Tuesday, 18 November 2014

What is a Full English Breakfast?

Garfunkels, Terminal 4, London Heathrow Airport, October 2010

I was having lunch with an old friend the other day and we were discussing cooked breakfasts.  Her view was that baked beans were not part of a proper English breakfast and should never be eaten before 6.00pm.  This is an assertion I have heard before, and although I feel that this is a ridiculous notion, it does raise the important question of what does, indeed, constitute a Full English breakfast; one of Britain's great contributions to international gastronomy.  This does not mean, of course, that I don't have my own preferences but I am not tied to externally imposed "rules".

Langham Hotel, London, February 2011

Eschewing the effete bread-based efforts of our continental cousins the cooked English breakfast really came to the fore in the nineteenth century and certainly helped fuel the industrial revolution and assist Britain's rise to the greatest Imperial power the world has ever seen.  Try and run the world by starting the day on a few flaky croissants or some slices of cheese and ham and see how far you get!  

The proper constituents of a Full English breakfast are as controversial as what goes into a Bolognese sauce, Poulet Marengo or a Salad Niçoise.  So let's have a look at the candidates.  I will illustrate them with pictures from my own breakfast experiences!


Hotel Inter-Continental, Lusaka, December 2010

These can be fried, scrambled or poached.  The Legatus much prefers fried eggs but will cope with scrambled, although it is very difficult to get good scrambled eggs in a restaurant, unless prepared to order and impossible in a hotel buffet where they usually take on the same consistency as that marbled foam rubber used in cheap furniture.

Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco, October 2009

Poached eggs used to be more popular when I was young (my mother used to attempt them; usually with disastrous results) but now they are the breakfast equivalent of wearing a bow tie every day; slightly pretentiously eccentric.  You do sometimes get them in places that serve Eggs Benedict as part of a cooked breakfast.  I've never been convinced by Eggs Benedict: Hollandaise sauce is too rich for breakfast and the muffin is too thick a platform for the egg.  I did have a good one on the Orient Express twenty years ago but that was an exception.

A  goose egg under way at home June 2013

I prefer two fried eggs but have been known to take one large egg (such as a goose or turkey egg) once in a while.  Currently, I prefer duck eggs to hen's eggs.  If I am having scrambled eggs I prefer three or even four, if they are small.  I tend to eat scrambled egg as a separate meal without all the constituents of a Full English, except, perhaps, some chopped ham. 

Omni Hotel, San Franciso, October 2009

Of course, I did not eat eggs for many years as the government and scientists had decided they were bad for you; something they have now done a complete 180 degree turn on.  I have also had a three fried egg presentation once but that was small eggs cooked as one, giving a thicker white.


Bongusto Restaurant, Victoria, London, March 2009

People in most countries can produce a good fried egg but when it comes to bacon Britain really does reign supreme.  What passes for bacon in most countries are dark brown, greasy strips of fat cooked until they are brittle; like baked shoe leather and about as tasty.  Proper bacon for a Full English should be back bacon.  Each rasher is made up of one part (the larger part) of pork loin and one part of pork belly. The American brittle bacon is exclusively the fattier pork belly variety.  In fact, quite often I jettison the pork belly piece and just have the pork loin medallions. Properly cooked bacon should be soft not brittle.  Some foreign hotels and restaurants serve ham instead of proper bacon but this is a poor substitute.


Grand Cafe Royal Exchange, London, November 2011

You can't have a Full English without sausages (plural, please) otherwise it is just bacon and egg or a cooked breakfast.  These is nothing wrong with bacon and egg but it makes a lightweight start to the day without some serious meat to back it up.  Sadly, most Full English breakfasts in restaurants or cafes are let down by the sausage, which is often of poor quality compared with the bacon.

Chipolatas from Maurice Jones at home, March 2014

This is an area where the home cooked version of a Full English triumphs (in the same way as a traditional Sunday lunch is best at home) as you have complete quality control.  I get my sausages from prize-winning sausage maker Maurice Jones & Sons in Oatlands, Surrey. Vastly superior to anything from a supermarket.  You need to get there early if you want them on Saturday, however!

