The full British breakfast

Full British breakfast

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?

Cigarette and coffee

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?

British breakfast - but is it 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.

A British breakfast in Wales

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

British breakfast - in Inverary, Scotland

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

Welsh breakfast menu from the Dragon Hotel, Montgomery

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.

Welsh laver bread and toast

 

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.

81 thoughts on “The full British breakfast

  1. junedesilva

    I love this post and I love your sense of humour, Mike! I’m partial to a full English but here in Surrey (!) we are offered the healthy option with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, avocado and hummus. I’m not adverse to a grilled tomato but I have come across tinned toms which, in my opinion, are an abomination when added to a breakfast.
    As is often the case, with your posts, you got me thinking about what constitutes a French breakfast or perhaps I mean a continental breakfast…
    When I taught English, in a French secondary school, many of my students thought that a full British breakfast was eaten every single morning! On the other hand, there was a time when my UK students imagined that their French counterparts had snails and frog legs every morning!!

            1. Helen Devries

              A brilliant series….did you come across the pronouncement that if there is no solution it is because there is not a problem? Sounds like the current government line on almost anything.

  2. robertawrites235681907

    HI Mike, I like a full English breakfast but I won’t do either the Scottish or the Welsh versions you have on offer here. Life is to short to eat cereal for breakfast every day. There have to be treats.

  3. SueW

    Tuesday is number three daughter’s day off. We either meet early for breakfast or later for lunch. We try different places and I’ve become quite an expert on which place serves the best full English.

    If only I could combine the best from each place I would have the perfect breakfast.
    We’ve decided that the local Beefeater restaurant is probably the best of the bunch tastewise, plus two children can eat free with one adult, though as a rule we’re without the children.
    Hash browns seem to differ from place to place and we have found that Morrison’s supermarket serve the best. I don’t eat eggs and most places offered an alternative.

    A couple of the upmarket garden centres serve delightful breakfasts too, both took bookings and had waitress service; in one I was served tomatoes on the vine, that was a first, well, for breakfast anyway.

    The beauty of a cooked breakfast is I don’t require anything else until teatime!

  4. CherryPie

    I prefer a semi full English breakfast and would more often choose from a continental breakfast spread. Some (but not all) UK hotels have got the options perfected.

  5. quercuscommunity

    I’m well over 60 and spent many years having two cigarettes and a cup of tea for breakfast. The doctor made me give it up. So I started to have a proper breakfast and two stone later the doctor made me give it up. Bloody doctors! I then went on to fruit and cereal and toast and marmalade. Then they told me that this counted as two breakfasts and I should have the cereal OR the toast. So I gave up doctors . . .

    As fro baked beans – we have had them all my life, but I don’t remember them being a breakfast items in the 60s and 70s.

      1. quercuscommunity

        When doctors give up I always find a tremendous sense of freedom. At the moment my GP practice is using “bullying” as a tactic. I am using “Ah, I forgot . . .” as my defence. 🙂

          1. quercuscommunity

            It started to become easier to understand when I realised that civil servants dish out instructions and leave the practice to pick up the pieces. That’s why the current appointments system is worse than the one before, which was in turn worse than the one before that. 🙂

            Same with teaching – a friend of mine tells me that no child in Britain has ever finished school using the same syllabus that was in place when they started, due to political tinkering.

  6. Tanja

    That’s a lot of food for breakfast:) I have tried different variations of British breakfast. I enjoy bacon, eggs and tiny sausages with baked beans but I’m not a fan of black pudding or mushrooms for breakfast.

  7. V.M.Sang

    I giggled at the two panda sausages. But you missed a trick in Wales. A farm shop near my sister sells dragon sausages. I’ve seen them elsewhere in Wales, too. I believe the dragons come from deep in Snowdonia.
    I love a slice of two of fried bread. Very bad. Slap on wrist for me. Black pudding, (as I’m a northern lass), bacon, sausage, fried egg (none of your healthier poached or scrambled). Not fussed about baked beans, and no potatoes in any form. They’re not breakfast food. They go with a main meal.
    Of course, this is only in hotels, not ever day!

  8. grandmisadventures

    Oh I could go for a full English breakfast right now! I do think it’s interesting that we all seem to have our regionally accepted breakfast. Here it would probably be pancakes, hashbrowns, bacon, and eggs.

  9. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – well I’m off this … breakfast is not my meal at all – I’ll have it happily later in the day, if I eat early on, the day is finished before it’s begun … but I do envy those who can eat one. Coffee and fruit for me … and not much of that … I envy (again) those photos! Cheers Hilary

  10. Nick Hayes

    Great article Mike, thank you. I can’t disagree with any of your comment so all I can chuck into the debate is my own personal preference. And that is the breakfast served on Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean ferries in anticipation of holiday days in the Western Isles, and for me it has to be lorne over ‘linkies’!

