces of meat, like meatballs - and faggots!

In fact, the Romans were just as potty about pork in all its forms as we are in the Black Country. Dating from the fifth century, one of the earliest recipe books ever written is by the Roman, Apicius.

His book, De Re Coquinaria – or book about cooking – shows that the Romans enjoyed crackling, scratchings, kidneys, livers, lungs, and even sow's womb. They especially enjoyed pigs that were force fed on figs, similar to the way French geese are force fed to produce foie gras.

Unfortunately, according to Apicius, the Roman practice meant that the pigs were first starved, then crammed with dry figs.

On top of this, they were given mead to drink. As the poor pigs slaked their thirst, the figs started fermenting, causing the pigs' livers to swell, eventually killing them.

Interestingly, the modern Italian word for liver is "fegato". Apparently, this comes from the Latin, "ficatum" meaning fig-stuffed liver – but the similarity with the word faggot is worth noting.

Apicius includes several different recipes for "offellae". The one closest to our faggots is "Offellae Ostiensis", named after the inhabitants of the port of Ostia, south of Rome.

The pig's liver was cut or ground into small pieces and marinaded in a broth seasoned with pepper, lovage and bay leaves.

Then it was wrapped in caul and baked in the broth. Another version has the liver balls placed in a square dish and left to marinade in the spiced broth for two days, then wrapped in caul.

The dish is baked and the broth sweetened with a little sweet wine, and thickened with flour. Yet other versions were formed into flatter shapes and either fried, or cooked on a hot griddle. The big Macs of the ancient world!

These ancient Roman treats are still going strong in modern Italy especially in Tuscany.

Here they are called "fegatelli", a diminutive form of "fegato", or liver.

Like their ancient forebears, the fegatelli are small bundles of spiced, diced pork liver, wrapped in caul fat. These can be oven-baked, spit roasted or pan fried.

It seems that what we know as faggots were very popular all round the ancient Mediterranean world, spreading eventually further afield. Many bear slightly odd names, including a Bosnian version known as "Maidens' Breasts".

In France and Brittany, they have a very similar dish called Crepinettes.

There, the small bundles of pork offal are seasoned with four spices: a blend of white and black pepper, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. Sometimes, dried porcini mushrooms are added to the mix.

A little closer to home, and a nod to the fact St David's day falls this week, we have Welsh faggots ("ffagod" in Welsh, still meaning bundle).

I don't know whether the saint enjoyed a bowl of faggots, but the Welsh certainly do.

According to Ghislaine Povey and Richard James, the Welsh version differs very slightly from our own, using oatmeal rather than breadcrumbs to bind the mix.

Also, like the Black Country, Wales has a heritage of mining and heavy industry.

Many women also went out to work and needed "fill bally" foods to feed hungry families. Faggots made ideal, portable lunches for miners and other workers.

In Northern England, faggots are called "Savoury Ducks". In some areas, the breadcrumbs were replaced with oatmeal, barley or wheat.

Herbs and spices also varied, the south favouring basil and marjoram, while northerners went for sage or bog myrtle. Today, traditional faggots turn up in far flung, quite unexpected places.

The Good Faggot Guide authors cite them being popular in parts of India, Australia and Patagonia.

In the latter case, being brought to the south of Argentina by Welsh settlers, who still speak Welsh and make faggots, today. Black Country readers of a certain age have grown up with them.

Some will have fond memories of getting their faggots from the kitchens of local women who made and sold them to earn a few extra shillings.

This was a Friday night tradition, and Povey and James tell how: "People would come from the surrounding streets, most carrying jugs, but some with bowls, to carry their faggots home. They would get their faggots, a rich gravy and mushy peas. They'd go home and then share them out."

The maker in this case was a lady known as Ma Stevens.

Such ladies were well known and most parts of the Black Country had their favourite faggot makers.

Another dab hand was "Mabel Webb who made about 120 faggots per week and sold them from her home in Bloomfield Road, Tipton, way back in the 1920s – she charged three halfpence for a bowl." Sadly, when Mabel died, her recipe died with her.

Happily, there are plenty of traditional recipes available and our bostin' Black Country faggots are doing just fine.

Have you any favourite faggots menus? Email them to editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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