How the English breakfast has changed with Britain

Cole Moreton's family endure a sugar-filled breakfast

What do the once-traditional fried breakfasts on offer around Britain say about how our cultural landscape is changing?

By Cole Moreton in the UK’s Times Online

The Full English is the one meal that England does well, with fat bangers, sizzling rashers and eggs oozing sunshine, strong tea and two buttered toast.

This is food that makes you feel good just thinking about it, a platter that pulls on the heartstrings (as well as straining the heart). It’s an icon of Englishness, as much of a symbol as the flag of St George, but here’s the thing: who really eats it these days?

Less than 1% of the population starts every day with a cooked breakfast, compared to the 1950s when it was more than half of us. I was thinking about this the other day, chewing (and chewing) my compulsory muesli while dreaming of bacon and eggs. If the full breakfast is so representative of the English, what does it say about us? And if our attitude to it has changed so much, what does “the Full English” really mean — not just in the sense of what is on the plate, but in terms of being fully English?

Those questions inspired a mad, bad, salt-soaked road trip from culinary heaven to hell and back, and from one end of the country to the other. Come with me, if you want to see what the English are really like now. But prepare for some very strong and surprising tastes.

Where better to start than at a place that dares to call itself a “quintessentially English hotel”? The Goring in Victoria has been run by the same family for four generations and claims to be the last five-star luxury hotel in London that can say that. Breakfast here is not cheap, if you include a room. My £850 suite is nice enough, and has a very groovy mirror that turns into a television, but I wake up raging at the wallpaper.

It is covered in drawings of scenes from an estate, including the lady of the manor wafting around and a gardener who is hauling a manual lawnmower across a back-breaking expanse of grass. What makes me so angry is that almost everybody who slept in the bedroom before me over the past 100 years would have identified with Her Ladyship. Not me.

Downstairs I walk past a bust of the Queen Mother and into a dining room recently made over by David Linley, the viscount and designer. The tables are draped in heavy cream linen and set with blue-and-white china. The chef comes out to meet me, and the first thing I want to ask Derek Quelch, who worked at the Savoy and Claridge’s before this, is a burning question that occupies all lovers of the English breakfast. Hash browns, Derek. Yes or no? “No,” he says, quickly and firmly. “Never. They’re American.”

Derek is a hardliner on this one. All traces of foreign influence have been struck from the menu, including baked beans (unless the customer wants them, because the service here reaches cult-like levels of intensity). Ask for the works and you get a truly wonderful breakfast with a lot of English pig: sausages with natural skins, sweet-cured, unsmoked bacon rashers cooked crisply, and black pudding from Cumbria made with blood. There are eggs, of course, mushrooms, lightly grilled tomatoes and a cute bubble of meat that turns out to be a lamb’s kidney. Bless.

“For us, the breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” says Derek. “If a guest is spending hundreds of pounds on a room, the breakfast has to reflect that. You will see captains of industry and cabinet ministers in here, we get some real high-flyers in the morning.”

There is wealth on display. Even “Big Dave” Morgan-Hewitt, the hotel managing director, tells me he spends thousands on a good suit. Those are big suits, mind. “I shouldn’t be having this,” he says, scooping cold bacon into toast for a quick sarnie after the guests have all gone, with a napkin at his throat in a Bunteresque fashion. “I’m having lunch in an hour with the princes’ private secretary.” Yes, he does mean William and Harry. We are only a stroll from the palace, and this has long been the haunt of royalty.

The first thing you learn at the Goring is that the class system has become a theme park, where people with money can pretend to be aristocrats. The clever ones do it on the cheap, bringing their contacts here for breakfast to be impressed. “Since the recession, more people are coming for breakfast,” says Derek. “They don’t have to buy wine, so it is cheaper, and they can get back to the office for a full day’s work.”

Eccentricity is very much part of the brand, in a mild form. The 44-year-old owner, Jeremy Goring, is a surfer who wears an open-necked shirt and swears quite often. “Ninety-nine per cent of sausages worldwide are shit. Particularly when you go outside England.” He goes on frequent road trips with his chef, “out in the middle of nowhere to find food that they don’t want us townies to have”, and was the first hotelier of his kind to employ his own forager.

