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.

Sweetness – What’s it all about?

Yesterday I bought sweetcorn which was described on the packet as “supersweet”. (Yes, it was in a plastic packet instead of its own natural protective covering – but I’ve done that rant before and, much as it irks me, it’s not the theme of today’s blog.)

I suppose one might expect sweetcorn by definition to be sweetish but why supersweet? Why are tomatoes, to take one example, routinely commended for their sweetness? Why this apparent obsession with describing vegetables and other savoury things in terms of sweetness? Is it a peculiarly British phenomenon? I suspect it is.

Ok, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth myself. I never take sugar in tea or coffee and I do like dark bitter chocolate and seriously hoppy beers. I don’t always bother with dessert but when I do, I expect something small and exquisite with tangy fruitiness or rich chocolate, coffee or nutty flavours, not bland sugariness. I put very little sugar in the puddings and ice creams I make and invariably find ready-made ones far too sweet for my liking. Fortunately, the other half of my household has similar tastes; I buy a small packet of light brown sugar maybe twice a year.

It seems to be a generational thing to some extent. In one sense it is obviously so, insofar as children like sweet things but their palates become more sophisticated as they get older, but there seems to be a longer term trend here too – I’m fairly sure my generation is generally less sweet-toothed than my parents’. A few years ago, I used to take a minibus load of old people on a fortnightly shopping trip and was astounded at the enormous amounts of sugar (and milk) they bought. It’s arguably a class thing as well, but I’d better not go there.

To get back to the point, what is this sweetness-as-a-criterion thing all about? Do people really rate carrots by their sugar content? And is it even a virtue in fruit? I’ve recently seen “supersweet” blackberries. I didn’t buy them. I wouldn’t dream of buying big cultivated blackberries, supersweet or otherwise. Indeed, I remember as a young man newly-arrived in London being shocked to see blackberries on a greengrocer’s stall – blackberries were wild fruit that one picked in the hedgerows (and they were small and deliciously tart), it had simply never occurred to me that people might actually buy them! As for what a certain company does with 90% of the British blackcurrant crop, it makes me weep. If the Good Lord had intended blackcurrant juice to be adulterated with tons of sugar, He’d have made them that way.

Is sweetness just a marketing buzzword or does it go deeper than that.? Is it a symbol of prosperity and the craving for it a reaction to years of deprivation and austerity? There are examples of sweetness being used as a metaphor for good times in the Old Testament (e.g. a land flowing with milk and honey), although fat, oil and corn are used similarly. (My favourite among Solomon’s chat-up lines is “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat.”) But we’re not recovering from famine; most of us in this country are well fed and have no obvious biological need for excess sugar.

It occurs to me that sugar, like salt, can mask the absence of more subtle and interesting flavours. Sugar and salt are cheap. Blandness is easier to create than flavours that entice and challenge the palate. Is that what people really want or have become conditioned to?

Is the whole sweetness thing a marketing ploy that we could well do without? Or am I a lone voice crying in a saccharin wilderness?

The Mathematics of Pork Pies

Having eaten a pork pie for lunch yesterday I found myself pondering an old question. I had bought two small pies, because on this occasion that represented a better deal with a free tub of potato salad thrown in, but I would normally have opted for one large pie, not just because it’s usually better value but also because of a long-held conviction that the larger the pie, the better the meat to pastry ratio.

This belief, which is superficially based on nothing more than common sense and experience, is backed up by a reductio ad absurdum argument – if one were to continually reduce the size of the pie, there would eventually be no room for the meat at all. However, having nothing better to do, I decided to test the theory mathematically.

To do so, it was necessary to make a few assumptions:

The shape of the pie was considered to be a perfect cylinder. This is clearly untrue but to assume otherwise would result in an horrendously complex calculation.

For the same reason, the pastry was assumed to be of even consistency with no flanges, crenellations or other decoration.

The meat was assumed to fit the space inside the pastry exactly, ignoring any jelly or air gaps.

An aspect ratio (diameter to height) of 4:3 was chosen as this seemed to be a reasonable figure for the average pork pie (although altering it made little difference to the outcome).

