Friday, 27 March 2009

An Old-Fashioned Breakfast

English Breakfast: Bacon, Scrambled Egg, Sausages, Beans Etc.
English Breakfast: Bacon, Scrambled Egg, Sausages, Beans Etc.
Every morning my husband sits down to a full English breakfast...then he has to go back to bed for an hour or two as there is no way he could actually function after eating so much food in the morning! But seriously, has no other meal been more maligned by our over-worked, over-stressed culture than breakfast? This of course is a real shame as most nutritionists agree that breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day. Apparently, its importance is increased the younger we are, and this is born out by an experience I had as a young teacher. I was seconded to the special needs department, through my own choice I hasten to add, and was in charge with three pupils who were effectively excluded, but were so close to leaving school were kept on, although not in the formal classroom, until the end of year 11 exams. These boys had a wide range of behavioural difficulties, although none exhibited the real signs of ADHD or Aspergers. Now, over a game of Junior Scrabble I asked my little rabble what they ate for breakfast and the resounding reply was: "a couple of cans of Red Bull from the garage, Miss." On the way to school they would stock up on the worst kind of junk, consume it rapidly at the school gates and come in hopped up on caffeine and e numbers, wreak havoc in the classroom and fail to learn a bloody thing! Ah, those were the days. I was in fact quite fond of my rabble, all of them over 6 foot, all of them children, all of them ill-fed. Now, before this post turns rapidly into one of my wild rambles I shall resume my initial point and move on. The point being: breakfast is important.
It has been proven that the consumption of breakfast has real health-giving results. We are apparently more able to learn, communicate well and concentrate if we have consumed breakfast. Indeed, those who ate old-fashioned (non-instant) porridge for breakfast did better in intelligence tests that those who ate a sugary cereal, and those who ate a sugary cereal did better than those who ate nothing at all. The conclusion being, I suppose, that something is always better than nothing. Eating breakfast is also meant to be good for controlling one's weight, although the claim that eating breakfast boosts your metabolism may be slightly spurious, it's just that breakfast eaters also tend to have a propensity to have other health-giving habits too, like exercising and eating the old fruit and veg. It is interesting to note that only 5% of smokers eat a regular breakfast, make of that, gentle reader, what you will.
Now, most nutritionists agree that the best kind of breakfast would be low in GI. Those naughty sugary-carbs really don't sustain you and may have you running to the nearest chocolate bar at 11 o'clock. But, a breakfast containing protein, veg/fruit and whole grain will keep hunger locked up 'til lunch (perhaps unlike the famous breakfast cereal!). Also, because the energy a low GI breakfast supplies is long term, it enables us to concentrate, the protein satiating us until we've done a proper morning's work.
We used to do a good breakfast in this country. My own grandfather, a professional sportsman in his youth (rugby and boxing) would always sit down to eggs and bacon of a morning, and although working men and women had more substantial breakfasts than their sedentary counterparts, breakfast was rarely avoided. Here's an extract from Mary Norwak's The Farmhouse Kitchen, that really brings home the extent of the breakfast of those who worked a physical job.
Many farmers have two breakfasts because they start work so early in the morning. A modern farmer may only being his day, at first light, with a cup of tea and some toast and cereal, and then eat his full breakfast meal at nin o' clock. But in the past, those who had to start the day's work at some distance from their homes would begin with porridge and then return later to breakfast...Either way, a farm breakfast usually starts with cereal or porridge. After this comes a cooked dish of two or three "fries", such as bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushroom and fried potatoes; sometimes there may be kidneys, sausages or fish. In warmer weather, cold ham, brawn or boiled bacon is popular. After this comes plenty of new bread, oatcakes or toast, accompanied by honey or home-made marmalade.
I don't know about you but I feel full just reading that. But despite the reliance on fried food, note the use of tomatoes and mushroom and protein and oats and good bread; all health-giving stuff for a person whose job is so physical. However, we still see a similar repast at the other end of the social spectrum, aristocratic country houses serving huge protein-rich breakfasts, particularly during the shooting season. In Good Things in England, Florence White describes such a breakfast, as well as what she calls the "normal workers' breakfast" of bacon, eggs and toast. Interestingly, she also describes a breakfast meant for Britishers in a hot climate, those who lived in India during the period of the Raj.