It is also hard to ignore the eccentricity of the Swarovski-crystal chandeliers in the dining room, which hang down, as the regular diner Michael Winner said, “like leftover Christmas decorations from a bad day at B&Q”.

Under those chandeliers, Big Dave suddenly treats the remaining staff in the dining room to high-decibel excerpts from a one-man opera. His boss teases him in a very un-PC way — “I am banning all poofters from this hotel” — then tells me: “Being very English is quite a rebellious, anti-Establishment thing to do now, because the Establishment has become the world of political correctness.” Maybe. There is one thing you see very clearly, though, in this place that seeks to elevate Englishness to an art. We’re all foreigners, if you look far enough back. The Gorings came here from Germany in 1893 but assimilated so quickly that the hotel became the command centre for the chief of the allied forces during the first world war. “We’ve had immigration here for 400 years,” says Jeremy Goring, “so we’ve got to be quite good at it by now.”

That’s easy for him to say in his palace of splendour, but a dozen miles away on the High Road in North Finchley it’s a bit more of a struggle. People from all over the world are trying to make it work, using the thing they can bring to a new land: food. There’s an Indian restaurant, a Thai, a Chinese and a sushi bar — and outside a coffee shop is a sight that would have gladdened the hearts of the 150 Poles who were billeted at the Goring during the war (they were, of course, all officers): the Polish flag.

Polska Chatka (“Polish cottage”) was opened last March by Nick Taylor, a 48-year-old computer specialist from these parts, and his wife, Barbara, 29. She trained as a banker in Poland before coming to try her luck in England three years ago. Nick was in the pub, having a pint, when she came in looking for a job. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “For me, anyway. She always says she noticed me.”

Soon after they opened the cafe, Polish dishes took over the menu. Now most of the cooking is done by Gryzna, a woman in her sixties who doesn’t speak much English but grins a lot from under a tiger-striped turban. “Gryzna is the main guy,” says Barbara. “She knows the way things should be and she keeps order with a big spoon.”

She can cook, too. Her Polish version of a full English has imported white sausage and caramelised onions, scrambled eggs with chives, fat beans in a spicy tomato sauce, little mushroom dumplings called pierogi, and a bowl of cottage cheese with radish.

The Full Polish is huge and magnificent, and doesn’t just attract exiles. “Many of the customers have nothing to do with Poland, they just like the food. And the portions,” says Barbara, who thinks England has changed in the short time she has been here. “There is more tolerance. English people are being more careful about what they say and how they behave.”

Notice that she doesn’t say we’re warm and welcoming. She says we have learnt to watch our tongues. Our taste buds are changing, too. At places like Polska Chatka you can see English food being changed by the new Europeans, just as it was by the arrivals from Asia and the Caribbean. Her two-year-old son, Oskar, will be an Englishman in a country where the meaning of that word has changed — dramatically. We’re roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but we’re also chicken balti, born in Brum. It would be no surprise to find that the Full English of the future is served with that chunky white Polish sausage.

But not in Cannock. They like things traditional up at the Hollies Truck Stop on the A5 in Staffordshire, a transport caff that claims to be the oldest in the country, and looks it. A box set forlornly in a potholed lorry park, it has lost the plaster on the walls on one side. This is a place that sees trouble. “Once a year the Hell’s Angels come by on the way to their rally,” says Yvonne Jones, the manager. Most of the customers, though, are men who spend their days behind the wheels of massive articulated lorries. Four pounds and 99p buys the Mega Breakfast, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The truckers get shirty if “civilians” stop them getting their food quickly, she says. “Mind you, they don’t mind waiting when the place is full of girls coming back from their hen nights, half naked.”

