|What I'm reading: a definitive treatise on the English Breakfast.|
The English Breakfast today is a popular choice for discriminating lovers of all things British. In London and other English destinations there are B&Bs, country inns, urban hotels, pretentious and unpretentious dining establishments, Harry Potter theme park restaurants (representing the Hogwarts dining room), and probably a few surviving country houses that still offer a menu that fits the description of this classic meal. You can even get an English Breakfast at some places in New York; cruise ship menus often have English Breakfast options, as do trains and car ferry restaurants -- providing they aren't stopped by pandemic closures
If you order an English Breakfast, the expectation is that you will find a set choice of foods. The usual offerings would be tea or coffee, toast drowned in butter, two kinds of bacon, variously cooked eggs, a grilled tomato, a few mushrooms, several types of English-style sausage such as chipolatas; a dish of kedgeree; fish such as bloaters, smoked salmon, haddock, or kippers; black or white pudding, Heinz baked beans, marmalade, and possibly something or other in a white sauce.
If you find a croissant, a blueberry muffin, or a Danish pastry in an "English Breakfast" your host has probably overstepped the traditional definition of this very English meal. An egg-white omelet would also be suspect. The English Breakfast flavors are traditionally mostly savory not sweet, and the choices are mostly fattening, not abstemious.
The English Breakfast as many people imagine it now may take inspiration from literary versions of the meal. A century ago, detective fiction by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, A.A.Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others often set their imagined murders in a country house. The resident servants got up early to produce a lavish buffet with every item on this list and maybe more, to be consumed by hosts, guests, and possibly murderers and detectives. Versions of the English Breakfast still show up in current detective fiction by authors like Tana French, sometimes called a fry-up or a Full English. Such a breakfast in more recent detective fiction is rarely presented by a staff of servants in a serious country house, but still -- it survives in fiction as it does in real life.
While twentieth and twenty-first century versions are more familiar, the origin of the English Breakfast was actually during the Victorian era, when gentry living in country houses were a model of English propriety — and culinary correctness. The increasing wealth of the non-gentry created a new class: one that aspired to act genteel, but that had not been born into gentility nor inherited an estate. A real gentleman's estate would ideally stretch as far as the eye could see from the manor house. From these lands would come all the food served in the dining rooms and breakfast rooms of the stately home at the center of the property. The dishes that showed up on the table were the products of "one's own soil, rivers, forests and moorlands. The upper class fondness for venison, game and salmon springs from the fact that these are all specific products of country estates, once largely available only to those who possessed them." (p. 23)
For aspiring non-aristocrats, the Victorian era produced a large literature on how to act genteel even if you weren't born to it. Some of the challenges included training your domestic staff to cook and serve as they should, and setting tables worthy of the class to which you wanted to belong. O'Connor's book includes facsimile versions of three Victorian manuals on the ideal high-class breakfast -- that is, instructions on how to emulate the gentry in their country houses no matter how humble were your actual circumstances. To serve a proper breakfast required proper recipes for the foods, but also demanded the use of damask tablecloths, china place settings and serving dishes, silver tableware, utensils like a purpose-made scissors for cutting the top off a boiled egg, various types of toast racks, or coffee and tea sets with ewers, creamers, and so on. You needed a special diagram to know how to arrange all this on the table. Not to mention a big table. It wasn't easy!
|From O’Connor’s book: an illustration of how to set a breakfast buffet for twelve.|
In a future post I'll describe more of the fascinating story of the English Breakfast as told in O'Connor's wonderfully detailed book.
Review © 2021 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.