‘He that would eat a good dinner, let him eat a good breakfast’. English Proverbs, John Ray
What is life without breakfast? It is the civilized ritual by which we slide down the slipway into the whirling maelstrom of life. Breakfast gives us hope and nourishment. On the rare occasions I am forced to leave home before breakfast, 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. At this time of year, I like a soft-boiled, free range egg (white egg for preference, bought in Stroud Farmers’ Market); one slice of toast turned into soldiers; a second slice for butter and jam; a pot of fresh coffee (see above) and a blood orange or some such fruit (exotic fruits, such as Alfonso mangoes if available).
Come summer proper, it’s time for croissant with crème fraiche and honey, coffee and raspberries from the garden. In autumn, the croissants give way to ‘fragrant shavings of bacon’ (J. Buchan: The 39 Steps) and my own tomatoes (John Baer or Pantano), fried. In the dark days of winter, I alternate between poached egg of half a toasted muffin, coffee and fruit or porridge with Jersey cream and demerara sugar. On Saturdays I am partial to a kipper, Manx in particular, followed by toast with unsalted butter and marmalade made to my mother’s recipe, although I have never achieved her exalted standard, all washed down with smokey Oolong tea. And then on Sundays, it time for sausages (plain pork or pork and leek from Stephen Curtis of Horsley) , with tea, Sir Lankan this time. The gentle tannins of Sri Lankan tea sit easily with sausages in my view.
Now, this all may seem a bit geeky to some, a bit over-organized. But it’s not all as plain sailing as it may seem. I have come to this carefully considered order of play in order to keep chaos at bay. I mean, consider the elements available to the contemporary breakfaster, the possibilities they present, the quandaries of choice they offer.
There are eggs. ‘The quality of eggs depends much upon the food given to the hen,’ wrote Isabella Beaton in the Book of Household management of 1861. Just so, but should they be boiled, fried, poached, scrambled or coddled? Then there’s bacon. Back or streaky? Green or smoked? 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 (sourdough or wholemeal, cottage loaf or brioche), 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, of 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’s all a far cry from the Styrofoam beaker of industrial coffee snatched at the counter of some flashy chain and slurped at a desk. You can’t help feeling that this version of breakfast celebrated by so many sad souls marks the decline of civilisation and the dawning of a gastronomic barbarism.