“To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.”
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)
The full English breakfast is a centuries old British breakfast tradition dating back to the early 1300's, to this day the English breakfast is hugely popular and you can usually find an English breakfast wherever you find British people, we like to take the tradition with us wherever we go.
The English breakfast began with the gentry and evolved with the Victorians, who refined the tradition and standardised the ingredients to create a truly a national dish, one that is hugely popular to this day and regularly enjoyed by millions of English breakfast lovers from all over the world.
The idea of the English breakfast as a national dish, stretches back to the thirteenth century and an English institution called the gentry, who considered themselves to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.
The story of the English breakfast begins in the country houses of the English gentry, with their notion of what constituted a proper Anglo Saxon breakfast and their tradition of social hospitality.
The gentry were considered to be a distinct social class, made up of the 'high born and people of noble and distinguished blood', landowners and 'genteel' families of long descent, its members were the senior members of the clergy and the relatives of titled families with no title of their own.
The gentry saw it as their duty to keep alive the traditional practices, values, cuisine of the traditional English country lifestyle. The great country houses of England, owned by members of the gentry and the centre of huge country estates, were important hubs of local society, where breakfast was considered to be the most important meal of the day and a very important social event.
The gentry were famous for their breakfast feasts and in the old Anglo-Saxon tradition of hospitality, used to provide hearty full breakfasts for their visiting friends, relatives and neighbors. They enjoyed a full breakfast before they went out to hunt, before a long journey, the morning after their parties, greeting new arrivals to the estate and when reading the mail and periodicals of the day.
The breakfast table was also an opportunity for the gentry to display the 'wealth' of their estates in the quality of the meats, vegetables and ingredients produced on the surrounding lands, as well as a chance to show off the skills of the cooks who usually prepared a vast selection of typical Anglo Saxon breakfast dishes every morning, for the residents and guests of the house.
Breakfast served in these country houses was a uniquely English affair, the ingredients prepared using Anglo Saxon recipes and methods, the breakfasts made up of traditional Anglo Saxon dishes and it was here, on the breakfast tables of the gentry, that the idea of the traditional English breakfast began.
By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, the gentry as a social class were in decline and a new wealthy upper and middle class made up of merchants, industrialists and businessmen was emerging.
The Industrial Revolution and the British Empire at its height were fantastic creators of wealth and the newly rich saw the idea of the gentry as the social model to aspire towards. Those seeking to advance themselves socially studied the habits of the gentry, the traditions of their country houses and eagerly adopted their notion of the English breakfast as an important social event.
For aspiring and wealthy Victorians, breakfast became an opportunity to demonstrate your wealth, good taste and social upbringing. It is the Victorians who took the tradition of the Anglo Saxon gentry breakfast and raised it up into an art form, standardising its ingredients and creating the recognisably English breakfast that is known and loved by hundreds of millions of fans all around the world.
Like many great Victorian traditions, the serving of the traditional English breakfast and its presentation was a refined and elegant affair, it is easy to understand why the more affluent Victorians thought of the traditional English breakfast as the most civilised way to start their day. This sentiment filtered down to the working classes who refer colloquially to the meal as a 'fry up' and who champion the tradition of the English breakfast to this day in 'greasy spoon' cafes everywhere.
The English breakfast was not just a meal for the wealthy at this point, during the industrial revolution the working classes began to eat a full English breakfast on a regular basis and saw it as a staple. It was sensible to eat a hearty breakfast before starting the day, one that provided them with the energy and full stomach that they needed to work a full days worth of grinding manual labour.
The English breakfast tradition spread until its peak in the early 1950's, when roughly half of the British population began their day by eating a traditional English breakfast, collectively turning what was once a meal for the wealthy and upper classes into a truly national breakfast dish.
For more than two centuries, the tradition of the full English breakfast has been enjoyed across the full spectrum of British society and it for this reason that the traditional full English breakfast is still being served to this day in family kitchens, hotels, bed & breakfast's and pubs throughout Great Britain.