Finally, the all-important factor – the thickness of the pastry. Should it be a constant, regardless of the size, or does it increase in proportion to the overall dimensions? The former is clearly not the case, for a very large pie with no more substantial a casing than one of the cocktail variety would soon fall apart. On the other hand, the relationship is not a linear one: whereas 0.2 inches of crust might be necessary for a 2 inch diameter pie, a 1.2 inch crust on a 12 inch pie would be ridiculous. I therefore devised a formula whereby the pastry thickness increases at one tenth of the rate of increase of the diameter from a minimum of 0.2 inches.

I then calculated the percentage of meat for various sizes of pie, using the above assumptions and plotted the results in a graph.pork_pie

The grey line represents the nonsensical case where the crust thickness is directly proportional to the diameter. Predictably, when you think about it, this is a straight line.

The red curve represents a constant thickness of 0.2 inches and the blue a gradually increasing thickness.

So, there you have it. Making some approximate but entirely reasonable assumptions, a very small pork pie is less than 20% meat; the proportion rapidly increases with size but then, to use an expression currently in vogue, the curve flattens. A 12 inch diameter pie is about 78% meat; a monstrous 10 foot diameter pie (7 foot 6 tall with a crust nearly 6 inches thick) would be around 86%.

The Peculiarities of English Taste

On the whole, I like the traditional food of my native land. Yes, English cuisine went through a bad patch in the 60s and 70s, when convenience seemed to outweigh any consideration of quality, but it’s been steadily improving ever since (just think how pub meals today compare with those of 40 or 50 years ago). But there are a few peculiarities of English taste I just don’t get.


If you’ve read the Great Bass Cookery Book this one will come as no surprise. Why this obsession with the ubiquitous little green buggers when there are so many wonderful vegetables in the world, some of which have a particular affinity with this or that meat (or fish) dish? I recall reading the results of a survey which concluded that the most popular choice when eating out was steak, chips and peas (OK, this must have been before chicken tikka masala became the nation’s favourite dish). But why peas? For what it’s worth, all I need with a decent steak is fresh, crusty bread and butter, watercress, maybe a few sautéed mushrooms and a big Rhone red. I do however like mushy peas with my fish and chips – providing they’re not, God forbid, minted (see below).


To my mind the best place for mint is in a long, cool summer cocktail, preferably a Mojito, but this hardy weed with a tendency to take over gardens enjoys a curiously exalted status in the English psyche. I’ve never been keen on mint sauce with lamb (much preferring rosemary and garlic) but to some it’s indispensable. Apparently it was even served with beef on those ships which used to take schoolchildren on educational cruises. Then there are minted peas and the ghastly “mint choc chip” ice cream. It’s even in most of our toothpaste, along with the environmentally-harmful microbeads and the pineal gland-calcifying sodium fluoride.

White Pepper

I love freshly-ground black pepper and enjoy it on almost any savoury dish; indeed, in our household the innards of the pepper mill can wear out in a matter of months. But the only pepper I knew in my youth was the finely-ground white variety, and the twin cruets of salt and white pepper are still the norm on many a table. Compared with its black cousin, it does little for me except possibly provoke sneezing. There are limited circumstances where it can be acceptable though – a peppermill might seem a little incongruous in a pie-and-mash shop for instance.

Sliced Bread

“The best thing since sliced bread” has always struck me as a dubious, almost oxymoronic expression. Why would I want my loaf pre-sliced so that it goes uniformly stale throughout its entire length? Yet millions of people either prefer it that way or are incapable of wielding a bread knife. I have sometimes taken issue with supermarket staff who, despite the aisles full of plastic-wrapped, industrial pre-sliced loaves, seem intent on subjecting most of the output of the in-store bakery to the same fate. Why? They can always slice a loaf to order if that’s what the customer wants but once it’s been done they can’t unslice it. It’s not like this in France where you still see people coming home from the local bakery with a baguette under their arm. So why is there so little demand for really fresh bread here?

