The full English breakfast – a national institution

A lot of this blog is devoted to fine food, to the “wow” meals that stand out, or the dishes with a difference from far-flung places. But what about the firm favourites? The things we’re so used to that we forget how great they are. I had one of these moments recently over this……


The full English, a fry-up, English breakfast. Call it what you will, it’s a thing of beauty. And something that’s so ingrained in English tradition that we forget quite how good it can be. For most of us, the beauty of food doesn’t just lie in its taste, but in the memories it evokes. Certain dishes remind you of a certain place, a certain meal is reminiscent of a particular occasion, and for me its exactly the same with a fry up. The smell of bacon and sausages cooking, the sound of eggs frying and toast popping – it’s about recovering on the morning after the fabulous night before, or the breakfast that marks the family gathering. It’s about treats in hotels and bed and breakfasts on holidays, or meeting friends in cafes to chew the fat (yes, sometimes quite literally).

And it seems I’m not the only one. Doing a bit of digging, I came across the English Breakfast Society, a group of people dedicated to the “tradition, history and heritage” of the English breakfast. Thanks to them, I found out exactly how firmly entrenched in our nation’s history this dish is.

According to the society, the idea of the English breakfast dates back to the 13th century and the English gentry. Its history section describes how breakfast was considered an important social event for the great country houses of England.

It says: “The breakfast table was an opportunity to display the wealth of the estate and the quality of the meats, vegetables and ingredients produced on the surrounding land and a chance to show off the skills of the cooks who prepared a vast selection of typical English breakfast dishes every morning, for the residents and guests of the house…”Breakfast served in these country houses was made up of ingredients sourced from farmers based on the estate, the meats were cured and cooked using regional recipes and methods…”Their breakfasts were made up of traditional English dishes, cooked in a typical English way and it was here that the idea of the traditional English breakfast began.”

From here, the Victorian aspiring wealthy middle class who had studied the habits of the gentry adopted their fondness for the English breakfast, using the meal as a chance to demonstrate their wealth and social standing. And according to the ESB, it was during the industrial revolution that the full English breakfast became something for the working classes as well as the wealthy. It adds: “The English breakfast tradition spread until its peak in the early 1950’s, when roughly half of the British population started their day with a full English breakfast, turning what was once a meal for the nobility into a national breakfast dish.”

From there, need we say more? Travel to most holiday destinations popular with Britons and you’ll see an English breakfast on offer. Go to most pubs and cafes and youll find one. Even nice restaurants might have their own interpretation. It’s clearly a cultural institution that, if anything, has gained in popularity. So,what makes a great full English?

According to the ESB, it’s a “substantial meal” including back bacon, eggs, British sausage, beans, tomato, mushrooms, black pudding and toast. The society is careful to stipulate that ingredients may vary depending on the specific region of the British isles you happen to be in, quite fairly, but I’m more than happy to agree with this list.

For me, bacon and sausage are a must. Good quality of course. Not the fatty, emaciated bacon that throws out gallons of white gunk, but decent, thick, back bacon. And the sausages shouldnt be tastless, bulked-out-by-rusk offerings. I’m not too fussed on thick or thin (the mother-in-law swears by chipolatas), but packed with meat is a requirement. And no, I don’t think it absolutely has to all be fried, grilled sausages and bacon are fine by me. Eggs – free range. And yes, you can tell. A pale yellow yolk literally does pale in comparison to the bright sunshiney yolk of its free range competitor. Obviously you can’t grill an egg, so I’m happy to go for fried, but again, each to their own.

In our household, black pudding is a favourite. As are hash browns, perhaps controversially. Some thing they’re too American, but in Mr M’s view, he likes hash browns so he’ll blimin’ well have them. Beans, tomato, mushroom and toast? Yes, yes, yes and yes. And while we’re at it, proper butter on the toast please. Creamy and salty, ready to mix with all the yummy juice you mop up off your plate with your toast. And of course, you can’t forget the drinks. A nice glass of orange juice and some freshly brewed coffee. The mister is all for tea – more palate cleansing in the morning apparently! But again, each to their own.

Well, this post started off as a salutation to one particular meal. But perhaps what it has shown is how the meals that stand the test of time are those that we can tailor to our own preferences. The full English we eat now is probably hugely different to those of our gentry predecessors. More importantly, the full English I eat is probably different to yours. But that’s the beauty of it. So, enough talking about it. Off you go for your own version of a national institution that I’m pretty sure is with us for keeps!