We have inherited from India the chota-hazri consisting of a large breakfast cup of coffee made with milk and accompanied by two bananas; this is served in our bedrooms at five or six o'clock in the morning before we go for our usual morning ride which is followed by a tub and some luscious mangoes, the proper place for eating which is one's tub!
Whilst it is always nice to peek into the lives of our social betters I am far more interested in Florence White's "normal worker" and what they liked to eat of a morning. And, no book provides greater insight into the eating habits of the "normal" middle class folk of England than Mrs Beetons' Household Management. Now, for those of you not in the know, Sam Beeton sold the rights to the original Household Management not long after poor old Isabella's death, to the then publishing giant Ward Lock. For years afterwards, right up until the 1950s indeed, the book would reappear in a revised version every ten years or so, and was always a popular wedding gift to the aspirational middle-class British newlywed. I have several versions of Beeton (I am poor of purse but rich in books, the two may be connected) but one of my favourites is a 1920s edition. In the back are listed suggested menus for "simple" breakfasts. Please don't think the menus are simply a list of breakfast foods one might eat in the summer, they are meant to be an indication of what to eat in one sitting. Undo your belts.
Rolled Oats
Baked Eggs
Findon (sic) Haddock
Cold Ham
Stewed Plums
Porridge and Cream (again!)
Rolls, Toast, Bread, Butter, Marmalade
Tea, Coffee, Cold milk
Cream of Wheat
Scrambled Eggs
Fried Bacon
Baked Apples
Scones, Toast, Bread, Butter, Jam.
Tea, Coffee, Hot and Cold Milk.
Seriously though, I think there are many reasons why we as a culture have rejected breakfast. First, for years there has been conflicting advice on what we should eat to maintain good health, and the food which constitutes the traditional protein rich breakfast has come under much scrutiny, particularly the humble and much derided egg. Secondly, for many of us breakfast is the first meal we skip to conserve calories, and it is ironic indeed, that not only are breakfast eaters slimmer than breakfast skippers, but it is the act of skipping breakfast which makes us run to the corn-syrup soaked baked goods in the middle of the morning, just the thing which made us fat in the first place Thirdly, I think we are a time-poor culture. Even I, who work on a very part-time basis from home, find mornings a bit of a rush. It must take iron-clad planning and an even greater iron-will to get the family a decent breakfast and then prepare yourself for work and the kids for school. The middle-class folk of the 1920s who owned my Beeton book when it was brand new would have had a maid; father would've worked closer to the office than his modern counterpart, and perhaps would not have started work until nine o'clock; mother would see the children off to school with confidence that they could cope with the walk on their own and so on and so forth. Finally, I believe that meal-times, lack the formality of the past. In a way I think this is a good thing, I prefer informal pot luck suppers to posh dinner parties, but it was the formality of a sit-down breakfast which probably made it a nice experience, otherwise why do we enjoy breakfast so much when we're on our holidays? In all, I think we can safely say that the rejection of breakfast is a symptom of cultural change.
But if breakfast is so good for us, and in particularly so good for our children, then shouldn't we reclaim it? I don't think we could ever go back to the days of having a Beeton-esque extensive breakfast menu, but I do think it is possible to give the first meal of the day the consideration it deserves. Here are my top tips for a good old-fashioned(ish) breakfast.
  • Plan it. Plan it like you would any other meal, but don't be ambitious else you'll get fractious. Start with breakfast baby steps.
  • Get up, get washed, get dressed, get breakfast. I am not a morning person, but I find my day always goes better if I'm dressed before breakfast. I just feel up and at 'em if I've got my clobber on.
  • Try to eat it at the table. This is a big one for us, as we generally eat breakfast watching breakfast news in a comatose, bleary-eyed fashion. But even a simple breakfast at the table makes the meal seem as important as it is.
  • Try to include veg and protein. Cereal, milk and a banana is fine. Toast, egg and tomato is better!
  • Why not try sandwiches and juice. Sandwiches for breakfast are really nice if you toast them.
  • Soak your porridge over-night, this really cuts down the cooking time.
  • I've heard tell that some folk set the breakfast table before they go to bed at night. I do not do this but admire those with such inclination!