Maybe it goes back to that unfortunate chapter in our culinary history that I alluded to at the beginning. Perhaps it was a combination of new technology and more pervasive advertising immediately following a period of post-war austerity which allowed us to lose touch with fresh, local, seasonal quality. We’ve come a long way since but there’s still a way to go. [And that doesn’t explain the thing about peas and mint.]






Pot Luck

I think I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to cookware. The high-tech stuff just doesn’t appeal. Some time ago whilst out shopping I thought I might invest in a new frying pan. I found one which was the right size and weight but there was a prominent red spot in the middle of the inside of the pan. Now I gather from the packaging that the spot served some kind of purpose relating to the temperature or whatever, but it just didn’t look right – in fact the idea of frying stuff with that thing staring back at me was downright unnerving. The inside of a pan should be black or grey. I didn’t buy the pan; months later I’m still using my old ones.

Yesterday I decided to cook Squilton pot roast lamb (see page 87 of my book). Basically, I put a small joint of lamb (preferably the knuckle end of the shoulder) in a pot with garlic, herbs and the best part of a bottle of red wine, let it marinate for a few hours and then cook it very slowly in the oven until it’s so tender the meat almost falls off the bone. But the pot matters and my trusty le Creuset, excellent as it is for all manner of culinary jobs, isn’t quite right for this.

Having been to the butcher and having 20 minutes left on my car park ticket, I decided on a whim to visit the local cookware shop. I knew exactly what I wanted: a tall brown earthenware pot, just like the one I used to have years ago until the lid got broken, whereupon it took on a second life as a plant pot and subsequently got lost while moving house. But there was nothing remotely like it in the shop. While they were casseroles a-plenty, they were mostly too sophisticated looking for my taste, the only ceramic one was plain white and they were all short and wide.

Having got the idea in my head, I decided to look online. There were dozens of pots and casseroles on Amazon, but the choice of styles was much the same as in the shop. And then I found it on eBay – a tall brown earthenware pot, just like the one I used to own. It’s second-hand but then so was the previous one (if my memory serves me correctly, I bought it in a car boot sale). At the moment I’m the only bidder. Fingers crossed…

Update (12 August) …

And here it is:


More pot roast lamb tonight!

Flaky is good, OK?

Since my last two blogs have constituted a bit of supermarket bashing, I may as well have a go at another one.

The first of the new season’s Jersey Royals are in the shops.  I love Jersey Royals; other new potatoes just can’t compete with that fresh, nutty taste and those lovely little flaky bits of skin that are so characteristic of the variety.

But if you buy them from Marks and Spencer, they come pre-packed and all the little flaky bits have been scrubbed off.  Why do they do that?  It’s so annoying!

Down on the (non-existent) farm

I’m having a go at supermarkets again; this time it’s Tesco, that well-known purveyor of inflatable jacuzzies (no doubt a snip at £400) amongst other things

I noticed a while ago they were selling vegetables bearing the label “Redmere Farm”.  My suspicions were aroused for a number of reasons.  Firstly it didn’t say where Redmere Farm is.  Secondly, given the enormous quantity of Redmere-branded produce in that one store and assuming it was replicated in other shops, at least regionally if not nationally, it seemed improbable that all the stuff actually came from the same place.  Lastly the prices were definitely towards the budget end of the spectrum, suggesting again that it was unlikely to be sourced from a single grower.

It seems my suspicions were justified.  Tesco has just won the “Total Bull Award” from those good people at Feedback.  It transpires that Redmere Farm is merely one of several fictitious names invented by Tesco.  Actually one of the names, Woodside Farm (used on some probably indifferent sausages), happens to be the name of a real pig farm whose owner is understandably not at all happy with the confusion this has caused to his customers.

The marketing people didn’t get it entirely wrong.  Most of us do tend to have a positive reaction to names which evoke images of natural wholesome food lovingly produced by jolly folk in some idyllic rustic setting.  The thing is – these days we expect it to be genuine.

Whatever Next?

I realise I’ve neglected this blog for a while but an item in the news caught my attention – and aroused my ire – the other day.

