British playwright Somerset Maugham once said that “to eat well in England you should eat breakfast three times a day”.
Was this a witty way of saying that, save for breakfast, the food in England was inedible – or that the English breakfast is so superior that it’s worth eating not once but thrice daily?
The English breakfast is a cholesterol-laden calorie bomb usually consisting of two eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, fried tomato and toast. It’s a symphony of deliciousness on a plate, enough to ward off the worst hangover and fill you up until dinnertime. Indulge in it as often as Maugham suggested and it could take years off your life. But devotees insist you can’t find a better breakfast anywhere.
On a recent trip to London, I wanted to indulge in a few of these fry ups (as the meal is colloquially referred) to decide for myself whether this was the world’s best breakfast – and, by extension, how to interpret Maugham’s dining admonition.
Regency Café, in the Pimlico neighborhood, has been slinging up the full English breakfast since 1946. I recruited local food writer Lizzie Mabbott for the artery-hardening task of helping me decipher the dish.
As we walked in, a guy with a fresh black eye strode out, newspaper under his arm, making me wonder if I, too, was going to have to do battle to eat the entire meal. Mabbott and I got in line and studied the chalkboard behind the counter: the set breakfast consisted of egg, bacon, sausage, beans or tomatoes, bread or toast, coffee or tea. All for £5.50. For a small additional fee you could also order hash browns, black pudding (blood sausage stuffed with small chunks of lard) and bubble and squeak (a sort of potato cake with cabbage).
The café’s interior was simple: Formica tables, plastic chairs and walls plastered with boxing memorabilia. A dainty woman behind the counter barked orders in a booming voice: “Set tomato! Set beans with chips!” We ordered, and I got the set with black pudding and bubble and squeak.
As we waited, Mabbott let me in on her own personal fry-up rules. “Hotly contested is the brown-sauce-versus-tomato-sauce debate. I put brown sauce on the sausage and tomato sauce on anything that’s fried.” That wasn’t all, though. “I don’t like my egg yolk touching my tomato,” she said, adding, “and that’s not an uncommon complaint.”
Mabbott is right: she’s not the only one with fry-up rules.
According to I’m Alan Partridge, the long-running BBC TV show featuring actor Steve Coogan, the eggs and beans should be separate when served. “I may want to mix them, but I want that to by my decision,” Coogan said on an episode in which his Russian girlfriend makes him a traditional English breakfast. “And use the sausage,” he added, “as a breakwater.”
It’s funny because it’s true. Not every lover of the full English has such strict rules, but it’s not uncommon to be sitting across the table from someone, as I was this time, who is very finicky about the details.
Mabbott urged me to study the sausage, which she said indicates the overall quality of the breakfast. “If the sausage is good,” she said, “then everything else on the plate should be good, too.” The sausage at the Regency Café was surprisingly good – juicy and fresh tasting for a no-frills neighborhood restaurant that serves up not-so-health-conscious fare. Overall, the breakfast was better than I expected. The black pudding was a tad dry. The tomato’s acidity helped cut the bacon grease. And the bubble and squeak – a brick of semi-soft potatoes with the occasional piece of cabbage thrown in – was dull but soaked up the runny egg yolk.
According to the The English Breakfast Society, a London-based non-profit group “dedicated to the history, tradition and heritage of the full English breakfast”, the fry up dates back to the early 19th Century, when the landed gentry would partake in a large breakfast before going hunting, or while relaxing and reading. Later that century, as a middle class emerged, more English citizens began to emulate the wealthy – and one way was to partake in the full English. The working class soon got in on it, too, realising that a hearty breakfast was a good way to start a day of energy-sapping labour. By the 1950s, the fry up had become the national breakfast.
Given the breakfast’s blue-blooded origins, I wanted to try an upmarket version. London-based food writer Jenny Linford, author of Food Lovers London, suggested Quo Vadis in Soho, an upscale restaurant that focuses on modern British cuisine.
The quiet interior felt like a stuffy club or hotel lobby. The full breakfast here cost a whopping £12, and except for the absence of baked beans, there was nothing that looked too different from my previous English breakfast. “With a posh version like this,” Linford said, “the main difference is that the quality of the ingredients is going to be better.”
And they were: unlike the dry black pudding at the Regency Café, Quo Vadis’ version was crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. The bacon was tender and juicy. The eggs had a bright orange-yellow hue.
“I suggested this place because it represents several trends in British dining that we can see right on the plate,” Linford said. “High quality food with little fuss in a casual environment and ingredients that are in season and local.” In the past,” she added, “you would have probably had to go to a hotel to get a really high-quality full English. Not anymore.”
On my last day in London, I wandered down to the breakfast area of the Milestone Hotel in South Kensington, where I was staying, and saw the full English on the menu. I was a tad reluctant to order it: this would be my third morning in a row spent eating the artery-hardening dish. Would a hotel version be worth it? I decided to try it.
Thank goodness I did. It came with two kinds of bacon (both back and streaky bacon), baked beans, a flavourful bubble and squeak, gooey black pudding, a sausage that had a taut outer casing and a juicy interior, and perfectly runny eggs. In fact, of the three breakfasts I tried, this was my favourite. It wasn’t cheap at £25, but it tasted as though it was prepared with the highest quality ingredients. It was worth every calorie.
After eating so many English breakfasts, I wondered if I was going to make it back to New York without having cardiac arrest over the Atlantic. But I had more insight into Maugham’s colourful quip. Certainly he’d be pleased with the current state of English food, which, by all accounts, is leaps and bounds better than it was when he left us in 1965. But also, I decided, Maugham had to be speaking in praise of the English breakfast, not against British cuisine. If calories and cholesterol weren’t a concern, the English breakfast really would be worth eating three times per day.