Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:14 am
Does your breakfast have a nationality? Should breakfasts be stateless? Travelling around this great land of ours, it is common to see the option of ‘full [insert adjective as applicable] breakfast’ available on hotel menus. Thus: full English, full Scottish, full Welsh – or even full Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Devonshire, Nether Bottom – whatever seems appropriately native. Superficially, it would be understandable to regard this local ownership of a meal as slightly parochial and amusing – perhaps merely a gimmick fabricated for tourists. However, this misses the serious issue of identities being overwhelmed by a monotonous uniformity of ‘Britishness’. Regional and national differences are important and one of the things that make our little island so special. After all, just look at our high streets and see how diverse they are; even the charity shops belong to chains. Hang on to your local breakfast before it’s gobbled up, I say.
Some, bless their little nationalist cotton socks, may even regard their breakfasts as a political statement. Now, the more naïve among us – you know, the person that still believes bankers and politicians are altruistic – will dismiss this as scaremongering. But, I’m sure there are those who will not eat what we Brits used to call a ‘Continental breakfast’ on principle; the weaponised sausage is lurking not far away.
The working title for this article was ‘the great British breakfast’ and I could see that might get me into all sorts of trouble, as well as risking confusion with some kind of TV programme. Just in case we are not clear about what we’re talking about here, this is probably the point to get very serious and ask, firstly, what breakfast is, secondly what we mean by ‘full breakfast’ – and, thirdly, what is the difference between a breakfast that you may be served in, say, London, and one that you might get in Edinburgh, or Cardiff?
What is breakfast?
Breakfast, of course, is the first meal of the day – literally when one breaks the fast of the night. It can be such a personal thing – a bowl of cereal, slice of toast, perhaps a few fresh Chilean guava, or a beetroot, oat, turmeric and aspirin smoothie. When I was younger (so much younger than today), I had a summer vacation job that included building dodgy swimming pools. Bear with me. One sunny day, I sat on the side of a completed project near Winchester, chatting to the surprisingly happy and blissfully unaware owner. Not having previously met anyone wealthy enough to have such a thing as a swimming pool, I ventured to ask him what he did for a living. He was a lovely guy, very down to earth, and he told me he was an artist. “I paints pictures, ah do,” he beamed. “People come from awl over the wowld te see me pictures. ‘Ad some folks from Amewika staying the other day. An’ they said, Alan – cos’ that’s me name – we’ve ‘eard a lot about a Bwitish bweakfast, so we’d would love to try that. Well – they came dahn an’ found a cuppa black coffee an’ a fag waitin’ for ‘em, didn’t they?”
I have also witnessed workers completing their nightshifts with a breakfast consisting of a bacon buttie washed down with a couple of tins of strong lager. Incidentally, if you find any of these terms at all confusing, please ask.
I mention these examples merely to illustrate the infinite variety that breakfast offers.
What is a full breakfast?
Full is an absolute term, in this context meaning it has something of everything. Some might use the expressions ‘the full Monty’ (though what a Second World War general has to do with it is a little uncertain, even worrying), or ‘the whole kit and caboodle’. In other words, it means ‘the works’. The works in the context of a full British breakfast includes some common ingredients – eggs, bacon and sausages. Thereafter, the little regional or preferential variations creep in – tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, black pudding, some sort of bread – so ‘full’ is often a relative a well as an absolute term.
To be clear, the full British breakfast does not include healthy rubbish, such as yoghurt, granola, leaves, or fresh fruit. This may explain why I have seen full breakfast described on a hotel menu as ‘heart attack on a plate’. Very droll.
Nevertheless, a full breakfast may be served with optional standalone accompaniments, such as cereal and toast; but these items cannot be regarded as a full breakfast in their own right.
Indeed, to distinguish a full breakfast from many other options, more than mere preparation is called for. A full breakfast needs to be cooked – so if you were asked whether you would like a ‘cooked breakfast’, your average Brit would take that to mean the same thing as a full breakfast. Traditionally, a cooked breakfast meant everything was fried – hence the term ‘fry-up’ is still used in some places, even if these days the food is mostly grilled. Some places may even offer ‘all day breakfast’ – which is usually a full breakfast – though occasionally this is only available until a certain time, presumably because those offering it are too cerebrally challenged to understand what ‘all day’ means. You see how easy this is?
In short, the term ‘full breakfast’ can mean the same thing as a cooked breakfast, a fry-up or an all-day breakfast. Except when it doesn’t. For example, other things are cooked and eaten for breakfast – eggs benedict, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, kippers, kedgeree, pancakes and curry are all obvious examples. But, though these dishes undoubtedly have their place somewhere, and will be found on hotel breakfast menus all over the land, by no stretch of the imagination would they be described as ‘a full British breakfast’.
At last, then, let’s look at the contents of the full British breakfast and some of the variations you may encounter. Excited? I know I am.
