The Full English



One of the very few things I liked about living in Los Angeles were the breakfasts, vast profligate platefuls in Carmen Miranda colours, sometimes also sporting bits of fruit. Before I went there I had never heard of a three egg omelette, let alone an egg-white one (hey, if you’ve that big a cholesterol problem, don’t have the eggs!). The alien bacon, thin, sweet and streaky, was magnificently matched with syrup-covered waffles, reducing the need for marmalade.

But a true English breakfast inspires national arguments. Do you, or do you not, include baked beans? For me there’s no question, of course you do, but put them in a pot. Kidneys? For toffs, or Borough Market porters perhaps. Black pudding? Dear God, no – I live in the South!

There are a huge number of books about breakfast, but I favour the pseudonymously written Breakfast Bible, firstly because it suggests that the Full English requires eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread and beans – but it also moves on to more exotic fare such as kedgeree, omelette Arnold Bennett, waffles, American ‘English’ muffins, porridge, roast peaches, channa masala from India, borek from the Balkans and pães de queijo from South America.

One of the best breakfasts I ever ate was on the roof of a palace in India – spicy parsee eggs with steaming chai, and the breakfasts at Dishoom in London are wonderfully reminiscent of great Indian breakfasts. There’s a passion for Kiwi-run joints at the moment, with Saturday morning queues in London’s Charlotte Passage, which is full of New Zealand cafes, and Brixton Market, which has breakfasts from all around the world, but mean you need to rise sharpish in order to get your brekker before noon.

The most complicated breakfast I ever attempted to consume was in Japan, where the table came with 16 separate pots of fish. This is not breakfast, it is a sushi banquet.

There are clearly rules around the consumption of English breakfasts; Saturdays and Sundays only for the big ones, print newspapers, not digital pads, coffee, not tea, toast and marmalade reserved for the home, not dining out. Just as the Sunday Roast survives (nay, thrives) across the UK in an unimaginative parade of beef, lamb, pork and chicken the breakfast recipe is enshrined in stone, rules that seemingly cannot to be broken.

But if one is to accelerate through the day from these starting blocks of fat and protein, why not go the whole way? My super-spicy huevos rancheros are a thing of beauty (above) even with the shameful addition of Cumberland sausages (breakfasts have grown bigger – in Victorian times a single egg was deemed acceptable).

Reading Caryl Brahms’ book on Gilbert & Sullivan, ‘Chords & Discords’, it appears that England – that is, its core – doesn’t change very quickly, and breakfasts are not to be tampered with. The US ambassador said he was looking forward to returning home at the end of his tenure so that he could get back to eating steak – too many hostesses serving lamb, apparently.

But many Americans find our dining rules arcane – we do not eat before eight, only ever order steak in a steakhouse, eat pizza with cutlery, use both a knife and a fork simultaneously and would not countenance the folly of drinking cola with a meal unless it was the kind you picked up with your hands. We don’t send bad or cold food back often enough (think the ‘Waldorf Salad’ episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’) and don’t regard tipping as a component of paying waiting staff wages.

Even local cafes now seem to have grasped the nettle and gone upmarket. Where once you heard a cry of ‘Double EB, fried slice & a cup of Rosie’ you’ll now here ‘Two poached, smashed avocado and kale on five-seed brown’ (kale being a trick by the Inedible Vegetable Marketing Board).

One last point; weekend breakfasts are, like Sunday lunch, intended to be almost continental in their leisurely tranquility, especially in winter, where a fine lunch should never end before it’s dark.



11 comments on “The Full English”

  1. Jan says:

    Until taken up by fashionable chefs and the chitty chattering classes kale was cattle food. Presumably the cattle complained and a new market had to be found.

  2. Roger says:

    The best accompaniment for a Full English is beer or champagne.
    When I first lived in London I sometimes worked a night shift in Hammersmith. I used to cycle back to Islington and stopped off at one of the pubs near Smithfield Market for a Full English and a couple of pints of bitter before I went to bed.
    A very ancient friend has started having a Full English delivered at home and drinking it with a half-bottle of champagne. The trouble is, the rest of the day is rather a let-down.

  3. David says:

    Sprout tops used to be sold at the farm shop in Osterley Park, they called it curly kale, a whole head, maybe two foot across, only 50p, would feed a family of four for a week. Sprouting broccoli used to be used as cattle food in Cambridgeshire, my then neighbour gave me some, he was stunned when we cooked and ate it, bloddy Londoners, would even take the food out of a cows mouth.

    Dashoom egg & bacon nan is breakfast from heaven, and Turkish restaurants do a very good egg & tomato breakfast dish, very filling.

  4. Peter says:

    When I lived in Andalusia, the post-party pick me up of churros con chocolate was a favourite: a huge curled wheel of fried batter, served with a pot of thick chocolate custard, with a skin on top. Wash it down with fresh pressed orange juice and strong black coffee while you’re watching the rest of the world set off for work. Perfection.

  5. John Howard says:

    The huevos rancheros above do look spectacular I have to agree. As for black pudding, who cares if we are southern it very definitely has to be on the plate. The beans are a must but the tomatoes have to be tinned plum tomatoes with two slices of bed and butter to mop up both the tomato & bean juices whilst drinking the Rosie.
    As was suggested last year when the Barcelona salads came out, you will just have write a cook book.

  6. Jo W says:

    My full English- very large pot of builders strength tea plus two,maybe three biscuits. Keeps me ok until a light 1.00 pm lunch. No problem! No animals hurt!

  7. Vivienne says:

    I must one day get very hungry and properly enjoy a Full English, but I generally do croissant and coffee. Can’t say I took to fish stew as breakfast in Japan, but 16 lots of fish would have been impossible. They have quite sweet bread rolls too, which seem to go with nothing else.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    One bowl of porridge with sliced banana and milk. A good cup of tea perhaps. Couldn’t get used to the English breakfast. Had some nice buffet breakfasts at the hostel chain we used through Germany and Belgium.
    I was taught in school that a large meal should not be eaten in the evening, that it puts too much strain on the digestive system. That might not apply if you’re not going to bed till 2 am, but then how do you get up before noon? I must be working class since dinner is supposed to be 6pm and my rural relations have it at noon, call the 5pm meal supper and anything else is lunch. Different places, different customs.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    A pair of oak smoked succulent kippers with brown bread and butter. They must be smoked – not dyed. And a cafetiere, plus a real newspaper (i.e. nothing with the word ‘Daily’ in the masthead).

    I used to do design work producing catalogues for a food colouring and flavouring manufacturer; one of their colours was designated ‘Brown FK’, when I asked what it meant they told me ‘Brown For Kippers’.

  10. Paul Graham says:

    Bury black pudding or not at all, Southern jessies ! – or am I romanticising being stuck in the land of the chicken biscuit breakfast?

  11. Helen Martin says:

    The question as to what breakfast one needs is What are you doing the rest of the day? My grandfather would have been heading out to plough, seed, cultivate or harvest the fields or to repair fences or the barn. My other grandfather would have mounted his motorman’s spot on the streetcar ready for a shift of driving. They would both have been tired at the end but the farmer would have needed more calories than the motorman. There is a reason why sensible people restrict really full English to the weekends as you might be needing the extra fuel for digging up the vegetable patch, repairing the back fence and washing the car or the outside of the windows. There really are a tremendous lot of calories in there.
    Don’t mind a bit of black pudding or haggis myself, though possibly not for breakfast. Then there’s reheated salmon with a teaspoon or more of oolichan oil.

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