EATING FOR BRITAIN: MY GRANDMOTHER MADE ME A WELSH FAGGOT
Let’s get it out of the way. The term faggot, comes from the Welsh word Ffagod, which meant bundle. Quite how that relates to the strange offaly meatballs that are one of the great foods of Wales, I am not sure. Perhaps it is because traditionally they were wrapped in bacon.
Whatever, they were another taste of my childhood that I was determined to try in Wales. They are also known as “poor man’s goose” or “savoury duck” and, like haggis in Scotland, they were a way of using up offal and the cheaper cuts of meat in times when money was hard to come by. Rather like now, in fact.
My grandmother used to make them, well of course she did and would serve them in the traditional way, with peas and a highly vinegared mint sauce and the thought of them in a bowl with a good ladling of rich onion gravy sploshed on top is one of the best food memories of my younger days.
So, of course I had to try and find someone who made them while I was on my journey and who better than Neil James, of N S James & Sons whose Faggots were voted the best in the country by The True Taste of Wales judges and whose traditional butcher’s shop is considered one of the finest in the UK.
This is a butcher’s shop as they used to be. With its own abattoir at the rear and most of the meat coming from a few miles radius, the classic cuts of properly aged meat are guaranteed to make any real flesh lover’s heart skip a beat. Thick pork chops with a half inch ribbon of fat, brisket rolled ready for slow roasting, lamb kidneys protected by a covering of their own fat and rows of free range chickens. Alongside the meat a display case of food prepared in Neil’s kitchens, hand raised pork pies, black puddings, sheets of belly pork cooked slowly in his mother’s Aga so the crackling bubbles to a perfect crunch and, of course best of all, trays of his prize winning faggots.
When I arrived as planned at 8am, Neil was already hard at work and had prepared the ingredients to make this Welsh classic. Laid out in the workshop, were trays of belly pork, lamb breast, pigs liver, fresh onions, breadcrumbs and Neil’s secret spice mix. Neil doesn’t use as much offal as some, because he finds the strong taste puts some people off. The fresh onions provide all the juice the final dish needs.
The meat is minced with the onions and then minced again, this time with the seasonings and spices. Then, Neil deftly shaped them into cricket ball sized rounds and wrapped each in a rasher of Gloucester Old Spot bacon. I had a good too but obviously, as with my attempts at making Welsh cakes, the resulting mess was enough to almost bring him to tears. Still between us, we managed to fill a tray with a dozen specimens of fine faggothood.
Neil wrapped them up and placed them in a freezer box for me to bring home to London with me and then gave me a tour of the abattoir, where small numbers of animals are killed for local farmers in an efficient but unstressed environment. It shows in the meat and, as Neil gave me a tour of the meat lockers filled with Monmouthshire lamb, Old spot pork and Welsh Longhorn beef, I could easily understand why he gets people driving up from London and Bristol to buy meat from him.
Back home in London, I soon had the spoils of my visit baking in the oven and the very first mouthful was like stepping back in time, the texture and tastes are everything I remembered.
I may not say this very often, but I am rather proud to have a bit of Welsh in me.