Saturday, July 26, 2008

What ? Is Nothing Sacred ? : An Attack by the Philistines on the English Breakfast & A Trenchant Defence

Full English Breakfast





(Image purloined from : http://www.geocities.com/sklcsklc/)


I came across an interesting and witty exchange on the subject of the Full English Breakfast in a Times issue of April. That exchange is reproduced in full at the end of this post and, in fact, suggested the heading for the topic. Before you pass on to the Times item, I must declare my affiliations and have to confess that I have long been a votary of the English Fry-up. The lead-in is not only to describe my own partisanship but to set the context in which to read the Times item.





I have always been a good trencherman and never do myself injustice at mealtimes, especially at breakfast. And my jobs over the last thirty years or so, and also at present, have involved frequent and sometimes extended visits to the UK, mostly about four or five times a year including a year or so in 1995-96 spent on assignment in London. That is how I began to worship at the altar, or laden and groaning table, of the English Breakfast.

At home in Madras, I only ever eat for breakfast fruit and a porridge of oats cooked in creamy milk - my family being from Kerala I suppose I could be classed a kanji vellam and I was initiated into oatmeal porridge very early. I eat a large bowlfull which my wife is often fond of saying I slurp like an ox relishing its slop of cottonseed and oilcake (parutthikkottai and punnakku). Never Pongal Vadai or Puris or whatever with all that spice and chilli and asfoetida , they are no way to start the day , what you need is the soothing and sustaining quality of porridge. Anyways in India you don't get good quality sausages nor lard which one needs for an honest to goodness English fry-up.



In Europe you only get that vile thing called the Continental Breakfast,just muesli, rolls and croissants and, in Holland, rusks - ha, rusks for breakfast, my left foot. I am myself quite partial to a luscious French croissant at breakfast and there has been many an evening in a Munich pub of a makeshift meal of German sausages with rosti washed down with schnapps and beer chasers - the conversation flows and time just stops. But all else palls in comparison with that sustaining and fulfilling repast, the Full English Breakfast.

The English Fry-up is of two kinds : the "cooked breakfast" and the buffet. If you step into the establishment joints in London, Fortnums or the Brown's Hotel or the Ritz (no jeans please, at the Ritz), the cooked breakfast is what you get. Ritz, Fortnums, Simpsons : these are eateries trying to achieve exclusivity with linen napkins and silver plated cutlery and a flower vase on your table. Time was when a morning coated, striped trousered English Headwaiter would accost you with grave courtesy, even if he actually regarded you as yet another oik lending neither tone nor class to the proceedings, and ceremonially proffer the breakfast menu. That, I am sorry to have to tell you, is no longer the case in contemporary Britain. True, the morning coat and the striped trousers are very much the dress code still but the apparition inside them is usually East European or Egyptian or Indian. And watch out, these guys are likely to spill coffee on your sleeve. It is the turn of the oik to wonder : Whither is fled the visionary gleam ? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

The software may have changed but I have really come all the way for the hardware, right? That, fortunately, hasn't changed at all. Firstly, there is an array on the table (especially at Fortnums): lashings of butter, libations of coffee and juice as well as jams and marmalades various - portends of the riches to follow. You have a choice of kippers, may be finnan haddie, lambchops sometimes and always, always, eggs any which way you like, sausages, bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes on the side as well as muffins, toast, racks of it, including fried bread. These establishments mostly do not offer hash brown potatoes on the menu, priggishly and misguidedly clinging to the notion that hash browns are American not British, even as thousands of truck and taxi drivers and others of that ilk in the country can not consider the meal well eaten without crisp, golden fried hash browns done to a turn. But baked beans are always on offer, also porridge, fruit and muesli.



The thing about the "cooked breakfast" is that you orders from the menu what you likes and then - you waits, as the procession of waitresses wends its way to and fro the kitchen, and things arrive one by one on your plate. Everything is done to perfection and freshmade for you. But greedy dog that I am, specially with the prospect of a Fry-up in the offing, I often choose to eat at the buffets. Everything is kept on a variety of serving dishes on hotplates and you can pile the food on to your plate. Many establishments offer this, including the St James Court, Washington Mayfair and so on. Funnily, at the pubs and dives in London you could get an English breakfast for as low as five quid and it is always cooked. In practice, I never discriminate and eat at whichever joint happens to be both good and convenient - the Ritz or the nearest dive or a buffet, any one will do.

