Breakfast has always been the most important meal of the day, as far as I am concerned, the slipway down which I ease my way into the whirling maelstrom of life. On the rare occasions I am forced to leave home before at least a cup of coffee (beans freshly ground; brewed in a stove top expresso machine); two slices of toasted bread with a bit of chew and heft, topped up with unsalted butter and home-made jam or hone, and a piece of fruit, I know that I will be in a grump for the rest of the day. One of the areas in which the medical profession and I see eye to eye in matters of diet, is in the primacy of breakfast.
In fact my breakfast changes by the season. Some people my find this peculiarly idiosyncratic. At this time of year, it’s a glass of fresh orange juice followed by porridge, cream and demerara sugar, But if it gets very cold, I treat myself to a poached egg on half a toasted muffin, and a pot of coffee. And the glass of orange juice,of course. In spring, I like a soft boiled, free range egg (preferably laid by Lucy Watts’ chickens); one slice of toast turned into soldiers; a second slice for butter and jam; a pot of fresh coffee (see above) and an orange or some such fruit (exotic fruits, such as Alfonso mangoes are in season at this time of year). Come summer, it’s time for croissant with crème fraiche and honey, coffee and raspberries from the garden. In autumn, it’s fragrant shavings of bacon, coffee and and apple or pear. On Saturdays, it’s a kipper washed down by tea, followed by a slice of toast, unsalted butter and marmalade (the marmalade cleans the mouth of kipper residues) and fruit. And on Sundays it’s sausages with tea. Don’t let anyone tell me I don’t take breakfast seriously.
Of course, this is my personal interpretation of breakfast. When you consider the elements possible of a contemporary breakfast, and the possibilities they offer, the variations are more numerous than stars in the heavens. And so are the quandaries of choice they put us in. Take eggs, for example. ‘The quality of eggs depends much upon the food given to the hen,’ wrote Isabella Beaton in the Book of Household Management of 1861. E. David was of the opinion that the only good egg was one that was no more than 24 hours old. The rest were only for for pastry, in her opinion. So, in an ideal world we should know the fowl’s eating habits as well as the date on which it laid its egg and that’s before we decide whether they should be boiled, fried, poached, scrambled or coddled? And how about bacon? Back or streaky? Green or smoked? With fat or without? Thick or thin? We have endless permutations, even before we get to sausages, black pudding, white pudding, fried bread, potato farls, , beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried potatoes, kidneys, kippers, porridge, cereals & muesli, toast, marmalades, jams, marmalades & honeys, butter (salted or unsalted?), tea and/or coffee, fruit juices, yoghurts and fruit.
Of course, breakfast has been something of a shape shifter over the centuries. Our Roman occupiers contented themselves with a suspiciously modern sounding combination of bread and fruit. No tea or coffee in those days, f course. By the 18th Century the Rev Sidney Smith was able to write. ‘I went to breakfast with the Duke de Broglie,. ‘There was no cloth upon the table. There was roast fowl, spinach, eggs, apples, wine, and afterwards they brought tea.’
This was a light affair compared to the Highland breakfast described by Tobias Smollett in Humphrey Clinker, which consisted of ‘one kit of boiled eggs; a second full of butter; a third, full of cream; an entire cheese made of goat’s milk; a large earthenware pot, full of honey; the best part of a ham; a cold venison pastry; a bushel of oatmeal, made into thin cakes and bannocks, with a small wheaten loaf in the middle, for strangers; a stone bottle full of whiskey; another brandy, and a kilderkin of ale.’ ‘Great justice was done to the collation by the guests.,’ he finishes.
Even in Victorian times there might be bloaters, anchovies, grilled mackerel or haddock, mutton chops, muffins, toast, curried eggs, curried kidneys, curried pilchards, devilled poultry legs and wings, hams, pressed tongue, cold game …..
It is all a far cry from the Styrofoam beaker of industrial coffee snatched at the counter of some flashy chain and slurped at your desk. You can’t help feeling that the breakfast celebrated by so many sad souls marks the decline of civilisation and the dawning of a gastronomic barbarism.