Earlier this month I gave a recipe for Almond Faggots, and the name intrigued me a great deal, and I have been meaning to explore the topic further ever since. I was intrigued because where I grew up, in the North of England, a “faggot” was about as far as you can get from a delicate almond biscuit. It was identical in concept if not in form to a Scottish haggis - a robust, savoury block or ball of offal (organ meat, most commonly from pork) mixed with a filler such as oatmeal or breadcrumbs, ideally flavoured with various herbs, and traditionally served with a side of mushy peas. Faggots were street-food for the labouring poor, and were sometimes enobled by them with the name of “ducks”, in the same way as cheese on toast became “Welsh Rabbit.”
The faggot may perhaps be better understood and appreciated via some nineteenth century definitions and descriptions:
1851: Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor references it thus:
“He ... made his supper … on ‘fagots’. This preparation … is a sort of cake, roll, or ball, ... made of chopped liver and lights, mixed with gravy, and wrapped in pieces of pig's caul.”
1858: George Augustus Sala in Journey due North refers to them as:
“The curious viands known in cheap pork-butchery … as Faggots.”
1861: The Slang Dictionary Or the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and Fast Expressions of High and Low Society Many with Their Etymology, and a Few with Their History Traced by John Camden Hotten gives an interesting insight into the etymology with its definition of a faggot as:
“ … a bundle of bits of the “stickings” (hence probably its name) sold for food to the London poor. It is sometimes called a DUCK. In appearance it resembles a Scotch “haggis.” FAG-END of a. thing, the inferior or remaining part, the refuse. FAGOT:, a. term of opprobrium used by low people to children and women; “you little FAGOT, you!” FAGOT was originally a term of contempt for a dry, shrivelled old woman, whose bones were like a, bundle of sticks, only fit to burn—Compare the French expression for a heretic, sentir le fagot.
1872: A contributor to All the Year Round, a periodical edited by Charles Dickens, included a short description of faggots in a piece which firmly places it in its nineteenth century social and historical perspective:
"Late on certain evenings the nostrils of the wanderer in Newport Market are assailed by an odour of exceeding savouriness. This hunger-compelling scent proceeds from a singular dish called "faggots," all hot—round lumps compounded, it is believed, chiefly of the interior organs of animals, highly seasoned; the faggot is, indeed, a sort of degenerate Southern imitation of the Scottish national dish, haggis. Hungry children crowd round the steaming dishes of brown and savoury spheres, greedily inhaling the delightful odour, while those happy in the accidental possession of "browns," rush to gratify their appetites in more substantial fashion. Under the flaring gas-lights slipshod girls, carrying basins hidden under their pinafores, bear off triumphantly their supper to the poor home, where probably even such slender meals as "faggots" afford are somewhat scarce."
Here is a recipe for a rather posh version of faggots for those of you who love pig offal:
“Crepinettes”— Baked Faggots.A pound and a half of calf's or pig's liver, minced fine, as also half a pound of fresh fat pork, and an onion, must be steamed over a slow fire, with a little thyme, sage, basilicum, salt, and pepper, for half an hour. It must not brown. Drain all the fat away, and when the mince is cool, mix in by degrees three well-beaten eggs, and grated or fine breadcrumbs enough to bind it; add a grate of nutmeg, and mix thoroughly. Form round balls of the mass; fold each in a piece of pig's caul; or, without this, lay the balls close together in a buttered dish or stew-pan, moisten them with well-seasoned gravy, cover, and let them bake slowly till done a pale brown, but not dried. They should be glazed with rich gravy stock.
German National Cookery for English Kitchens (1873) by Chapman and Hall.