  11. April Munday

    The pandas took a while. but I was stupidly happy when I got there.

    My breakfast is a bowl of cereal, usually with a banana sliced into it, and a pot of tea.

    I’m a vegetarian, so cooked breakfasts aren’t that exciting for me. I do like hash browns though, especially when they’re still that outrageously artificial orange on the outside and you know there’s still a bit of moisture left on the inside.

  12. Ian Hutson

    Two things that I cannot abide on a breakfast are baked beans served in those silly little plant-pots, and those “hash brown” abominations. Last occasion that I burned an establishment to the ground for the offence both Judge and Jury agreed with me and the charges were dropped. I’ve never met a “hash brown” that I liked – if someone really desperately wants to go all foreign on me then I wouldn’t object to a potato pancake or two on the plate (to my late mother’s friend Hilda’s German recipe, only). Toast I regard as pushing the envelope, a tad too close to a criossant for my liking – the bread should be fried, and fried well.

    Nanny? Pass me the HP Sauce please, I’m going in…

    A decent full English ought to be of sufficient size to require one to instruct the chauffeur to drive twice around the M25 so that one may sleep it off before the first meeting of the day in The City. Now then, lunch… hmm…

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      I’m certainly with you on the daft plant pots. Why do restaurants think it’s OK to have all these silly separate dishes? Next thing, they’ll be allowing children in pubs.

  13. Meks

    The landlady at the B&B in Scarborough where my husband and I went for several summers in a row always asked us in her kind, polite and friendly manner “Would you like your cooked breakfast now?” after we’d started our first meal of the day with bowls of cereal and fresh fruit.
    Yes, we did! And it was all very well received, since we would be out and about, walking up and down Scarborough all day long. I loved those holidays!

    When I am on my own during the week, breakfast is a mug of coffee. About an hour or so later, a bowl of muesli with some fresh fruit (mostly a sliced banana) follows.
    On weekends, we may well have a fry-up for breakfast – depending on our plans for the day and how early or late we get up. One of my favourite luxury Sunday breakfasts includes a glass of sparkling wine, Earl Grey tea and orange juice for drinks, and filet of trout with horseradish cream and golden-brown buttered toast.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Your breakfasts sound potentially exotic, Meike! I rarely drink alcohol before the evening – though it is often tempting (!) – we do enjoy a bucks fizz on Christmas morning, though. 🙂

  14. Dorothy Willis

    No one has ever been able to explain to me how the baked beans jumped the pond and landed at breakfast! I don’t remember them at breakfasts from my first visit to the UK (1966) but they have certainly been around on every subsequent visit!

    Something no one has mentioned is marmalade. On that same first visit we were having breakfast in a very traditional hotel and my husband was not happy when he found there was only bitter marmalade for his toast. He called the waiter over and asked for jam. The waiter replied that there was none. After a short pause my husband said, “Do you serve tea here in the afternoon?” “Oh, yes, sir!” “Okay. Go to the closet where you keep the tea things, take out some jam and bring it to me!” He got his jam. I am sure the waiter made a good story of it to his friends.

  15. Jennie

    Cheers to the big breakfast! In America, we should swap the big dinner for the big breakfast. It’s better to eat the hearty food in the morning. Why bacon and sausage together?

  16. Judy Masrud

    While my breakfast comprises two halves of a protein bar and black coffee, my good husband has made himself a true Full English Breakfast nearly every morning since first visiting your glorious country in 2004. He does not include black pudding, however (thankfully). On occasion he makes it at suppertime, in which case I’ll join him in eating it. Ironically, The Heart Attack on a Plate is far better nutrition than a bagel and orange juice. The Welsh seaweed thing looks like a recipe made in desperate times. Oatcakes are for the brave and famished. I love the descriptions of all the breakfasts. Cheers! as I hold up my cup of black coffee in a sturdy mug to your pretty but fragile teacup.

  17. Ann Shuttleworth

    Good morning,
    (As a granddaughter of a migrant Scot) Porridge made with ‘Jungle Oats’ which were cooked in a double boiler for 1/2 an hour began my day. No sugary topping, just salt. Glass of milk.
    Brown bread toast and home-made marmalade on other days following 1/2 a grapefruit.
    Kippers and toast for high days and holidays. Canadian canned kippers still on our breakfast menu once a week.
    Egg, bacon and 1/2 a tomato with toast on Saturdays.(Non-stick frying pans a great invention)
    Fresh fruit starts every meal. If none available bottled prunes or soaked and cooked dried apricots.
    Kedgeree made with flaked smoked cod, brown rice, boiled chopped egg, fried mushrooms and a little chutney add variety when time on my hands socialising in the kitchen part of the breaking of the fast.
    Bubble and squeak a favourite for Hotel breakfasts as a child, which as you’ll gather was a very long time ago.
    A

    1. artandarchitecturemainly

      Emma, yes! Heart attack on a plate! If a person sits on their bum at work, they need fresh fruit, cheese and proper coffee for breakfast. If they do physical labour at work, they need cereal and milk with lots of berries sprinkled on top, plus cheese and proper coffee. Nothing that needs a frying pan!!

