The English being a self-deprecating lot (I’m not quite one of them, but close), they have allowed a negative image to be popularized about their culinary skills. It’s all fish and chips and fried breakfasts, people say.
And yes, fish and chips remains a classic and is eagerly tried by just about all visitors. Nobody said it was fine cuisine, but it’s certainly a match for fried chicken, pizza and the other greasy options.
In the last 20 years, though, a cult has grown about a dish that is undefinable: the Full English Breakfast. What exactly constitutes this is debatable, to say the least, and the establishments that offer it just make sure it contains at least six elements and is filling.
So what are the possible elements and how ‘traditional’ are they? Let’s grade them on a scale of 1 to 5 as part of the bigger dish rather than on their own.
Bacon. It all starts with that fatty, salty and disproportionately tasty meat that somehow makes pork into a super-flavour. Traditionality: 5. Absolutely essential to the Full English, as well as being irresistible in a sandwich with ketchup or teamed with just about any of the other contenders.
Eggs. Fried eggs, that is. Traditionality: 5. Outside the Full English they can be boiled, scrambled or poached, but as part of the dream team they are fried. Really they should be done on one side only. It was the Americans who came up with the terms Sunny Side Up and Over Easy. A fried egg is a fried egg, cooked on one side unless it refuses to firm up, in which case you can quickly flip it over to seal it.
Sausages. Fried or grilled. The kind of sausages you will find in a greasy spoon (British working-class café) contains no decent meat and no real flavor. Take a condom shape of plastic and fill it with stodge plus a few herbs, maybe some cartilage and a lot of salt. This kind of sausage is meant to be dipped in the tasty parts of the breakfast. It’s the kind of thing that gives British food a bad name. Traditionality: 5.
Tomatoes. Should be fresh tomatoes, sliced and fried, but you will often be served the tinned ones, which taste completely different and are watery. Too healthy to be really English, they have been eaten in this country since the 16th century but were considered rather posh until comparatively recently. Traditionality: 3.
Baked beans. We’ve been eating beans on toast for generations, but usually for lunch or dinner. They were introduced to the Full English for their ability to spread and make the plate look full. Traditionality: 2.
Fried bread. Again, this has been eaten for many years, purely because it was a way for penniless mothers to get some food down their family and send them out into the world with some energy. Times have changed, though, and if you’re going to eat this sort of stuff you might as well just pour the fat from the frying pan into a cup and use it to swill down a mouthful of sliced white bread. Traditionality: 2.
Black pudding. Blood. Gore. Gristle. Used to be a northern dish which southerners tried once and then told horror stories about. Traditionality: 1.
Mushrooms. Sure, they can work as part of this combination, but they’re really gatecrashers, slipping in through the back door with their collar up and a flat cap pulled down over their eyes. Traditionality: 1.
Hash browns. An American invention. Nobody in England even knew what they were until 1990. Tasty, certainly, but they have no right to be included in a Full English. Possibly used because they can be bought frozen and just heated, making them more convenient than fried potatoes. Traditionality: 0. Come back in 50 years and we’ll see.
And so to The Full English itself. It is a 21st century invention, a showbiz fabrication. It contains plenty of traditional foods but they were never served all together like this until some commercial cook decided to claim to give us more than everyone else did. Traditionality: 0.
It’s an England football team featuring Stanley Matthews, David Beckham and Gary Lineker, managed by Sir Alf Ramsey. Nice thought, but it never happened.
It’s The Beatles with Robbie Williams and Whitney Houston.
It’s Julius Caesar teaming up with Henry VIII, Benito Mussolini and Prince Charles.
It’s delicious – or can be – but it’s fake. And to have any authenticity at all it needs to be swimming in fat and therefore a health hazard, anyway.
That’s called a fry-up, and you can put anything you like in one of them.