Arsenale Hotel, Cartagena, November 2013

The variety of sausages you get around the world is startling; including turkey and beef ones in Muslim countries.  In South America I have had spicy ones reminiscent of Spanish chorizo (which just means sausage of course, anyway - "chorizo sausage" is tautologous) which while interesting aren't really right first thing in the morning.

Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia, October 2009

My worst sausage experience was the sausage meat I had in Philadelphia which was dripping in maple syrup.  Disgusting!


Côte London Bridge, London, May 2014 

I admit that I don't always have mushrooms if I am cooking breakfast at home but there is a good argument that they are a compulsory ingredient for a proper Full English Breakfast.  Americans can find the fact that we have mushrooms for breakfast in Britain, rather odd.  In fact they are one of the newer ingredients as they have only been cultivated in Britain since, surprisingly, the mid-twentieth century.  What you get in restaurants varies between whole or halved small button mushrooms, sliced larger cup mushrooms or a whole or sliced large flat mushrooms.  I prefer the middle option. Never, never tinned mushrooms though!


Gossips Cafe, Yarmouth Isle of Wight, August 2011

These are another compulsory ingredient (even more so than mushrooms).  Fried or grilled they should be soft to the point of disintegration.  They should not have, as some hotels offer, cheese on them.  Even worse are the places that put pesto on them.  They should also not be tinned.  There is an increasing fashion in London for more upmarket places to serve plum tomatoes sliced in two vertically but, again, this is a bit prissy.


Sainsbury's Cobham, May 2014

This is usually served on the side but the Legatus likes it as an integral part of the full plate.  When I was small I would be given egg, bacon and fried bread for breakfast but fried bread is disappearing before the onslaught of the healthy eating brigade.  Frying a slice of bread at least doubles the calories but as a typical Full English breakfast comes in at about 1000 calories plus that really isn't going to matter that much.  I tend to have toast rather than fried bread as it is more absorbent for soaking up bean and tomato juice etc.

Baked Beans

Churchill Cafe, Whitehall, London, November 2011

Baked beans seem such a staple of a Full English that I was genuinely surprised by those who maintain that it shouldn't be included.  I would venture that such people are in the minority now and that their insistence that beans should only be eaten after 6.00 pm is rather akin to those who insist on saying "an" when the following word begins with an "h".  They are technically correct, perhaps, but the English Breakfast, like the English language, is constantly evolving.  Britain makes and consumes more baked beans that any other nation on earth; to the extent that in February this year a government minister here was trying to encourage people to eat less of them to avoid the excess generation of gases that contribute to global warming.  I am not joking!  The UK version of baked beans is very different from those served in the US which have more than twice the sugar in them.  In fact, Heinz Baked Beans, which were first imported from America and sold as a luxury item in Fortnum & Mason in the nineteenth century, are now exported to the US, having been made here since 1928.  They started to become part of a cooked breakfast in the late sixties and I would say that, despite the naysayers, they are now completely integral to the Full English Breakfast.


Giraffe, South Bank, London, February 2011

These are another controversial ingredient.  Probably, traditionally, bubble and squeak, a fried mixture of shredded potato and cabbage, was included in earlier versions of the Full English.  This has now, largely, been supplanted by American hash browns, saute potatoes or chips (French fries for our American cousins).  I have had shredded potato mixed with other things in foreign hotels.

Royal York Hotel, Toronto, August 2010

I would venture that chips are really only served when the Full English is served at lunch time lunch as an "all-day breakfast".  This is certainly the practice in the breakfast Nirvana that is Eegon's of Cowes.  For their larger breakfasts they serve saute potatoes.  I have never been that fond of hash browns but they are more digestible in the morning than solid potato.  Producing potato dishes as an accompaniment to a Full English at home really does add an extra level of complexity to the whole performance, however.