I usually start with plenty of grapefruit juice and some melon or whatever. These help my stomach to deal with all the grease that is to follow. No porridge please, it takes up space which I need for other purposes. The must-haves are always the same - baked beans, scrambled eggs, sausages, crispy bacon, hash browns, tomatoes and toast but fried bread, if available, is preferred. Baked beans go excellently with eggs and hash browns, interspersed with bites of delicately spiced sausage and helpings of buttered toast. Finish off with more toast and honey followed by coffee.



I nearly forgot to mention black pudding. If you are rather sensitive or squeamish about these things you may skip this bit but those stout of heart, and stomach, will enjoy this. Black pudding is made from the blood of pigs, no doubt from contented pigs, with breadcrumbe or oats as filler plus a spicing of onion, garlic etc. Peasant societies in medieval times had to find uses for all parts of an animal and black pudding was the answer to salvaging the blood of a slaughtered pig. Maybe it is what puts hair on the chest of an adolescent lad but all that haemoglobin can only do good for you, adolescent lad or not. And White Pudding ? It is best eaten at Bewley's in Dublin, being an Irish specialty made from tripe, but Bewley's ? That is quite another story.



I do trowel and shovel in and put away quite a deal of food when eating a Fry-up. This never ceases to amaze my wife,when she is with me at one of these joints, but I always have the last word : Growing boys need lots of food. An English breakfast certainly gives you energy and enthusiasm for the day's work or loaf, whichever is to follow. And that is why I have pasted below an interesting exchange from Times Online - no punches are pulled but it is all in good fun.

Before I stop rabbitin' on and let you get on with the Times piece, I can not resist reproducing some children's verse by A.A.Milne :

The King's Breakfast



The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
"Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?"
The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, "Certainly,
I'll go and tell the cow
Now
Before she goes to bed."

The Dairymaid
She curtsied,



And went and told the Alderney:
"Don't forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread."



The Alderney said sleepily:
"You'd better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade
Instead."

The Dairymaid
Said "Fancy!"
And went to
Her Majesty.
She curtsied to the Queen, and
She turned a little red:



"Excuse me,
Your Majesty,
For taking of
The liberty,
But marmalade is tasty, if
It's very
Thickly
Spread."

The Queen said
"Oh!

"

And went to his Majesty:
"Talking of the butter for
The royal slice of bread,
Many people
Think that
Marmalade
Is nicer.
Would you like to try a little
Marmalade
Instead?"

The King said,
"Bother!"
And then he said,
"Oh, deary me!"
The King sobbed, "Oh, deary me!"



And went back to bed.
"Nobody,"
He whimpered,
"Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!"

The Queen said,
"There, there!"
And went to
The Dairymaid.
The Dairymaid
Said, "There, there!"
And went to the shed.
The cow said,
"There, there!
I didn't really
Mean it;
Here's milk for his porringer
And butter for his bread."



The queen took the butter
And brought it to
His Majesty.
The King said
"Butter, eh?"
And bounced out of bed.
"Nobody," he said,
As he kissed her
Tenderly,
"Nobody," he said,
As he slid down
The banisters,
"Nobody,
My darling,
Could call me
A fussy man -
BUT

I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!"

A.A.Milne



(Poem & Pics from : http://users.crocker.com/~slinberg/poems/milne/kingsbreakfast.html}

Yes, you don't have to be fussy but with an English Breakfast you can eat like a King. But remember to tip the waiter generously.

From The Times
April 17, 2008

Why the great British breakfast is a killer

You never see anyone with a degree eating a fry-up; they're too intelligent to consume it, says Times restaurant critic Giles Coren.

The news that Heston "Bacon and Egg Ice-Cream" Blumenthal is to have a hand in revamping the Little Chef chain of service station restaurants has thrown Britain's gastronomic reactionaries - and believe me, they are legion - into a ferment.

"Eggs and bacon were made for the breakfast table, not some poncy ice-cream," roared The Daily Telegraph, no doubt suppressing a florid belch as its morning kippers turned in its stomach.

