English food is great, despite what you might have heard. The reputation of British cuisine—the reputation being that British and cuisine don’t belong in the same sentence—is long out of date. I knew we’d crossed a threshold some years ago when an American professor of French literature told me he’d rather eat in London than in Paris nowadays; Britain now has Michelin stars all over the place, celebrity chefs by the kitchen-ful, and gastropubs which emphasize fine food rather than just good beer.
It’s true that in the bad old days vegetables were boiled if you got them at all, even desserts were stodgy, and the average home cook had an acquaintance with suet that would cause a modern nutritionist to go weak at the knees. Imported foods were rare during the war and for a long time afterward. In 1957, pasta was such a novelty that on April Fool’s Day, when the BBC ran a spoof documentary on the continental spaghetti harvest—farmers pulling ripe spaghetti from trees, enjoying a bumper year due to the eradication of the spaghetti weevil—some viewers phoned in to ask, in all seriousness, where they could get spaghetti trees to plant. Attempts to bring in other cuisines weren’t always successful at first; in Edinburgh around 1990, a restaurant that claimed to offer “California-style Mexican food” served me the vegetable of the day: over-boiled cauliflower topped with guacamole.
Those days are gone, thank goodness. But throughout British history, where the cuisine really shone—and still shines—is at breakfast. Even Hercule Poirot, who looked down his moustaches at English food otherwise, looked forward to a proper English breakfast as a fine meal indeed.
Today the traditional full English breakfast, which I usually only encounter when staying at a B&B (bed and breakfast guest house), consists of tea or coffee, at least one egg and maybe two, bacon or sausage, with grilled (US: broiled) tomato, baked beans, or mushrooms. But that’s just the start. Most hosts offer all of these at once, and many add extras: fried bread, maybe, or haggis, or black pudding. And then there’s the toast—like Americans’ endless cups of coffee, the toast just keeps coming, but served in toast racks, strange little toast caddies used so that the steam doesn’t make the toast soggy, but which my family calls Authentic English Toast Coolers (see illustration). There’s almost always fruit juice and cereal as well. Few people go away hungry from an English breakfast.
But those new to the full English may be surprised; things are not always as they seem. The bacon is back bacon, that is, what Americans call Canadian bacon, and so a real piece of meat rather than the streaky fatty stuff common in the US. The problem is that it can be had smoked or unsmoked. What the point of unsmoked bacon is, I have no idea, but even after eleven years here, I sometimes forget to look to be sure the package I pick up at the supermarket is marked smoked, because I’m still not used to the idea that you can sell something unsmoked and call it bacon.
And as for the sausages, these are never sausage patties, but always links known as bangers. They’re usually tasty but, unlike the bacon, they offer less meat than you expect, rather than more. The basic banger—so-called because of the noise they make splitting as they cook—is about 30% rusk (a kind of bread crumbs). With 5% made up of salt and other seasonings, that leaves 65% meat, of which half can be fat. And beyond that, I don’t want to know; no matter where you are, enquiring too closely into what goes into sausage isn’t wise.
The eggs in a full English are usually fried, but not the way Americans fry eggs; these are almost deep fried. You get a good depth of fat in the pan, break in the egg, but you don’t flip the egg over—you spoon the hot fat from the pan over the egg to cook the top. I say “you” do this, though I don’t mean to cast aspersions; all I know is that I certainly don’t cook eggs that way.
British breakfast eggs can also be had scrambled, but I don’t advise that option. I don’t know how they scramble their eggs, but I suspect it involves adding a lot of water, as the result looks like something that might have been mixed up from a powder. Once, at a particularly poorly run B&B—no heating, no shower, little hot water, at a price so high that when I heard it and blinked, the landlady crowed that so close to Bath, she could charge what she liked—scrambled was the only choice, and the eggs leaked so much that the sausage and bacon stood awash in a measurable depth of water on the plate.
Children, and adults looking for comfort food, eat eggs and soldiers. If you cut a piece of toast so as to form pretty-much-identical long fingers of bread, you have soldiers. You get the boiled egg in an egg cup, slice off the top, and dip the soldiers into the yolk. It seems to me that if you eat all the yolk with the toast you’re left with the bland egg white to finish up, so I don’t see the point of that method, either, but then I didn’t grow up eating that way.
And then there’s a curate’s egg, which isn’t something you eat for breakfast at all, but is a common idiom. To call something a curate’s egg is to say that parts of it are good and parts are bad (although originally the idea was that the bad parts spoiled the whole thing). It comes from the Punch cartoon you can see at the top of this post.
Now, about those extras I mentioned—
Fried bread is just what it sounds like: slices of bread, fried, and no, I can’t say that I like it. I assume it must be a holdover from a time when peasants needed lots of fuel to keep them going all day, working the land, but were too poor to afford something better; then again, the whole breakfast, being a little of this and a little of that, may come from a peasant tradition in which you might only have had a couple of eggs, a handful of mushrooms, a few rashers of bacon, and you stretched it with some beans to make up a meal for everyone out of the little you had. Or maybe that’s ridiculous, and the full English is about plenty of everything.
In any case, the first time I encountered fried bread, I found it doubly unfamiliar because the oil used for frying had, regrettably, been previously used to cook fish and so I got fish-flavoured fried bread. It was horrible. Since a B&B guest is a sort of houseguest, I felt bad leaving it, but an obliging little terrier kept coming into the dining room, and I fed him bits of fishy bread under the table.
As for haggis—vegetarians and those of nervous disposition should look away now—that’s a sausage made by boiling the heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep, mixed with onions and plenty of oats, in the sheep’s stomach. In the hands of the right cook, haggis is delicious. I can unreservedly recommend eating homemade haggis in a Scottish farmhouse with a view of Ben Nevis through the kitchen window.
Black pudding—blood sausage made with oatmeal—is another dish that tastes better than the recipe would lead you to expect. I’ve occasionally run across white pudding, which is blood pudding without the blood, that is, a sausage made of just of oatmeal and fat, resulting in a pale concoction that, oddly enough, is more disconcerting that the sausage made with the blood.
And there’s more to a hot British breakfast than the full English. Porridge is one of those words I ran across in British books as a kid, words that seemed exotic but turned out to refer to the mundane, in this case oatmeal. You may encounter kippers (whole smoked herring), and at trendy retro hotels you may run across devilled kidneys (lambs’ kidneys in a spicy mustard sauce) or kedgeree (a rice dish with fish, hard-boiled eggs, and curry powder).
I’ll stop there, though, because I didn’t actually mean to write about breakfasts at all. I sat down to write about British B&Bs, but realized I couldn’t do justice to the subject unless I explained the amazing food. I’ll move on to the B&Bs themselves next time. Anyway, after all that writing about food, I need sustenance; all I had for breakfast this morning was shredded wheat.