It is sometimes said that the English breakfast is a symbol of English cultural domination. The English (and foreigners when they are being unkind) tend to think their food is suitable for the English alone, but actually the English have successfully imposed their food on other cultures for centuries.
Nothing marks English cultural hegemony more clearly than the English breakfast and in Scotland, Wales, and even Ireland, you can find English breakfast with a local name, usually an Irish breakfast or Welsh breakfast. But in truth, pork sausage, blood sausage, bacon and eggs is a uniquely Anglo Saxon invention and breakfast tradition, one subsequently adopted throughout Great Britain.
Known colloquially as a fry up, the full English breakfast and its ingredients have become fairly standardised, you usually find the same breakfast with the same ingredients everywhere, but there is currently a revival of the more traditional English breakfast ingredients underway in the higher end breakfast establishments, where the English breakfast is once again being elevated into an art form.
These ingredients may vary depending on where in the Great Britain you happen to be and are a subject that is still open to (sometimes quite fierce) debate, I acknowledge this so please stop writing to me and telling me they are wrong, these are the right ingredients in my personal opinion.
The Southern English generally would argue that black pudding is something that the English breakfast inherited from the Scottish, but in the North of the country, black pudding is widely consumed and viewed as an essential part of the traditional full breakfast.
Hash browns however are a controversial ingredient that many believe do not belong in a traditional English breakfast. For the record, we here at the Society agree, hash browns are for Americans and along with french fries are being used as a cheap breakfast plate filler by poorly run cafes.
Then there exist the regional variants like the Scottish/Irish full breakfast, usually exactly the same dish, but with slight changes in the ingredients depending on the region and preference of the locals.
The full Irish breakfast usually contains Irish bacon and sausage, but also traditional regional ingredients such as white pudding, Irish soda bread and Irish potato cake, whereas the full Scottish breakfast usually contains local ingredients as black pudding or a slice of haggis.
The meat ingredients were traditionally sourced from local farmers and if you were to travel all over the country and eat a full English everyday, you had a breakfast which tasted completely differently each and every time, giving you the opportunity to explore the rich diversity of the British sausage, back bacon and black pudding from across the land.
Each region of Great Britain had a full breakfast that contained pork which had usually been raised in that region, and some regions are famed for their bacon and sausage, famous British sausage producing regions of note are Lincolnshire & Cumberland, but many other parts of the country have also produced their own sausages and bacon for centuries.
As I mentioned earlier, I stuck to the 'standard' ingredients in my description of the English breakfast, but traditionally the English breakfast contained much more than those commonly found ingredients, although it is hard to find them being served and can be even harder to cook them yourself.
If you wanted to be more decadent and treat yourself, you can add bone marrow, pork crackling, a huge pork chop and and home made baked beans to make a really traditional English breakfast feast.
For the connoisseur of the traditional English breakfast, the regional differences in the pork ingredients add variety into the tradition, but if you wanted to add even more variety, traditional Anglo Saxon dishes like baked halibut steaks, fried whiting, stewed figs, pheasant legs, collared tongue, kidneys on toast, sausages with fried bread, pig’s cheek and Melton pork pie are perfect.
Do not be fooled by mention of the word 'breakfast' in all of this, its presence does not necessarily mean that the traditional full English breakfast has to be strictly eaten at breakfast time, 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, unless they are on a mobile phone.
It is traditionally during the eating of the English breakfast that the British would acquaint themselves with the current affairs of the day and contents of their periodicals, this is an important part of the tradition and a selection of the most popular periodicals of the day should be available.
To British expatriates living overseas, the traditional full English breakfast will always taste like a little piece of England and in some parts they will kidnap you for a packet of Lincolnshire sausages, black pudding and five slices of back bacon.
British pubs in foreign countries everywhere have long offered a taste of home and a full breakfast to their customers, providing an environment that nostalgically and culturally resonates with the more expatriate amongst us.
The traditional English breakfast is truly a national dish, it is not for nothing that we call it a British institution and usually the very best English breakfasts are served by our mothers and made with love.
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Author : Guise Bule