With a couple of fried slices, a hash brown, a scoop of beans and two toast as well as the basics, the breakfast is truly mega. “We sell 3,000lb of bacon and 2,000 sausages a week,” says Chris Edwards, the Mancunian co-owner. The sausages are inviting on the outside, but tubes of pink mush inside. Asked where they come from, he says: “They’re ‘best pork catering sausages’. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

They are foul, frankly. The bacon is limp and mushy. Half a tin of tomatoes has been dumped on the huge brown-and-white plate, so that everything floats on the juice. The fried bread is soaked underneath and crispy on top, but when you bite into it the grease floods your mouth and leaves a slick, nasty aftertaste. I feel so ill, even as I’m eating, that for the first time in my life I can’t finish a Full English. It’s a relief when they take it away. I’ve got a raging thirst. Consensus Action on Salt and Health, a group of experts and campaigners, says a Full English like this will give you more than the entire dose of salt a person should have in a day.

Yvonne frowns. “If it’s a killer, why do so many people want it? We did put on a healthy option for the truckers. Fruit salad, porridge, that sort of thing, we gave it to them free. They still paid a fiver for the Mega Breakfast.” Then they went and sat in their trucks all day, presumably? “We do get some very big men. But you can’t give truckers what they don’t want. And they don’t want healthy.” One customer, Brian, says: “I’ve had good food here. Sometimes there’s so much you can’t move after.” He looks surprisingly trim and fit, but rising from the table, he adds: “Actually, I’m just getting over a heart attack.”

Here, then, is proof that English bloodymindedness endures. Never mind anti-obesity campaigns, free fruit or the knowledge that the big plate of fatty crap is killing us, some people will just pile on more.

We’re addicted to salt and still eating for the hearty, manual labour of old, when most of our work now involves sitting down, says the social anthropologist Kaori O’Connor. The Full English was born at a time during the Victorian era when new forms of energy allowed us to move from two meals a day — mid-morning, and just before the sun went down — to beginning with an early cooked feast. This then became a symbolic meal.

“The full breakfast is the secular sacrament of Englishness,” says Dr O’Connor, author of The English Breakfast. “In the devout early Victorian period, the day would begin with morning prayers before breakfast, which was a civilised meal for a civilised country. In time, the prayers dropped away and breakfast became a sacrament. You ate it as an article of faith.”

The Breakfast Book by Georgina Hill, published in 1865, lists some “things most commonly served for family breakfast” in a country-house buffet. They include “anchovies, bloaters, brain cakes, caviare, cold tongue, devilled bones, dried sprats…” Surely only those who could afford feasts had this high ideal of breakfast.

“No. Everybody had it,” says O’Connor. “Breakfast was the meal that everybody began the day with, whatever their place in society and however meagre the portions.”

The first world war put paid to the great house feasts because the servants disappeared. By the end of the second world war, rationing had reduced breakfast to basics. Things brightened up with the arrival of cafes: initially stylish places in which Italian immigrants frothed the milk exotically, but later — as they became more popular, and populist — the grim greasy spoon.

They’ve mostly gone now too, replaced by Starbucks and Costa as places to gather and chat. “We also saw the rise of the cereals, coming from America,” says O’Connor. “We were told they were highly nutritional, so Mum didn’t have to feel guilty about short-changing Dad by not cooking his bacon.”

My own children couldn’t believe their luck when I said they could have Sugar Puffs and Coco Pops just for a change. Soon they were flying around the room in a sugar rush. The consumer group Which? says some cereals have more sugar per suggested serving than a jam doughnut, including surprising ones like Kellogg’s Special K. Crunchy Nut Bites contain more saturated fats than a Burger King hamburger, apparently, and Honey Nut Corn Flakes from Morrisons have the same amount of salt per serving as a 50g bag of salted peanuts.

So the English are gullible. These imported foods we have been sold as a healthy option are just as bad as the things we avoid. Which makes me feel a lot better as I travel up to Lytham St Annes in Lancashire for a breakfast described by The Times reviewer Mystery Guest last year as the finest in the country. It is hidden behind the purple door of a boutique B&B, The Rooms, opened by Andy and Jackie Baker in July 2008.

“I am an obsessive,” admits Andy, an Essex boy who used to work in the City before sinking money into renovating this seven-bedroom Victorian townhouse. The builders did a spectacular job, but it’s the food that matters most to him. “We got mates round and the barbecue out and did tastings for the best banger, the best bacon, everything.”

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