The View from Hugh
Columnist Hugh Dixon reflects on the humble breakfast, and comes up with some of his favourite ways to start the day
Many, many years ago, when we were footloose and fancy free and didn’t have the commitments that married life eventually brings with it, Mrs. D and your humble scribe found ourselves, one fine spring morning, in a café in a small town in France. How we got there we couldn’t exactly remember — the previous two days had been something of a blur, involving copious quantities of calvados and cream. But there we were, and we had to get home. Something to do with needing to be at work the next day, if memory serves.
There was only one train that morning from the tiny railway station at Avranches that was going anywhere remotely near the port of Cherbourg, and if we missed that train we’d miss our ferry back to England, and with it our chances of career enhancement and indeed of future employment.
So at that moment there was only one thing on our mind: breakfast. Now, whatever your opinions about France and its legendary haute cuisine, it has to be remarked that they have never really got their heads around the concept of breakfast as a meal.
The croissant, that staple of the patissier’s art, is more air than pastry, and doesn’t really contain the sustenance you need to see you through a rattling train journey and a rolling boat trip. And while French coffee most certainly wakes you up, it also has the effect of giving you the jitters for the rest of the morning.
Or so we reasoned as we wondered how we were going to make it back to Blighty.
And then we saw him: a dapper French businessman in a stylish suit, perched on a bar stool with his elbow on the zinc counter. He had a demitasse of said strong coffee beside him, and in his hand was all he needed to get him through the morning and to counteract the effects of the caffeine: a large glass of brandy.
We two innocents stared in wonderment as he downed the brandy, knocked back the coffee, and, having overheard our concerns about our imminent departure and commiserated about the lack of taxis in that very small town at that very early hour of the morning, generously offered us — and our luggage — a lift to the station.
We caught the train, we made it to the ferry, and the rest is history - thanks to that classic French breakfast.
All of which leads us to a general reflection on the subject of the first meal of the day. Whether you call it small lunch, or early meal, or the end of fasting, it comes to the same thing: we all need something to give us a boost as we struggle from our beds and face up to the challenges that lie before us every day.
Wherever you go, you’ll hear the same thing: a good breakfast makes a good start to the day. But different nations have very different concepts of what it takes to get you started.
First, let us agree that the French petit déjeuner — strong coffee, stronger brandy and pastry-flavoured oxygen — does not really qualify as breakfast. It’s more an admission that you had a jolly good dinner the night before, and need a bit more of the same.
So let’s go a little further afield. A couple of years after our French adventure we found ourselves in Prague (as you do), on the receiving end of what can only be described as a Mitteleuropean classic.
Seven different types of bread, from chewy black through caraway brown to crusty white. In slices, rolls or plaits, seeded or unseeded, the choice was ours. As were many varieties of cheese: spreadable or smoked, dry or sticky, creamy, orange or blue. Innumerable hams, salamis, sausages and meat pastes.
All washed down with a shot of Becherovka, a herbal bitters of some alcoholic strength that purportedly helps you to digest everything that has gone before. Brewed and distilled to a secret recipe known only to two people, it has a potent gingery kick that gives you just the oomph you need before you embark on a morning pounding up and down Wenceslas Square and working up an appetite for the Pilsner-and-dumpling lunch that inevitably awaits you.
This was a breakfast to write home about.
And the further afield you go, the stranger breakfast can get. In the United States, for example, they don’t seem to have a problem combining savoury bacon with sweet pancakes and maple syrup.
In Scandinavia, meanwhile, you could well find yourself squaring up to a plate of smoked fish, pickled cucumber and mayonnaise — followed by a shot of Akvavit to take the taste away.
In Scotland, too, they’re sometimes known to indulge in smoked fish to start the day, in the shape of the kipper. Now the kipper, for those who have never experienced it, starts life as a humble herring. Wrested from its native ocean, it is split butterfly fashion and subjected to the full force of a north-eastern smokehouse until its dainty flesh turns dry and golden, exuding the type of down- home odour you might experience if you visited a Havana cigar factory with a tin of gourmet cat food in your coat pocket.
It’s the sort of breakfast delicacy you only order once a year — and then rather wish you hadn’t.
Wait, you say. What of the healthy option? Cheese, alcohol, sugar and wood smoke may give me a kick start, but aren’t they generally considered rather bad for me?
Very true, dear reader, very true. The breakfasts we have presented so far are significantly lacking in the health department. So let us consider the other side of the breakfast coin.
In the beginning were the Swiss. And the Swiss saw corn flakes, and they thought they were quite good, but reckoned they could do better.
So the Swiss begat muesli, an aggressively healthy mixture of nuts, raisins, grated apple, honey and oatmeal.
And muesli begat dried apricot with wheat germ, which begat linseed bagels with low-fat yoghurt, which begat coconut porridge with alfalfa sprouts, which begat rhubarb and prune cordial, which begat…
Oh who cares what it begat? All this natural fodder may be frightfully good for you, and no doubt keeps your heart, lungs and liver and spleen in full working order. But it doesn’t really qualify for the title of a proper breakfast.
No — and forgive your humble scribe a touch of national pride here — there is only one breakfast truly worthy of the name: the Full English.
Imagine bacon, fried in pork fat. Imagine eggs, cracked open and sizzled in the same. Imagine halved tomatoes and open cup mushrooms, ditto. Imagine white bread fried to a crispy golden brown in — yes, you guessed it — pork fat. Imagine baked beans, and pork sausages, and a steaming cup of sweet milky tea.
And there you have it: the breakfast of champions. Saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated: the Full English offers four of your five a day. A generous portion of salt makes up the fifth and keeps your bloodstream up to the challenges of modern day living.
It’s sustaining, it’s savoury and it starts you off the way you intend to go on: you just can’t beat it.
Enjoy the rest of your flight, and remember, as US journalist
John Gunther once put it: “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”