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No Caul For Them These Days
How Offal Made the West Midlands. Words by Matt O’Callaghan; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 4: Hyper-Regionalism.
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I became aware of the strange multi-regionality of faggots and peas was when I first ordered them at Ivy’s, a small pease pudding stall in Chrisp Street Market in east London, which is now sadly closed. I was doing research for an article on British regional dishes within London, which was really about why there seemed to be so few of them. Ivy’s had no Google Reviews or social media presence, so going in completely blind I assumed that the stall was run by someone from the north-east of England, where I knew pease pudding was a thing. So I was surprised to be greeted by unmistakeably Cockney accents, and Lorraine who explained that the stall had been in her family since Chrisp St Market was inaugurated in the late 40s. It turned out that pease pudding was also a London thing after all.
After talking to Lorraine, I quickly realised that the story of Ivy’s was too good for a capsule entry in another article. I asked my editor if I could profile them, and the resulting interview became the first profile I ever wrote. Reading it again, I feel like I missed the forest for the trees. Ivy’s was in decline: the queues had vanished, barely anyone ordered the pease pudding anymore, the faggots were no longer homemade. The market was being redeveloped, which would be the final straw. Yet what my article didn’t capture was the feeling among other stall holders, shops, and some customers, that it wasn’t economic forces to blame but immigration. That these foods were being pushed out by a new audience and new stall holders. It’s a regret of mine that this far more complex narrative, one of resentment and one of how successfully right wing media have successfully scapegoated immigrants for their own economic failures, was left unsaid.
In today’s newsletter, writer Matt O’Callaghan charts a similar story of decline in the heartland of faggots and peas, the West Midlands. Like the other industrial regions that faggots have become native to, the loss of industry and manufacturing have taken away the context for the food, leaving it in a strange purgatory. In London, both faggots and pease pudding have now died out, Ivy’s being the last of a vernacular culture that only really lives on in the high-end restaurants that serve them as a throwback. But in the West Midlands, it is perhaps even immigration that is helping to save them. “Some things die out, but some things will always re-emerge and survive” Matt reminds us. And just as some foods experience the most inevitable of deaths, others will find their revival in the most unlikely places. I hope that some day, as I once promised, I will be able to bring Lorraine some faggots that remind her of better days.
How Offal Made the West Midlands, by Matt O’Callaghan
The committee (it must have been a committee) that redrew and renamed English counties in the early 70s were not a poetic bunch. When they subsumed fourteen local boroughs in the Midlands into a larger mass, the best they could come up with was the intensely sensible ‘West Midlands’ – so teeth-achingly pedestrian, in fact, that you can only be in awe of their caution. Given that the very west of this larger West had already been saddled with the unofficial name ‘Black Country’ for 150 years, you get the sense that the region was so cursed with a reputation for blandness that they wanted to draw a veil over it.
With the exception of a few forays away, I’ve lived in the West Midlands my whole life, and am fully aware that these catch-all names disguise its far more chaotic and fractious nature. That the West Midlands contains Stratford-upon-Avon is news to most people; the Birmingham accent is very different from that of the Black Country (which in turn varies from town to town and comes with its own dialect). Some towns choose to play down their location, preferring to see themselves as geographical accidents with undesirable neighbours – Royal Sutton Coldfield; Solihull (which has its own John Lewis) – these are the Hyacinth Buckets of the West Midlands. I once worked in a theatre in Worcestershire, where some customers declined to give their postcodes, refusing to be identified as living within the postal remit of Dudley.
And the best-kept secret in the region which is said to be the inspiration for Mordor; where Queen Victoria allegedly ordered the curtains of her train be closed so she wouldn’t have to cast her gaze on its ugliness? A vibrant, continuing and loved vein of proudly local food. Their names are pragmatic yet poetic: orange chips, groaty pudding, grey peas (pays) and bacon, pork scratchings, faggots and peas, and, my personal favourite, Herbal Tablets – boiled sweets that have been made by the same family in Dudley since 1826. They are foods which have inspired sneers from generations of intransigent children, unnecessarily reimagined in a bid to ‘refine’ them but, having been formed out of necessity when food needed to be cheap, calorific and easy to prepare, they share one important commonality: they are delicious.