If you have any thoughts about breakfast, or any ideas on how to make a lightening fast delicious morning meal, please let me know, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Angela said...

GOOD DAY Breakfast here is usually a cup of tea or coffee, a glass of orange juice, and a bowl of porridge [1 cup oats, 1 cup milk, 1 cup water - makes 2 bowls] I have learned to get into the kitchen, fill and switch on kettle, put oats etc into pan, and then have 3 minutes to clean up floor [incontinent dog!] before husband staggers to breakfast table and we both wake up properly and try to eat in a civilised fashion.
BAD DAY Grab a banana, eat it in the car en route to appointment, and hope there will be a cuppa waiting on arrival!
HOLIDAY - Husband cooks scrambled egg, bacon, toast, mushrooms, and serves it with toast, pot of coffee and much love - maybe even on a tray to the bedroom!!

Breakfast is precious and deserves to be honoured and appreciated!!!!

Zillah said...

I'm a big fan of breakfasts! We're the other way round from you, DD, we eat 'properly' at the table, but we're not dressed for the day yet!

Our standard is porridge - soaked overnight in water with buttermilk and then cooked and eaten with crème fraiche and honey. Yum, keeps me going till lunch, although I do need my cup of coffee at 10:30. Weekends we often have bacon and eggs (for those that can) or kippers. I also like the pancake/waffle type breakfast, but it's less straightforward to do these days as things have to be egg-free.

The funny thing is, I don't find bacon/kippers as sustaining as porridge, even though they're eaten with DH's good sourdough bread.


Islandsparrow said...

When I was growing up we had porridge every single day. We never wanted anything else. In fact, one summer we went camping and my mom left the porridge pot home because she hoped to have a break from washing it. When we were faced with cold cereal for breakfast, my brother and I cried. She went out and bought a porridge pot. :)

Now I have cereal, milk and 1/2 banana - and coffee of course. On Sundays we have the works - bacon, eggs, waffles French toast or pancakes, fruit salad, sometimes fried potatoes - after church. But no fried tomatoes or mushrooms - that is definitely a British invention.

Gumbo Lily said...

Being the ranchers that we are, we do enjoy those country breakfasts you describe quite often...especially in winter. Lately we've been doing "first breakfast" which is a bowl of cereal or a banana or a handful of nuts. Then whenever we get in from our morning chores, we have "second breakfast" which may consist of eggs, sausage or bacon or left-over roast beef, toast, juice, fruit. I always aim to get a protein into my family at breakfast. It keeps the "munchies" away.

Some of the quick breakfasts we do are yogurt parfaits: plain or vanilla yogurt with frozen berries and walnuts or granola on top. We also do yogurt/fruit smoothies in the blender. I've been making granola bars which is a quick breakfast with a glass of milk. To add fortification to regular cold breakfast cereal, I always add dried fruits and nuts.

Always, always, there is fresh, hot coffee in the morning and then again in the afternoon.


Gumbo Lily said...

Meant to say that I like to saute' onions, peppers, mushrooms, left-over potato in a large frying pan and then pour scrambled eggs over top. A country skillet breakfast.


debbie bailey said...

I agree 100% about the importance of breakfast. We always have a sit-down breakfast together no matter how many are in the house at the time. I LOVE English breakfasts. We were served them while staying in a B & B on our last trip to your wonderful island and enjoyed them tremendously. I also really enjoy your blog. I may have to find a Mrs. Beeton book for myself.

