People who know me well know that I will eat just about anything . . . at least once. There are not too many things I won’t eat at all. Brussel sprouts come to mind. Cooked or raw, I just cannot stomach a Brussel sprout. There is no debate. There is no changing my mind. Eggplant was on the list for years, but I have gotten past my reservations and I will eat it from time to time if served to my liking. On the other hand, I can easily do without it, especially in a casserole. That is still on the list. There are other foods I am not a big fan of, but I will eat them and say “thank you” when I am done. But there are no yummy sounds going through my head or emanating from my digestive tract. So to be fair, let me say a few words in tribute to something the English do quite well . . . the full English breakfast, or fry-up, and its regional variations.
There are some on our side of the pond who have experienced this repast and who will admit they like it. For many, however, it is not quite cricket. In fact, it flutters the dovecote for those who can’t fathom the idea of touching such an offering with a bargepole. “Gross” is an adjective I frequently hear when the subject of a full English breakfast comes up. “All that fried food!” . . . or “baked beans for breakfast?” The idea is as black as Newgate’s knocker. These skeptics are all belts and braces in my book. Indeed, many are the British jokes and put downs about a full English breakfast . . . almost all of which are of such a nature that I cannot share them here. In 2005 the Royal Mail stamp selection committee considered a set of stamps on a gastronomic theme. One stamp was to feature a full English breakfast but it was rejected “on health grounds.” The committee favored stamps representing healthy food items, including fish and chips and tea. But I’ll argue the toss. You can’t trip in a restaurant, pub, or B&B breakfast room anywhere throughout the British Isles without falling full face into a full English.
Really, I am not quite sure what all the fuss is about; a full English in many ways resembles the standard high-fat, high-caloric blue plate breakfast at any American diner or highway “stop & choke.” I have never been a big breakfast eater at home, but when I am on the road, either here or abroad, breakfast becomes an important ingredient of any travel experience . . . eggs, bacon or sausage (or scrapple if I can get it), with hash browns preferable over the chunkier home fries (unless these come with thick gravy). Some places will offer corned beef hash, or a slice of ham or a small steak, but I usually keep it simple. Add some slices of buttered toast or an English muffin , a couple large mugs of joe, and what more could one possibly want for breakfast? Well, our British cousins have answered that question.
So what is it about a “full English” (or its Cornish, Scottish, Ulster and Irish variants) that makes me enjoy it so much? Some may think it a bit of a curate’s egg; certain components appear just fine while others are revolting at best. In my humble opinion it includes a host of foods that I thoroughly enjoy both alone and tout ensemble. Granted, the presentation can often leave a great deal to be desired; it almost never look all that good on the plate. In some instances it really can be downright revolting in appearance. But it tastes so damned good. So let’s break it down.
Fried eggs for breakfast, whether served here or there, has long been a staple morning dish. Sunny side up, over easy, or even scrambled, I don’t think anyone can find fault with the concept of eggs, fried or otherwise prepared, unless they just don’t like eggs to start with. From my own experience, the Brits tend to favor their eggs over easy with a semi-hard yoke. With everything else on the plate a runny yoke is perhaps carrying the coals to Newcastle.
A full English also offers a variety of meats. There is back bacon which we here commonly refer to as “Canadian bacon” rather than the rashers of strip bacon we are used to. Sometimes the Brits just refer to it as ham, but there is a difference. Along with the fried eggs, this style of bacon is still usually accepted as regular breakfast fare. A full English also includes a type of sausage, most of which are unlike any sausage you have tasted before. They can take some getting use to. Cumberland and Lincolnshire sausage are probably the closest to what you are served here although the Cumberland is much longer and thicker than our link sausage. The spiced pork content in both is diced rather than minced. Oxford sausage are also similar to our links although they contain veal as well as pork. Still, they taste familiar and I will eat them all in a tick. Newmarket sausage, on the other hand, contains an overabundance of bread filler and whereas they resemble our link sausage, they have a rather pasty consistency. Unique to the full English is the addition of black or white pudding (or both). Black pudding is simply sausage containing pork blood, spices and oatmeal while the white version contains oatmeal mixed with spiced minced pork and fat or suet and bread filler. Both are sliced and served either hot or cold. Some places you will find kidney on your plate. You know what that is; need I say more? Traveling through Scotland one might also be treated to a serving of haggis, a pudding containing sheep offal minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices. It is traditionally encased in a sheep stomach although modern commercial haggis is usually prepared in a standard sausage casing. One may also encounter tinned sardines and pilchard, or cold-smoked kipper herring when traveling in coastal areas. I have particularly enjoyed the addition of Arbroath smokies to the breakfast offering while traveling in Scotland. These strips of salted haddock taste as good as they smell on the kiln sticks in the smoking sheds along the North Sea waterfront.
The Brits also fancy potatoes for breakfast. It could be chips (french fries) or their own version of hash browns which is usually nothing more than left-over mashed potatoes pan-fried into a potato cake. Something we seldom find on the breakfast platter in America are vegetables of any fashion, yet the English fry-up usually features fried or grilled tomatoes, as well as “bubble and squeak,” a portion of fried left-over veggies mixed with the potato serving. Fried mushrooms are frequently added to the mix.
And then there are the ubiquitous baked beans. Americans may look at the serving of baked beans for breakfast with high disdain, but truth be told the dish fresh out of a tin is an American import now offered up for breakfast. From everything I have been able to learn on the subject, baked beans are a relatively new addition to the full English breakfast dating back only about 50 years although some blame the Yanks for bringing them to the ould sod during World War II. Regardless, they seem to be there to stay and seldom is a full English served up without them. I think they’re great, especially with a dab of mustard!
That is a great deal of food to contend with and as they say, you don’t want to over-egg the pudding. But add some toast, a muffin, an oatcake, some soda bread, a tattie (potato) scone, or even a bowl of porridge in some locales, then pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and you have a full English breakfast. Such a bounty of smells and flavors; why it’s enough to cobble a dog! So, if you have never had a full English breakfast, I say grasp the nettle, break your duck, and give it a try. You’ll find it keen as mustard and downright royal.
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