Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Full Monty

Saturdays and Sundays at home are always the best, not only for the sleeping in and watching cartoons aspect, but mostly for the breakfast.  I really love a good American breakfast with the plate of pancakes, stacked ten high and drowning it in butter and syrup.  And, on the special morning when my dad takes over the meal, I get spoiled with the best ever sausage and gravy biscuits, sometimes with the wee bit of fried scrapple on the side.  But for some odd reason, since I’ve lived in London, I haven’t made myself a big weekend breakfast and always settle for simple porridge or jammy toast.  So, a few days ago, I got one of those little thoughts in my head, the kind that never really want to leave you alone and like to pick and pull at your brain until you listen.  And this thought was breakfast.  So finally submitting, I treated myself to one of the best things England has to offer, their version of the morning meal.

The English breakfast is a sight to behold, a monstrosity of about 10 varieties of food all gathered together on one plate.  It’s basically a protein feast with some added carbs for good measure and it is by no means suitable for vegetarians.  I’ve actually even seen signs in front of restaurants, advertising their vegetarian English breakfast and I just laugh because it’s just not the same without the meat. It’s a no frills and no fluff sort of breakfast that shies away from the sweet, delicate pastry stuff that the French prefer.  But the purpose behind the English breakfast is actually really practical.  Essentially, it was made for the men who worked all day, generally out in the fields and farms.  They needed to start their day with as much energy creating food as possible since they wouldn’t eat again until dinner.  And the English breakfast is most definitely the one for the job.  So, here it is.

Many varieties exist and no two English breakfasts are exactly the same but in my trip to The Botanist restaurant for this feast, I received the basic components.  It had two pieces of toast, two fried eggs, one large Cumberland sausage, two strips of streaky back bacon, a pot of baked beans, two grilled mushroom caps, two roasted tomato halves, two fried potato fritters, and two little slivers of blood pudding.  Add in my glass of refreshing pineapple, orange, and ginger juice, and you can call this a meal.  Not to mention it was really delicious. 

The eggs were cooked perfectly and tasted so fresh.  That is actually one major difference I have noticed about food in London.  The eggs taste so much better.  The shells are really thick and crack cleanly in two, the yolks are bright orange, and the whites stay in a tight circle while cooking, all signs of a well-fed and cared for chicken.  All the eggs in the grocery stores and restaurants are also local, free-range, organic, and so fresh.  The bacon and sausage were also delicious even though the English versions are different than the American.  The sausage was milder and lacked the fennel/anise flavour I’m used to and the bacon, although fully cooked and very flavorful, was a little less crispy and more ham-like.  But, the little hash browns provided the nice bit of crunch I was looking for.

And now we get to the more odd aspects of the English breakfasts.  I find the inclusion of baked beans a little off-putting, but understand their importance to the English breakfast as a great source of protein.  But, I just can’t help myself from associating them with fried chicken and cornbread rather than breakfast food.  They’re probably the only English breakfast item I’m not terrible fond of though.  But the tomatoes, warm and juicy, and the tender mushrooms were a nice addition to the savoriness.  And then the blood pudding.  I knew I had to try it at some point so I finally just put aside my expectations and did it.  I took a bite of the little black disks on my plate and was actually very pleased.  The texture, unlike traditional sausages, was much softer and creamier due to the inclusion of oats and reminded me a lot of the haggis, only milder.  And, just to let you know, it doesn’t taste like blood or anything, just lovely pork with a nutty twist. 

I was so pleased with my breakfast as I sat my chair afterwards, stuffed to absolute oblivion and sipping on my smoothie to counterbalance the salty breakfast.  Sadly, it’s not so much of a prevalent feature in London’s everyday diet anymore.  With health consciousness taking over, people opt for the more, fiber-rich, calcium, and whole grain options rather than the fatty and meaty.  I can also imagine the mess that preparing such a dish would create in the kitchen.  So it was nice to enjoy this traditional meal in a restaurant and experience it in its totality, without the labor something like this would require.  So it’s back to porridge and toast, but as I eat it, I now have the fond memories, rather that nagging imaginings, of the great British Breakfast I finally experienced.

Finally, as a side note, this is not the only way that the British breakfast differs from the American.  There are actually loads more English morning specialties all just as unique.  One common Monday morning breakfast is bubble and squeak, a shallow fried conglomeration of the Sunday roast’s vegetable leftovers, cabbage, and potatoes too use up a bit of the old stuff in the fridge.  The English also love to include fish in Breakfast.  Some examples include smoked salmon with cream cheese and capers on English muffins, or kippers (smoked then fried herrings) on toast.  Finally, inspired by Indian cuisine, one other breakfast specialty is kedgeree, a savory rice dish with fish (usually cod or salmon), spices, herbs, and boiled eggs.  This website is great for a bit more about the English Breakfast, and if you're ever in wonderful London, take a look at The London Review of Breakfasts which, as it’s name implies, is a blog about the best places for the meal.

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