Hash-browns are dismissed as "ghastly manifestations of American imperialism" (damned uppity colonials), and Sir Winston Churchill himself might as well be playing Elgar in his Union Jack underpants as we read that: "A good English breakfast never lets you down." No, it kills you. That's what an English breakfast does. The current £7.25 "Olympic" breakfast at Little Chef comprises: "two rashers of crisp backbacon, British outdoor-reared pork sausage, two griddled eggs, whole-cup mushrooms, crispy sauté potatoes, fresh griddled tomato, Heinz baked beans and toasted or fried extra-thick bloomer bread".

Olympic? What the hell event do they have in mind, the 3,000m casualty dash? The Triple Barf (also called the hop, skip and vomit)? The Synchronised Massive Coronary? Ye Gods, if that's what our young athletes are going to be packing down daily in advance of 2012 then we'll win even fewer gold medals than the, er, none, which I believe is currently predicted for this whey-faced generation of feckless British fatties.

The fried English breakfast was conceived during the Industrial Revolution (probably) as a form of fast fuel for a working class that actually worked. They ate 3,000 calories in the morning, then they burnt 3,000 calories by lunchtime. Or died when the mine collapsed. But you don't burn 3,000 calories driving a forklift truck, or answering the phone at Argos, or fiddling your disability benefit. The work dies, but the breakfast lives on. Result: obesity crisis. (Knowing this, and fearing the backlash, Little Chef recently moved to slim down "Fat Charlie", the obese chef who features in its logo, but nothing came of it - presumably because the porky little scrote just wouldn't stop eating.)

I'm not exaggerating about the effect of fried breakfasts on working-class health. I made a film for Channel 4 in 2005 called Tax the Fat (which I truly believe we should) in which I visited a truck-stop café just outside Pontefract. With a public health nurse at my side, I tested two dozen random truckers and found that none was less than 3st (19kg) overweight. Some had body-mass indices of around 50, which is double the level at which you are defined as "overweight" and only five points short of the score that has you reclassified as a small town. And all of them - all, mind - were eating fry-ups.

I managed to persuade one of these truckers, an 18st sweetie called Paddy, to replace his daily fried breakfast with a large bowl of porridge, but to make no other changes to his diet. We weighed him two weeks later. He had lost a stone.

You see, it's complex (or "slow-release") carbohydrates you want in the morning. They keep you going till lunchtime, don't set off crazy blood-sugar "spikes", and lay down no fat. Porridge, water, a little salt. Breakfast doesn't have to be a banquet. Your palate is so clean and mellow at that time in the morning that, with a cup of tea, swollen oats taste really quite interesting. There's the whole rest of the day, as your tongue clogs up with processed snacky gack, to start upping your intake of more sugary, fattier, punchier foods.

I'll tell you what's holding us back from finally getting rid of the fried English breakfast for ever: lack of education. You never see a person with a degree eating a fry-up, do you? Certainly not someone with a 2:1 or better in a humanities subject from a university founded before the invention of the iPod. That's because they are smart enough to know better.

And if you already knew that a fry-up was fatty and don't care, then you ought to know about some even scarier health risks you're running at your breakfast table.

According to the immune biologist Dirk Budka, of the Hale Clinic in West London: "Bacon, ham, sausage, all these foods are full of nitrates and other things designed to prolong shelf-life, and the longer the shelf-life the greater the bacterial activity. It's just as bad with smoked fish, kippers, all of that. All the patients who come to me with bowel trouble turn out to have high levels of these sorts of foods in their diets. And long-life food is terrible for people with allergies, too.And then of course there is all this fat. At this time in the morning, when your body is barely awake, suddenly your gall-bladder has to release emergency quantities of bile to digest the fat and it's going to be jumping in triangles. It's going to be screaming 'what are you doing to me?'. You're going to get heartburn, you're going to get belching..."

But apart from that, it's all good?

"Not at all, it's terrible. There's no proper carbohydrate. There's tinned baked beans, tinned tomatoes, more long-life food, more bacterial activity. And your English sausages are full of I don't know what. It's just what a butcher sweeps from the floor at night. A European will not eat these. In Europe a sausage is 90 per cent meat. I grew up eating good wurst like this. And rye bread. That's what you need to eat. To make a technical term: the English breakfast is full of rubbish."

Oh, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "wurst, rye bread... this Budka's a German, what does he know about a good breakfast?" And, indeed, there is more than a smidgen of nationalism, even xenophobia, in our attachment to the traditional English breakfast. The French have their croissant and coffee, the Greeks their sheep cheese and olives, but our morning plateful is honest and shiny and pink. Just like we are.