  18. Helen Devries

    You can probably hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth all the way from Costa Rica…..where breakfast consists of rice and beans reheated with diced onion, celery and sweet peppers, flashed with the local Lizano sauce – think Worcestershire but sweeter – and topped with a fried egg or sour cream.

    I can replicate most of the British breakfast…egg, sausage, bacon, mushroms, tomatoes – and fried bread, from a packet of white sliced rejoicing in the name of Bimbo – but the black pudding here is an abomination, disintegrating in cooking leaving lumps of fat and gristle in its wake.

    I can do most of the scots version too…make our own haggis, square sausage and tattie scones…but would kill for a morning roll! And commit mass murder for a kipper.

    No baked beans…..that’s for tea time.

    Very much enjoyed the 2 panda sausages….not to be missed!

  19. John

    These breakfasts look really good! I think breakfast is whatever you want it to be. I sometimes eat my homemade chili for breakfast! What is black Pudding?

  20. marmeladegypsy

    I love this post. Breakfast is my favorite meal, but only a “good” breakfast, not just yogurt and granola and fruit which is far more typical. Our weekend breakfasts are much like your English — eggs, meat (usually one meat, either bacon or sausage), toast and (if Rick has anything to say about it) potatoes. I like the idea of tomato — you never see that here. Or our “special” breakfast, and let’s be regional/international, French toast! Here we don’t see a lot of regional distinction on the menu, though occasionally there will be “Michigan Cherry Salad,” which is more like a big salad but with Michigan cherries, so they say. In the south, you tend to find grits, which I love. Here in the north you never see them on a menu (pity, that.) I don’t get the whole baked bean thing, though…

  21. joannerambling

    Different countries have different food, I like a hot Aussie breakfast but rarely have it, it consists of sausage, bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast and tomatoes

  22. Peter's pondering

    It took me a while to get the 2 panda sausages, but when I did they were very, very tasty! Now, were you aware of a national crisis regarding Staffordshire oatcakes? Sainsburys and Tesco both appear to have stopped stocking them, and Derbyshire oatcakes just don’t come anywhere near. I may be forced to travel to Stoke every week and I’m not sure that my passport is still valid. How can I possibly exist without my three hot oatcakes oozing with bacon, eggs, cheese and lots of fat?

      1. Peter's pondering

        What an absolutely glorious collection of comments you have gathered. 70 to date. Breakfast is obviously a very important institution all over the world. Well done everyone!

  23. Ellen

    Well, I’m happy to say that in about 2 months time, Lord willing, I’ll be sampling a Full English breakfast and probably taking a photo of it, too. Maybe we’ll have many full English breakfasts during our stay in the UK. We are prepping now by walking a lot and by shedding some pounds so we can happily add those pounds back whilst on holiday on your island. Enjoyed all your stories and descriptions.

  24. Andy

    I always thought the Costa Brava was the best place for a full English breakfast. But then again I have no evidence or experience on which to base that assertion. It is usually possible to cobble together something that resembles and English breakfast from the buffet offerings in most large international hotels. Without the fried bread of course. Or the black pudding come to think of it. If you were to ask my personal opinion – which I know you are not incidentally but I will offer it nevertheless 🙂 – the fresh orange juice is an essential accompaniment to a full or cooked or English breakfast otherwise your intestines’ have no way to deal with all that grease. Then again, I was always more of a cream teas person myself. ie not just the fat but gobloads of sugar to go with it. Looking forward btw 🙂

  25. Eunice

    A great post Mike, very informative and often amusing. I have to ask though – did you eat all these different breakfasts in the course of your research? 🙂

  26. Shane

    Have to argue with you about what should NOT be on a ‘full ENGLISH brekkie. No 1 is that American work of Satan…. the Hash Brown. No, no, no is all I can say on that one!

    But the sticking point for me is….. baked beans. They might ‘look’ right on the plate, but again they’re an American (derived from Mexican if some sources are correct) so, again, not on a Full English for me.

    I’ve had to ‘make representations’ – let’s put it that way! – in eateries on a number of occasions, sometimes with a pleasurable outcome…

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      I’m with you on the hash browns – but simply because they (mostly) taste disgusting. Mrs B hates it when I ‘make representations’ – it invariably gets me into no end of trouble.

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: