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Faggots with and without peas

25 Feb 2024 5 minute read
Faggot. Photo Carwyn Graves

Carwyn Graves

“I’m getting sick of making them, people go for them so much!” On a busy, wet weekday morning in Neath market, the cafes serving pies, soup and faggots are full, and I take away a steaming takeaway of faggots and peas in gravy for £4.50 for my lunch.

I had come here to find out whether the Welsh faggot tradition – of which Neath has every claim to be the epicentre – had any legs left. What I found was a story about meat, perception and affordability in the Wales of the mid-2020s.

Liver and Onions

To understand faggots, we need to get under the skin of pigs (literally); until recent decades an ubiquitous part of the Welsh food economy and eating habits.

Pigs were kept in the back gardens of miners’ rows in the valleys and on mixed farms alike, with the Carmarthenshire ‘diwrnod lladd mochyn/ pig-slaughtering day’ tradition continuing on farms into the early 2000s.

Every part of the animal was used; hams were hung, sausages made, and offal minced.

This familiarity with pigs goes back a long way in Wales.

As the English traveller Allen Cliff noted when visiting Barmouth in north-western Wales around 1800: ‘we could not avoid observing the number of pigs, which are esteemed in this country far superior to any in England…… the inhabitants… deem themselves perfectly happy as long as they possess… a small strip of ground, well stocked with potatoes, some poultry, and a fat pig’.

This is the origin of faggots; an ingenious way (like its Scottish cousin, the Haggis) of using cheap ingredients to make a tasty dish.

To whit, mincing pigs’ liver, lungs and often heart and combining this with onions, spices and oatmeal to make a glorified meatball.

Familiar

I grew up with faggots being a normal option; we didn’t go for expensive cuts like steak in our family, and faggots came with gravy and mash. They sit there humbly in the background in so many of our food stories – like Cerys Matthews, who had faggot-makers among her grandparents on both sides of the family, one of whom was affectionately known as “Chaco de Faggot de Dung Merchant”.

Neath covered market
Photo: Carwyn Graves

In Neath, Paul Cole, who now makes 2000 faggots every week at his butcher’s in the covered market, recalls when there were half a dozen eateries in the building serving faggots. I enquire how important they have been for the town.

“They are a big thing,” comes the reply instantly, “it’s like on Saturdays; come in, have faggots and peas, then go to watch the rugby.”

His family-run butchers business goes back a century in the building, but the story of faggots there may well go back to the early days of the market – which was first opened in 1837.

Resilient

Opposite the market lies Neath’s last operating department store, the local Marks’ and Spencer’s, which has just announced its closure in May of this year. Chatting with folk outside, there was worry about the fate of the market too, and whether footfall may decline sharply.

Inside, though times were clearly tight, the mood was different. Alongside the greengrocers, clothing repair stalls and pawnbrokers, all five outfits selling faggots (cafes, butchers and takeaways) reported that those faggots – hot or cold – were as popular as ever.

That wasn’t confined to older folk; they resolutely remain a popular takeaway meal for people of all sort. The reason why was simple and repeated again and again; “it’s cheap meat!”

Not that cheap means bad – liver has exceptionally high vitamin A levels, for instance, and the lung meat is rich in protein; but these are and will always be offcuts, which will never fetch a premium.

But from taking one bunch home to make a sandwich with (a new way of eating them for me, though for that I was told I’d clearly never lived by the stallholder who sold me them), I realised that if it weren’t for the unfortunate name, these could easily be marketed as the Welsh equivalent to pâté.

With deep notes balanced by smooth texture on the bread, I could have pretty much fooled myself.

All of which brings us back to the original point. Faggots seem still to be playing an important role in keeping us all fed.

In so doing, they are making good use meat offcuts and reducing damaging waste within the food system.

It’s not that they have much of an image problem in Wales; they’re just slightly forgotten about and ignored, much like the market in Neath where they are sold.

M&S and its high-end food has come and gone in Neath; it may well be that the market and its faggots remain. For health, affordability and the town’s economy, that would surely be a small but good part of the way forward.

This is part of a monthly series on Nation.Cymru on the diversity of Welsh food culture by Carwyn Graves. You can read the other installments of the series here.


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Alan Jones
Alan Jones
1 month ago

I eat them just as they are, no mushy peas or dips for me. As for spreading them between slices of bread well, ych a fi.😱😝. Trouble is 1 is never enough.

Frank
Frank
1 month ago
Reply to  Alan Jones

Sorry Alan, but when I was working I used to take faggot sandwiches to work. Yummee!!!

Alan Jones
Alan Jones
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank

Oooh very naawty.😁. So long as some fancy chef doesn’t come along & sizzle them in some sort of exotic oil then lay them on a bed of rocket & cous cous with a splash of jue and then serve them up on a piece of slate. Would hate to see food perfection spoilt Frank.

Mr Jones
Mr Jones
1 month ago
Reply to  Alan Jones

You don’t spread them between slices of bread, you slices them to use in a sandwich or bite into a whole one and eat maybe with a tomato. I think Hasslet is basically the same thing.
Faggots are lovely cold.

Frank
Frank
1 month ago

Last time I was in Neath Market every stall that sold vegetables were displaying “English” produce. Doesn’t Wales grow veg or don’t the traders support Welsh farmers/growers?

Frank
Frank
1 month ago

Here in Llanelli the price of one faggot is now around £1 each. Rip off!!!

Glen
Glen
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank

At Demiro’s in Cardiff Bay faggots and peas will cost you £13.95!

CapM
CapM
1 month ago

Replace the burger in a Big Mac with a faggot and you have the tastier Big Ap.

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