It reported that Sainsbury’s has introduced a new range of packet-to-pan chicken portions.  To start with, this strikes me as an horrendously retrograde step when people are campaigning vigorously for supermarkets to do away with unnecessary plastic packaging – and quite rightly too*.

But it appears that the rationale behind the new product is that some people, particularly in the “millennial” age group, cannot bear to touch raw meat.  Hence Sainsbury’s are pandering to them with this new package which allows the skinless, boneless chicken breast to be transferred from the packet into the pan or under the grill without manual contact. (I’m assuming it’s skinless and boneless because I can’t imagine Sainsbury’s would risk further offending the delicate sensibilities of the poor darlings by reminding them that their dinner comes from an animal with real skin and bones.)

My initial reaction – if you will excuse a vulgar social media abbreviation – was WTF?!  If they really can’t stand contact with a piece of raw meat I suggest they should seriously consider becoming vegetarian or even vegan – and I say that as an unreconstructed carnivore, a lifelong advocate for the pleasures of eating good quality, humanely-reared flesh.

The article implied that the aversion to handling raw meat derives from a fear that doing so is unhygienic.  Yes, I know raw chicken and pork can harbour nasty organisms like salmonella but every kitchen has a sink where you can wash your hands afterwards, and it’s not exactly difficult to segregate raw and cooked items.  Is this where decades of overzealous hygiene regulations have led us (as well as weakening our immune systems and making it almost impossible to buy pork chops with the kidneys in)?

In some ways the whole sorry episode sounds like a throwback to the 1960s and 70s.  Those were the days when food technology was actively celebrated (and never mind the loss of flavour); the days when TV adverts featured tinny-voiced aliens falling about laughing at the idea of peeling potatoes or serfs toiling over the manorial spit and dreaming of the day when “all manner of roast meats will come in little boxes”.

I thought things had changed for the better in the ensuing years, that we had eschewed the ethos of valuing convenience over quality and that we were collectively (perhaps with a little guidance from inspired chefs and food writers like Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall) moving back towards a more natural relationship with our food.  But maybe I was wrong.

* Coincidentally I’m writing this on Earth Day (22 April) and the focus this year is on plastic pollution.

A Good Skinful

A few weeks ago I agreed to take part in a sausage making competition. I had never made sausages before but hey, I’m always up for a culinary challenge.

As the deadline loomed nearer I thought I had better get myself organised. It would appear that amateur sausage making is not as uncommon as one might think. You can buy a hand-cranked sausage stuffer for under 20 quid, although I opted for a slightly more up-market model, and there are on-line suppliers who will sell non-industrial quantities of natural hog casings (naturally I eschewed the inferior collagen variety) and pinhead rusk (some of which is necessary for the texture of a traditional British banger although I’m inclined to use it sparingly, preferring a meatier sausage*).

Stuffer and skins having arrived, I approached my friendly butchers for some advice about the best cut of pork to use. Obviously a little tact was called for – I wouldn’t want them to think I was shunning their sausages – but they were most obliging.

So about three pounds of meat went through my trusty mincer and into a bowl to be mixed with the rusk, seasoning (I’m not going to divulge my recipe lest a potential competitor should be reading this) and a little water. Then it was time for the shiny new machine to go into action. There were a few teething problems: sliding the skins onto the nozzle was difficult until I realised I was using the wrong sized nozzle, and the end plate was initially reluctant to be screwed onto the barrel. But soon I was cranking out real sausages. And they looked the part, albeit slightly wonky and flaccid and a little too moist – but they tasted fine.

I’ve just made the second batch. With a slightly refined recipe and a firmer restraining hand on the skins as they fill, this lot came out firmer and plumper. I’ll leave the final verdict until the tasting, but in the meantime I think I’ve earned a pint.

* If I remember rightly, by law a sausage has to contain at least 55% meat. Thankfully, most of them nowadays have rather more than that, including supermarket own brands, many of which are excellent. The exception of course is those ghastly cheap pink things for which, inexplicably, there must still be some demand and which some hoteliers seem to think are an acceptable part of a full English breakfast, even if they serve perfectly decent meaty sausages on their bar menu.