During the early nineteenth century, the Black Country was arguably the most significant region in the world. As the birthplace and heartland of Britain’s industrial revolution, the districts of Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall were collectively given this dour nickname, a reference to the thirty-foot wide black coal seam that could be mined there. This was also the region that produced much of the finery and luxury demanded by ever more prosperous Victorians, be that glass from Brierley Hill or leather goods from Walsall. But in the absence of a trickle-down economy (with the exception of those lucky enough to work for the Cadburys, with their Quaker ethos), the people making these products were, as ever, working unethical hours, for low pay, in poor conditions. The factories and coal fields transformed eating habits: food had to stretch and be economically viable in their ingredients and the way they fuelled. Though the industry declined, the food stayed, and consumption of these traditional dishes peaked once again during the rationing of the war and post-war years, when economy and parsimony became virtues again for different reasons.
For a long time, these dishes remained largely unknown to the rest of Britain. There is a hilarious, brilliantly dated scene from a 1980s Keith Floyd show, where he is taught to make groaty pudding or ‘groaty dick’ (sniggers allowed) for the first time by Joan in her Wolverhampton kitchen, wearing her best pearls and cameo brooch. In a statement of brazen honesty she tells us (say this aloud in your best Black Country accent), ‘it doesn’t look very appetising but . . . it is a dish that, er, most people will eat’. Fatty, cheap stewing beef, leeks, onions, beef stock, seasoning and groats. ‘They look like bird seed’, says Keith. ‘Well, you get it from the pet shop’, Joan fires back. The whole lot goes ‘into pot’, then into the oven for sixteen hours. Every home seems to have had its own version of the ‘recipe’ – some with scrag-end lamb, but with nothing more exotic than a red Oxo cube, or perhaps a dried bay leaf.
It was also a stupendously hungover Floyd who, during a segment with Richard, the self-appointed King of the Faggot, reminded the rest of the nation of the Black Country’s finest delicacy. Faggot is not uniquely of the Black Country, yet it is intensely regional. It has a strong tradition in south Wales and in many regions with a heavy industry connection, reflecting the terroir of the coalfield. In more la-dee-dah areas (Lincolnshire for instance) it was known as savoury duck, but I consider this false advertising. Like groaty dick, its origin was as working-class factory food, created based on the cheapest cuts of the pig – the lungs, heart, liver, kidneys – minced, spiced and wrapped in caul (a fatty membrane that holds all those organs in place which looks like white fishnet stockings after an especially wild night out). In older recipes from Mrs Beeton, Lizzie Boyd and Florence White, you see examples of how to bulk out cheap meat with breadcrumbs, oats, or wheat, making even these economical cuts go as far as possible.
The myth that British food is flavourless, bland and unimaginative is exploded by the history of the faggot. In every variation, there is spice and flavouring used in a nuanced and hyper-local manner: always mace, plus usually sage, thyme or parsley. According to Dorothy Hartley’s epic Food in England, bog myrtle was used in the north Midlands. Even the regional spin on bread pudding, parsimoniously dairy-free as it’s made with water and lard, is rescued by the generosity of its spices, abundant dried fruit and muscovado sugar.
Like many dishes from the Black Country, faggots evoke the commensality of the shared table. Most people I’ve spoken to about them – from a Yorkshire friend who recalls having them at her nan’s in Yardley, to those who remember eating them on Saturday afternoon while watching Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks wrestle on TV – describe them in the context of family, of feeling a form of security and rhythm. It seems that the Black Country is not so benighted, not the blasted dystopia of countless grim novels; this is a region that knows pleasure, taking it where they can. These are people who know how to cook, how to eat together.
I do sometimes wonder whether I am mythologising the food culture of the Black Country. The region is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was. Groaty dick, which served as a daily packed lunch, becoming sliceable and portable when cold and easily carried into the factories and mines, is now reduced to a Bonfire Night tradition. When searching for famous faggot-making businesses, you mostly get defunct websites or news stories from the last decade about family businesses selling up. And for every person who has fond memories of faggots, there are also those who hated them growing up (that the most famous brand is called ‘Brain’s Faggots’ hardly helps their cause). I confess to having been one of these people. As a fussy child with an intense dislike of liver, I dreaded them. I think they were served for school dinner, but I have repressed this memory.
I asked two questions to as many of my Black Country friends as I could. When did you last eat faggots? Will you eat them again? Almost everyone replied ‘Not for years’; ‘God, I can’t remember’; ‘Not since I was a kid’, followed by ‘but I love them’ or ‘I want faggots now!’ But if you wanted some, how would you make them? Where, for instance, would you go to buy caul? I searched and searched, but had to resort to frozen caul of unknown origin from an online supplier. Butcher bought faggots took three attempts ─ the second I visited told me ‘no call for them these days’ (the pun was unintentional). I drove to the part of Birmingham where the professors, lawyers and doctors live, where the butcher sells pricey salt marsh lamb, oxtail, and sausages made in house. Bingo. Made with heart, if not lungs, by a Walsall family company. Frozen, because ‘offal doesn’t keep, and there isn’t the demand, except from the regulars.’ Are faggots being gentrified by supply chains and our fear of offal? Certainly the sanitisation of our shopping, increased spending power (not least a lack of rationing), plus changes in taste and the development of mass-produced, cheap meat have all lessened our reliance on what we now perceive as the crap cuts, pet food.