Black Pudding

Sheraton Hotel, Edinburgh, September 2013

Is black pudding (a blood sausage) a part of an authentic Full English or a regional variation in the manner of cockles (yes, really) in Wales, Soda Bread in Ireland or haggis in Scotland?  The traditionalists maintain that it should be included and, certainly, it was certainly part of the cooked breakfasts served at my college, although that had a lot of people from the north of England as students.  The Legatus, being from the south, thinks that this is a northern affectation but it certainly adds to the finished article.

Eegon's, Cowes, Isle of Wight, August 2013

So, according to some writers, these are the "magic nine" ingredients which transform a "cooked breakfast" or "fry up" into a "Full English breakfast".  As we have seen, however, there is not universal agreement on this.  I have also had, onion rings and steak included, especially in the terrifying Steakfast from Eegons; the only cooked breakfast in the world I was unable to finish.

Braid Hills Hotel, Edinburgh, August 2016

Latterly, since I have been spending more time in Scotland I have added haggis to my home-cooked breakfasts; usually in small fried slices but occasionally using the leftovers from a complete haggis.  When in Scotland, of course, I always have haggis in my breakfast.

Waldorf Astoria, Edinburgh, February 2013

Interestingly, in checking through my photographs I realise that I haven't actually had a breakfast with all the "magic nine" in it.  The closest I have got was this superb example from Scotland which had haggis but no potato and fried bread instead of toast.  Something to strive for still!  


  1. Thanks Legatus - I am now ravenous......

  2. XXXXing XXXX my arteries are hardening just looking at the pictures. You are truly mad sir if you take pictures of cooked breakfasts. Now be a nice normal bloke and take picures of toy soldiers (sarcasm)....great read !! Please put all this on one site...

    1. I take more pictures of food than I do of soldiers!

  3. Yee gods my mouth is watering like a tap...... there's little to disagree with there.... my vote goes for the last breakfast, possibly the one from the Sheraton Hotel/Edinburgh as being my ideal..... I can't understand people having tinned tomato's with breakfast, they're clearly deranged.... for me eggs (fried)/good sausages (high meat content - preferably Sussex Savouries from O'Hagans)/good bacon (lightly smoked)/Heinz beans (not the thin wishy washy copies)/mushrooms (cooked in butter)/black pudding (not an affectation - it is the integral part) and toast does it.... potatoes just make it "lunch".... :o)

    1. I haven't tried Sussex Savouries! I must seek them out! Yes! Has to be Heinz beans!

  4. The last breakfast has what looks like a tattie scone hiding under the black pudding. I also couldnt help but note the unusual placement of sausages.

  5. A fry-up topped off with some Bury black puddings is one of the crowning achievements of Northern civilisation. I can't get them locally, worse luck!

  6. I sampled a version at the inn outside of Hastings a year ago. Very tasty on a cold morning - just what was needed for nice walk of the battlefield and abbey.

  7. Surely hash browns and chips are some insidious Americanisation of a fry up? I recall driving twenty miles to load up on the food I craved from Britain while living in LA in the 80's including Walls pork sausages and Heinz baked beans.

    1. Indeed. Bubble and squeak is the only authentic way to get potato in it. Unfortunately I can't stand cooked cabbage!

  8. I do find your taking pictures of your plate quite odd though. I see a lot of people do it in restaurants and always thought it a bit strange. However earlier this week I was taken to lunch at the Shangri La Hotel (34th floor at the Shard) and the first course looked like a work of art. Unfortunately my phone was in my coat and out of battery. I have to say that the views were amazing but the thing I'd have taken a picture of were the toilets - peeing into a urinal looking out over the City from the 35th floor made a change from being in a cellar loo reading the papers or looking at dull cartoons like most pubs. But what really got me were the loos - heated seats, front and rear sprays, de-odourant and blow dry...very impressive. And it's only a few years since I recall being impressed by Dyson Air Blade hand dryers!

  9. It's a habit I picked up from friends in Toronto who seem to do it all the time. On more than one occasion restaurant managers have decided I must be a food critic and in the Willard Hotel in Washington DC I was invited into the kitchen to meet the chef!"

    Sound like the loos are designed for the Japanese - they love their toilet technology!