Seraphim said...

I love breakfasts! Sausage and scrambled egg wholeweat wraps, bagon and tomato baguettes, porridge with fruit, a full english or piles of crumpets with peanut meal of the day, I think!

Oh, and I am an 'evening table setter'... it just helps my mornings go much more smoothly,as I am a full-time worker outside of my home :)

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Angela
The fact that you can make porridge and clean up after an incontinent dog in the morning, really does prove the existence of the Creator. Without Him, that kind of work couldn't be done before 8 o'clock in the morning. Just one more reason to praise Him!

Hi Zillah
I think I'm the opposite, something protein-y in the morning really fills me up. Although I love porridge, because it reminds me of rice pudding! M&S do their own ready-cooked re-heatable porridge, with double cream. I've never tried it. Have you tried making it over-night in a slow cooker?

Hi Kathie
I really like th eidea of having a big breakfast after church. Do you go to an early service? Ours doesn't finish until near on mid-day, although I could go to 8 o'clock communion if I were of a mind so to do...I love your story of the porridge pot!

Hi Jody
I though about you when I was writing this. There's an extract in the Mary Norwak book which reminds me of you, I'll find it out and post it for you. I love the idea of the parfait, as I'm a yoghurt/granola nut.

HI Debbie
I'm glad you enjoy my blog, and I'm even happier that you enjoyed the full English when you came a-visiting. I think you'd enjoy owning an old Beeton, in the back of the newer ones she lists American, Canadian and Australian recipes, and I always wonder how authentic these recipes are.

Hi Seraphim
My husband was so impressed with the delicious sounding breakfast you cook he was nearly going to move in with you...I told him you have enough work to do. I may try the sausage and scrambled eg wrap. Yummy.

Sara said...

Oh my, what a beautiful tribute to breakfast! Thank you. When I am in England I hope to partake of your traditional English looks delicious. Of course, I could also make it for myself here in the States. I cannot function if I do not eat breakfast. Normally that would be oatmeal (porridge?), or shredded wheat with fruit. Today I had a fried egg on a slice of whole wheat toast. Now and then we splurge with the real deal and then don't eat much for lunch. I couldn't do it every day...way too much food for me. But fried mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes (I must try a fried tomato!), sausages....oh that sounds heavenly!

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah
Fried tomaotes are very yummy. My mum used to fry them in the bacon fat. You're right about a big breakfast, we tend to skip lunch and have an early tea if we eat a large weekend breakfast...but we're quite a sedentary bunch!

. said...

Old fashioned and wonderful.


Nan said...

I haven't been over for a while, but am spending my Sunday afternoon visiting. I loved this post. Every single word. Funny, just this morning I read a quote from one of Mortimer's Rumpole books:
"the English nation when it is long gone will be remembered for three things -- the English breakfast, the Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch Edition), and the presumption of innocence"

I sort of eat my breakfast in stages, since I'm home alone and can! coffee with honey, homemade yogurt with berries, homemade bread toast with strawberry jam, fresh orange juice in season. This rarely varies. Some might call it boring but not me. :<) Once in a while I'll add hot cereal of rolled oats or steel cut oats, barely cooked with honey.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Breakfast for me depends on the day of the week, the season and what the chickens have laid.

It's usually one freshly laid hard-boiled egg, and a slice of bread with either homemade jam, or marmite and thin slices of cheese. If there's a tomato glut, breakfast will be grilled tomatoes with basil and olive oil on a slice of toast.

In the dead of winter when the storms are raging, you'll find me scoffing porridge with jam or golden syrup.

At the weekends, it's scrambled eggs and bacon to set us up for a hard day in the garden.

Everything is of course washed down with several cups of well-brewed tea. There may even be the odd bit of fresh fruit in the there too, like this morning when I scoffed three pineapple rings.

Good grief I'm hungry now!