In fact, from his name, this geezer who's come in to ruin the Little Chef sounds like he might be a foreigner, doesn't he? "Heston" is OK. Sounds like he knows a thing or two about service stations. But "Blumenthal"? We didn't win the war to have some kraut come over here and feed us garlic sausage and pumpernickel for breakfast, no doubt with a side order of Lebensraum and a mug of hot Colditz. In fact, he sounds as if he might even be a Jew. A toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox is OK at Paddington station when you're waiting for a train. But if a pig hasn't been killed then we're not calling it breakfast.

If anything proves the dunderheaded wrongness of the fried British breakfast it's the fact that we crave one most when we've got a hangover. Sure, the fat and salt will exacerbate the dehydration that is causing the problem, making the headache worse, the sweats colder and the existential angst more palpable. But what the hell, we feel like it. We're drunk, we're underslept, we smell, we can't walk straight, it hurts to talk and all we want is something to make the blood rush to our stomach, and away from our brains, briefly ameliorating not only the cephalalgia, but also the guilt about snogging that tramp on the night bus. Something, above all, to thicken our sick when the nausea hits again.

And this you want to call a national dish?

Ross Anderson replies:

Hands off my sausage, Coren. I am not about to be lectured on what I eat by a man who gets paid for feeding his face.

The Times restaurant critic has a masterful way with words and a witty turn of phrase, but strip away the etymological pyrotechnics and what do you have? Preaching, that's what - and preaching of the worst sort: as practised by the nanny-state control freaks currently turning this country into a joyless puritan hellhole run by cyclists who knit their own tofu, where a glass of wine is a unit and lighting a fag risks summary execution for killing babies.

After smoking and drinking, it was obviously only a matter of time before the health gestapo turned their jackboots on us innocent lardbuckets. A tax on fat? Yeah, right, that'll work. Just like it does with alcohol and tobacco. We'll have ferryloads of white vans coming over from Calais laden with butter, cream, eggs and cheese to be sold by dodgy blokes with plastic carrier bags outside Whitechapel Tube station ("Pssst, squire, want a half pound of Normandy unsalted, only a quid?").

What I didn't expect was that a man who eats for a living would recommend porridge, a vile, gelatinous slurry made from a crop that civilised people feed only to their animals, eaten chiefly by 18th-century crofters thrown off their land by the English and unable to afford proper food. As for one's palate being clean and mellow in the morning, speak for yourself, mate. After a night on the lash my mouth is like the bottom of a baby's pram, and I can rarely taste anything before noon.

Obviously, if you had a massive fry-up every morning you'd end up being winched into your grave by JCB or whatever, like that poor bloke in Wiltshire the other week. And anyway, who has the time? My standard weekday breakfast is two double espressos and an Old Holborn roll-up.

But the weekend? Ah, the weekend. Time to wheel out the giant, blackened cast-iron skillet and get frying: tight-skinned, juicy sausages from Sillfield Farm; sizzling rashers of streaky bacon from the Ginger Pig; plump Bury black pudding; a couple of golden-yolked, free range, organic eggs; a ripe tomato, halved and fried cut-side down with a dusting of sugar to caramelise; home-made Scots potato scones, home-made Irish soda bread. This is not about quantity, it's about quality and irreproachable provenance: ask any good butcher and he'll tell you the pig's name.

As for the notion that only stupid people eat fry-ups, this would be news in Martin's coffee house in Cambridge, where generations of geniuses have been getting it down their necks for decades. Or in Maria's caff in Limehouse, where some of the nation's finest financial brains shovel in the carbs before trotting off to make more millions at Canary Wharf. Equally risible is the suggestion that any of this is unhealthy. Tell that to the NHS's beleaguered GPs, their waiting rooms packed to the rafters with nonagenarian coffin-dodgers who for their entire lives have been packing away the Full English, the Full Scottish, the Ulster Fry and whatever they call it in Wales, and still have nothing more wrong with them than an ingrowing toenail. Tell it to the pension funds, struggling to pay out cash to people who, if any of this healthy eating claptrap were true, would have burst an artery years ago.

Your breakfast advice, Mr Coren? As we say in Scotland: save your breath to cool your porridge.