But I don’t think this is the death knell of the faggot, or of groaty dick and orange chips. Industrialised urban centres have always acted as magnets, drawing in economic migrants who bring their tastes and customs which gradually disseminate into their new communities over time. Wales was the recruiting ground for the first factories of the Industrial Revolution, and it was likely their workers who spread the faggot into new communities. My own father was one of the many thousands of Irish to seek work in the car factories of Birmingham and Coventry, while the 70s heralded the arrival of Bangladeshi and Kashmiri communities – additions that respectively left Birmingham with one of the largest St Patrick’s Day parades in the UK and gave birth to the behemoth that is the Balti. Pubs that ran faggot and peas nights slowly switched to curry nights, reflecting changing tastes and contexts. And as independent butchers’ shops selling faggots close, the prevalence of immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East has meant a simultaneous rise in the popularity of halal butchers, selling offal and even caul fat.
Making a pork faggot at home is not as easy now as it would have been in the mid-nineteenth century, but the ingredients needed to make a lamb faggot are widely available. While browsing menus I’ve found lamb faggots and pea puree at a modern British restaurant, pork faggots at a Polish cafe, faggot burgers at pubs, and a venison and wild garlic faggot (which is arguably a meatball pretending to have working-class roots). Yet all these faggots are reflective of a new interest in old ways of eating, in the source of ingredients, in growers, in suppliers, and their role within local communities and the industry.
Some things die out, but some things will always re-emerge and survive. A battered, orange chip, fried in beef dripping, is always going to be the best tasting chip you can buy. Similarly the embrace of rich, spiced meat, mushed and fluffed peas, smooth, smooth mash and a shimmering gravy – it’s not going anywhere.
RECIPE: Faggots and Peas
So, I bit the bullet: I made faggots. The consensus is that they’ve evolved a little, not least because buying pig heart, lungs, kidney and liver is pretty tough if you don’t have an independent butcher to hand. Lamb offal is perhaps easier to find from your local halal butcher, but shoulder, liver and belly are the main cuts now – plus, of course, organ-encasing caul.
100g pork shoulder
100g pig liver
250g pork belly
100g rolled oats
ground mace (1/2 teaspoon)
ground allspice (1 teaspoon)
3 sage leaves
salt and pepper (be very generous with the pepper)
caul (if you can’t get caul, substitute unsmoked streaky bacon)
In a hand mincer or food processor, mince and then mix all the meat. The mincing process is gloriously gothic – like a domesticated scene from Fargo where that guy gets put through the shredder.
Chop the onion finely and add this to the meat, along with the spices, oats, chopped sage leaves and seasoning, mixing everything thoroughly and with your hands if you can stand it. (I thought I would be too squeamish to get my hands dirty, but in they went, mixing this paste of gore and spice.) I added oats because I didn’t have breadcrumbs. The caul was a whole new sensory experience, not slimy at all, but elastic and transparent like the frame for a stained-glass window, created organically. A process that I thought was going to repel me became creative; I felt like I was rediscovering a forgotten skill.
You should then divide the mixture into eight decent-sized balls and encase them in a wrapping of caul before placing them on a baking tray with the seam of the caul underneath. While they baked in the oven at gas mark 4/180°C for around 45 minutes, basting in their own fat, I made a thick shimmering gravy, chunky with onions; mash; and boiled ‘pays’ – just frozen, nothing fancy.
First impressions emerging from the oven: the membranous caul had all but vanished, melting and tightening into an invisible embrace around the meat. And then, a waft of warm mace and sage-infused meatiness. As for the flavour, I was expecting the liver to overwhelm, all iron and potency, but instead it was rich, spicy (I always forget how seductive mace can be), peppery, and without a hint of gristle or rubber that the child in me was expecting. Although full of fat, this had mostly rendered away, leaving only flavour. The gravy was exactly the right balance for the faggots: sweet and slightly bitter from the caramelised onions. Hand on heart, this was one of the best meals I’d ever cooked.
The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://www.natashaphangleeillustration.com.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits