What makes a good breakfast?

Last week I had three excellent breakfasts. I don’t normally take breakfast (although I sometimes cook a breakfast-style lunch) except when I’m on holiday. A good breakfast will set you up for a day’s bell ringing or vigorous sight-seeing and keep you going until dinner time. And the first of the three aforementioned breakfasts in Sennybridge – a glorious plateful, perfectly cooked and presented – provided the sustenance needed for the arduous trek to the top of Pen y Fan and Corn Du.

A fourth breakfast – at a different establishment – proved to be adequate but, compared with the preceding three, sadly lacking in both quality and quantity. Which set me thinking, not for the first time: what exactly makes a good breakfast?

I’m talking proper English (or Welsh) breakfasts here of course. Whilst the continental variety may be appropriate and even interesting when holidaying in foreign parts*, it doesn’t cut the mustard when you have some serious activity ahead of you. Only the “full Monty” will do the trick. [Incidentally, I’m sure you’re aware that that expression originally had nothing to do with nudity but refers to Field Marshall Montgomery’s insistence on a full English breakfast wherever in the world he might be.]

To my mind, there are only two absolutely essential components to an English breakfast – bacon and eggs. Everything else is optional but I would feel short-changed if a “Full English” had fewer than six to eight ingredients.

The eggs may of course be scrambled or poached but they really ought to be fried, “sunny side up” or – ideally in my opinion – with a little fat splashed over them so you don’t get the snotty bit but the yolk is still runny. Obviously, I expect my eggs to be free range. I deplore factory-farming, both for the cruelty involved and the poor quality of eggs produced thereby. Unfortunately, true free-range eggs, from hens which have the run of the farmyard, are a rare treat.

Bacon has many attributes and, whilst the bland water-injected stuff is less common than it once was, there are still enormous variations in quality. My perfect rasher would be outdoor-reared, dry-cured, middle cut, thickly sliced, rind-on and preferably (for breakfast, though not necessarily at other times) unsmoked. Most bacon nowadays ticks some of those boxes but not all of them. Middle cut (i.e. a long rasher combining back and streaky) is virtually unknown and rind a rarity (although I did buy some rind-on streaky at a farm shop on the way home from my recent trip). Grilling bacon is fine although I usually fry mine.

Sausages are often the biggest disappointment (as was the case with the fourth breakfast above). Flavoursome meaty sausages are easy to come by from local butchers and even supermarkets, so why do some hoteliers consider it acceptable to serve those flaccid pink plasticky things at breakfast?

Mushrooms are a desirable component, preferably flat field mushrooms fried in butter. Tomatoes are good too, ideally fried in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and butter with freshly-ground black pepper. I find grilled tomatoes tend to be hard and relatively tasteless. Tinned tomatoes are absolutely beyond the pale!

Black pudding of the right sort (e.g. from Bury) is good. I realise it’s not to everyone’s taste, although it does seem to have become more commonplace in recent years. I also enjoy a grilled lamb’s kidney but sadly it’s been many decades since they were considered standard breakfast fare.

I suppose I should mention baked beans, which have become ubiquitous. Looking at another blog about British food a while ago I was surprised to read that breakfast includes “beans – there must be beans”. Why must there be beans? I suspect the author was somewhat younger than I am (he or she also seemed to think that meat is an optional component of a Sunday Roast).

Those excellent breakfasts included, in addition to all the above, beautifully crisp slices of fried bread. Now that is becoming a rarity, except perhaps in transport cafes, which is a shame. No doubt too many people are worried about calories and cholesterol but I’m sure it does one no undue harm once in a while.

One item which has become common but for which I can’t muster much enthusiasm is hash browns, those industrial triangles† of potatoey stuff. Now, fried left-over potatoes or bubble-and-squeak, that’s a different proposition entirely, but I guess, food hygiene regulations being what they are, hotels and guest houses have to be a bit careful about using left-overs. Seriously though, that’s something that ought to change, given the enormous problem we have with food wastage.

There are a few regional things like white pudding (mainly on the Celtic fringes) but I think that more or less covers the mainstream breakfast ingredients.

Then of course there should be toast and marmalade to follow – not jam, which seems to be the only preserve offered in some places (see #4 above); jam is for teatime. Nor namby-pamby corn syrup marmalade with microscopic bits of orange in it but proper English marmalade, dark and dense with thick pithy chunks of peel. And tea or coffee – I will concede there may be an argument that tea is more correct but for me it’s got to be strong black coffee.

* I should make it clear that I’m never averse to trying local specialities – when in Costa Rica, for example, I was happy to start the day with gallo pinto con huevos.

† OK, home-made hash browns might be wonderful, but I’ve yet to encounter any.

On the Ubiquity of Certain Vegetables

Yesterday I was presented with one of those unsolicited video clips on Facebook – some chap saying he was going to show us how to make a 60-egg omelette. Well that sounded a bit strange for a start. An omelette surely is a personal dish – three or four eggs carefully crafted into a disc of just the right consistency and wrapped around some suitably complementary filling, or even just folded over on itself, lightly speckled with golden brown on the outside and deliciously moist within.

I decided to watch the beginning. He broke the eggs into a large bowl (there was a fair amount of fast-forwarding or “here’s one I made earlier” at this stage – I don’t suppose many people would sit through watching 60 eggs being broken one at a time). Then he took a cleaver and chopped up a bunch of spring onions (interesting, I’ve never thought of using a cleaver for that) before stirring them into the eggs. OK, so it was probably going to be something more like a frittata than a classic omelette. But then he threw in a handful of grated carrot – at which point I stopped watching. Why the f*** would anyone put carrots in an omelette?

It’s not that I dislike carrots per se. I quite enjoy carrots if they’re freshly dug (i.e. they were still in the ground a couple of hours ago) and preferably home-grown on lovingly nurtured compost. But you don’t often get carrots like that. Most of the carrots offered for sale parted company with the soil days, weeks or even months ago. And it shows in the flavour, or rather the lack thereof.

I’m reminded here of JD Wetherspoons’ carrots. It’s been several years since I last ate in a “Spoons” and maybe the food has improved somewhat, but it used tolerable – with the exception of the carrots which were execrable. It wasn’t just that they were bland; they were slimy and what little flavour they did possess was actually quite unpleasant.

What’s more, carrots have a habit of turning up in places where they ought not to be, and not just the aforementioned omelette. They are far too prevalent in most coleslaws and piccalillis. They appear in way too many dishes at third-rate Chinese restaurants, usually in a gloopy sauce with bits of bubbly beef or hard pre-cooked pork. Do carrots even grow in China? At least Thai chefs are more inclined to sculpt them into flowers for merely decorative purposes.

I’ve even known people put carrots in Chilli con Carne. A good Chilli needs no more vegetable content than the kidney beans, the chillies, tomato paste, a modest amount of chopped onion and maybe red pepper (definitely optional). It doesn’t need carrots – or, God forbid, sweetcorn. (There’s a general principle here – adding extra ingredients to a recipe doesn’t necessarily improve it; on the contrary, it may well ruin the dish.)

So why are carrots so ubiquitous, both as an accompaniment to main dishes and as an ingredient? It’s surely not a matter of esculence, given the general diminution of flavour between the soil and the plate to which I alluded earlier. Is it because they’re cheap (unless sold in some semblance of freshness, in which case they become a premium product commanding several times the normal price)? Or is it because people are downright unimaginative in their choice of vegetables?

Peas are the undoubted leaders in the vegetable ubiquity stakes (a subject I’ve written about in an earlier blog and at greater length in my book) but carrots come a close second.

In third place is probably broccoli – not the tender succulent shoots of purple sprouting, which is most enjoyable in season, but the thick-stemmed green stuff which, while not exactly unpleasant, fails dismally to excite my palate whenever it appears on my plate.

I don’t understand why any vegetables should be so ubiquitous, not just in public eating places but in the domestic kitchen as well. Subject to availability, I like to choose my vegetables on the grounds of quality and freshness, seasonality and affinity with the meat or fish with which they are to be served. It amazes me how little attention is paid to the latter criterion – some combinations are truly harmonious, others less so and some quite jarring.

But, as I’ve probably said before, some people just don’t want their taste buds to be challenged, they actually prefer bland food. Others are seemingly impervious to nuances of taste and to the effects, good or bad, of juxtaposing flavours (for example, drinking Coke with pizza). Many are reluctant to be drawn out of their culinary comfort zone to experience new and exciting dishes (such people often claim to dislike foods they haven’t even tried).

So it looks as if frozen peas, tasteless old carrots and uninspiring broccoli are here to stay for a while yet.