The full English breakfast
By and large, the full English breakfast consists of back bacon, eggs, pork sausages, tomato, mushrooms, black pudding, baked beans and buttered toast. The bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomato and back pudding can be fried or grilled. The eggs can be fried, poached or scrambled. A full breakfast means a hearty breakfast (which some establishments do not understand) and therefore includes at least a couple of bacon rashers and sausages. In the south of England, where I grew up, black pudding (a sausage made from blood, normally served in slices) was not common. It is more widespread now, thank goodness. In place of – or in addition to – toast, you may come across fried bread. However, for health reasons, even lovers of the full British breakfast avoid fried bread these days – particularly as the best fried bread is (arguably) produced from an unhealthy white variety. My mother’s fried bread was fabulous.
Baked beans are believed to have originated in North America. Nevertheless, we have never been averse to borrowing things from other people and baked beans are usually regarded as an indispensable part of the full breakfast: indeed, they are a fundamental part of the British diet. (In my opinion, a tin of baked beans on toast, liberally sprinkled with grated Cheddar cheese, is at the very high end of our national cuisine.)
Additional ingredients you could find on your English breakfast plate might include oatcakes, fried potatoes and bubble and squeak (a fried mixture of mashed potatoes and cabbage). Hash browns (another foreign interloper – chopped, shaped and fried potatoes) have become popular in some chain restaurants. I don’t know why, because they normally arrive as tasteless, tough, lumps of crisped cardboard. Rarely, chips (or French fries) may be offered with breakfast – but, based on no sensible logic whatsoever, to me this turns the meal into a supper. If you do choose to have a full British breakfast as an evening meal (with chips), I can personally recommend it as a Good Thing To Eat Before Going To The Pub.
Regional and national breakfast variations
The essential trick to achieving a regional or national breakfast is very simple: use the same ingredients as for the common, or garden, full English – but ensure that all your ingredients are locally sourced. This can be tricky – and expensive. However, it is much, much harder to claim your breakfast is genuinely Scottish, or Welsh, for example, if your chickens come from Surrey.
Which brings us onto bacon and sausages, which are often local specialities. The British sausage – or ‘banger’, as it is sometimes called – is grown all over the island and therefore any region probably has its own version. Lincolnshire and Cumberland sausages are favourites, but there is a huge diversity. Breakfast sausages are normally pork, but other varieties such as beef and, of course, vegetarian, are available. In parts of London, sausages can be made out of pandas. I didn’t know this until standing in the queue at a butcher’s when a woman asked for two.
Full Scottish breakfast
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes a Scotch breakfast as, “A substantial breakfast of sundry sorts of good things to eat and drink. The Scotch are famous for their breakfast-tables and tea-fights. No people in the world are more hospitable.”
What more do you need to know? A ‘tea-fight’, incidentally, is not an exuberant late afternoon gathering in Sauchiehall Street, but an archaic term for a formal tea party.
Anyway, the additional items you might find with your breakfast in Scotland include the Lorne sausage, haggis, white pudding, fruit pudding and potato scones, all of which are normally fried. The Lorne sausage is not really a sausage, because it doesn’t have a casing, and it is square. I find it can be a little fatty for my taste. Haggis, a type of sausage these days usually made with oatmeal, sheep offal and spices, goes really well at breakfast. White pudding can be found all over the United Kingdom and Ireland, and is a form of sausage normally made of suet with oatmeal or barley – similar to black pudding, but without the blood. Fruit pudding is, as you would imagine, a sausage packed with dried fruit; it is delicious. Potato scones (or tattie scones) are made from mashed potatoes, butter, salt and flour and are normally fried. They can be light and tasty – and can also be a thin wodge of leathery blandness. Personally, I think one of the most outstanding Scottish contributions to breakfast is the amazingly light morning roll – but you wouldn’t necessarily have one with a full breakfast.
Full Welsh breakfast
What does Welsh cuisine bring to the breakfast table? Well, in addition to ingredients that are only available in the Principality, (see ‘Regional and national breakfast variations’), I have read that it is a tradition in Wales to serve cockles with breakfast. By far the most famous addition to a full Welsh breakfast, however, is Welsh laverbread – bara lawr. This has nothing to do with bread and is also known as Welsh caviar. Laver is a type of seaweed. Laverbread is made from boiling the seaweed for up to 12 hours, then mincing it or making it into a puree. The result can be served as it is, rolled in oats and fried, or made into cakes.
Sadly, as you can see from the sample menu, a Welsh breakfast isn’t always particularly Welsh.
Of course, I regret not taking more photos of my food over the years. I’m sure you do too. So many missed opportunities. Anyway – that’s a bit about British breakfasts. What’s your favourite? Personally, I like a nice herby grilled pork sausage, smoked bacon, fried eggs, loads of sautéed mushrooms (why are some places so mean with the mushrooms?), baked beans, black pudding and perhaps a slice of toast – or fried bread if no one is looking. Some places serve a very average breakfast and some, quite frankly, don’t have a clue. The food should be plentiful and nicely presented, on a single, large, plate. There is no need to pretentiously scatter unwanted herbs over it, or even stick a decorative twig of parsley on the side. A little English mustard and Stokes’ tomato ketchup should be on hand. Fresh orange juice before and during, with fresh black coffee to follow – though, of course, in Britain tea predominates.
So, finally – my friends, let’s get breakfast done.