“To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.” W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)
Travelling anywhere in the UK, it becomes pretty clear that the “Full English Breakfast” is an important part of the culture. In fact, they take it so seriously that there is an English Breakfast Society which provides the English Breakfast Handbook.
Nicknamed “the fry up,” the Scottish take on this English tradition fulled us for long days of hiking along the West Highland Way and proved medicinal the morning after long nights of drinking at local pubs. To meet the standard, the plate must contain sausage, eggs, black pudding (though this is more common in the North of England and Scotland), baked beans, fried tomatoes, and mushrooms. There’s always toast, which in our experience is often served cold with jams and marmalades. Some versions include hash brown potatoes as part of this hearty meal, though many believe that this is a nod to North American tastes, and doing so is an insult to British culture. Either way, the fry up is, quite simply, a veritable protein and caloric orgy!
There are, of course, some regional variations. In Scotland you might find a slice of haggis on your plate, in Ireland a potato cake might make an appearance, and Wales there might be seafood included. In keeping with tradition, some will feature locally produced sausages and things like black pudding and bacon can be prepared with local recipes. It’s also an opportunity to enjoy locally produced marmalade, ham, and honey.
A History "Fry Up"
We take these plentiful breakfasts for granted. Today, they’re common in diners and pubs all over the world. But the history of this traditional breakfast can be traced back to the gentry of the 1300s.
The gentry were a distinct, privileged social class that often held titles and could trace their lineage; they considered themselves the heirs of the Anglo-Saxons. Over time they assumed the role of custodians of British culture, including the traditions of social hospitality. As such, their leisurely lifestyles on large country estates were approached quite seriously. Naturally, these country houses became important for social networking, and breakfast feasts evolved into critical social events. They had chefs trained in Anglo Saxon traditions prepare morning feasts featuring the meats and produce from their lands and had beautiful table settings with lovely silverware and glassware. Whether a neighbour decided to pop in, hosting overnight guests, or preparing a gathering for the hunt, a breakfast served an opportunity to display wealth and reinforce their social status.
The Industrial Revolution moved wealth from the old-blood of the gentry into the hands of a new class: businessmen, industrialists and merchants. They wanted to not only meet the standards of the gentry, but exceed them. The first print mention of this morning feast occurs only in 1861, on the pages of Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management. Her recommendations for a proper English breakfast including items such as cod roe, stuffed fish and offal.
The Victorians refined these ideas; breakfast became an opportunity to validate their social status. The morning feast became elegant buffets serving sumptuous selections that even included lamb chops. They were always seeking finer British ingredients and better preparation with which to impress their guests. The spread might include things like pheasant, pig cheeks, collared tongue, fish, and stewed figs.
This indulgence was strictly for the well-to-do as most of the elements that make up this feast - even the more basic version recommended by Mrs. Beaton - were well beyond the budget of the ordinary person. The rest of the population settled for buttered bread with jam, though some might opt for dipping their bread in ale. If things were going well, there might be a piece of cheese on offer. If a more impoverished family were fortunate they’d be able to enjoy bacon and eggs as a weekend treat, but that was beyond the financial means of most working-class families.
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?” “What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. ‘Winnie the Pooh’, by A.A. Milne
State Breakfast given by Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) on board HMS Serapis for the King and Queen of Greece, 1875
It was the Edwardians that set the standard for the Full English Breakfast as we know it today. The time before the First World War was filled with leisurely garden parties and Panglossian attitudes. It seemed the British Empire and its way of life was immutable. A new middle- and upper-middle-class began to form, and with it came the popularity of hotels and train excursions. The hospitality industry began to standardize the English breakfast, so this new income class could indulge in the British tradition as well, whether as part of a daily habit or a weekend indulgence. However, most working people still couldn’t participate due to the cost of things like meat and beans.
The Working Class
Changes brought on by the Second World War helped make the English breakfast accessible to the working class at long last. For example, before the war, things like canned beans had been too expensive to import. The long, drawn-out conflict had developed an infrastructure for canned foods to supply soldiers. By the 1950s, more ingredients had become affordable. This helped the traditional breakfast become a family tradition and encouraged the rise of the ‘greasy-spoon’, helping to fuel the hard-working labour force facing unreasonable demands in the ports, factories, and commercial businesses.
Modern kitchens are returning to the roots of the English breakfast’s indulgent nature. It’s possible to find establishments adding things like Melton Mowbray pork pie and bone marrow to the plate. And there’s no rule saying you have to have it in the morning; a good many places serve it all day:
“…. it is such a substantial a meal that it can be enjoyed at any time of the day. If you are anything like the members of this society, you sometimes eat your English breakfast around lunchtime and sometimes for dinner.
Even though the traditional English breakfast is served at family and social gatherings, it is culturally acceptable to ignore the other occupants of your table whilst you eat your English breakfast and read your newspaper, please do not be offended if the person you are eating your English breakfast with ignores you, other than to comment on what he or she is reading, this is part of the tradition.
It was traditionally during the eating of the English breakfast that the British would acquaint themselves with the current affairs of the day, an important part of the tradition.”
So this might be the one meal where pulling out your iPhone and ignoring everyone might be acceptable - as long as you’re reading the news.