Ask ten Londoners what a traditional English breakfast should include and they’ll give you ten different answers.
“I swear by blood pudding.”
“No way! I only eat white pudding. I don’t want blood in the morning.”
“As long as you fry the bread, puddings don’t even matter!”
“Fry the bread? Just buy a toaster already!”
The squabbling could go on forever – though it’s in a British accent, so who’s complaining? Most can agree that a traditional English breakfast includes fried eggs, bread – either toasted or fried, sautéed mushrooms, fried tomatoes, sausage of some kind, bacon, and Heinz beans. And yes, it must be Heinz, the same company we all know in the States for its ketchup. Even restaurants will boast Heinz brand beans on their menus. Sometimes black or white pudding is included (black is fat, oatmeal, and blood in a sausage casing, while white is everything but the blood).
I am temporarily living in London, and eating habits here are definitely different than those home in the States. Portion sizes are smaller (and that might be a good thing), I can’t find peaches to save my life, and beer is its own food group. Famous for its bland food, England has somewhat supported that stereotype with tasteless fish, vegetables boiled to death, and savory pies that taste overwhelmingly of … nothing. British playwright W. Somerset Maugham once famously said, “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.” And now that I’ve experimented with the full English fry-up, I might just take his advice.
When I first arrived in the UK, I had to stay in a hotel for a few nights before moving into my flat. The hotel’s breakfast was included, so I made my way down each morning and started adjusting to the British way to eat breakfast. I tried everything at least once, and, never one to say “no” to copious amounts of breakfast food, I even went back for seconds. At home in the States, my favorite morning foods are scrambled eggs, pancakes, and hash browns. No luck here finding those items. However, I’ve found that I’ve really started to enjoy the traditional English breakfast.
According to the English Breakfast Society (yes, that exists), the full English breakfast may have originated from as early as the 13th century, when the gentry would show off their riches by serving large morning meals. Meat and vegetables were popular features because they were the most expensive foods available. Later, during the Victorian period, the full English came back in vogue as the middle and upper classes began serving large meals to showcase their wealth, just like their medieval ancestors. The meal shares some DNA with the Brits’ other favorite meal: the Sunday roast. Comprised of what is colloquially called “meat and two veg,” there are definite parallels between the evening and morning meals.
Full English breakfast is popular now as a weekend meal. While in medieval and Victorian homes it would have been easy to prepare such large meals thanks to a kitchen staff, most families today wouldn’t have the time or the means to make so much food for breakfast every day. Often, it’s made at home on days off, and is very popular at restaurants. (Though some of its weekend charm might be that, thanks to plenty of salt, fat, carbs, and none-too adventurous flavors, the full English is the perfect remedy for a late night at the pub.)
This popular meal is not confined to England. There are varieties throughout the UK, including the none-too-cryptically named Scottish, Welsh, and Irish breakfasts. Full Scottish breakfasts often feature the same components of the full English, but also include kippers (herring), tattie scones (made from potatoes), and porridge. Full Welsh meals include laverbread (not actually bread, but seaweed) and cockles (small clams). To round out the foursome, full Irish breakfasts include cold boiled potatoes and white pudding.
In celebration of all things breakfast (and desperately trying to save money in pricey London by not eating out), I decided to fry up my own version of a full breakfast. I did my shopping at Waitrose, a popular supermarket here in the UK, and I most of the food I bought featured at least one British flag on the packaging. Not only was I cooking a British meal, but I was getting British products to make it with – it was as authentic as possible.
Once I got home (and climbed up the eight flights of stairs to my flat at the top of a Victorian-house-turned-apartments), I got to work. The trickiest part of making a full English breakfast is having to basically make everything at once. I had bread in the toaster and a pan on each of my four stove burners. Occasionally, my flatmates would look over my shoulder, probably impatiently waiting for me to get out of the way.
“Do these tomatoes look like the ones we’ve had in restaurants?” I desperately asked one of them. She responded with, “Um… I don’t know. I guess.”
With that endorsement, I was finally done, after spending 20 minutes stirring beans, toasting bread, and frying two meats and two vegetables. You’ve got to hand it to the British: to get that much food out of just 20 minutes of cooking is incredibly efficient. When I sat down to eat, I was delighted to find that I had managed to recreate a full English breakfast. (And bonus, I got to eat breakfast foods.)
All in all, it was very easy. I had to make sure most pans were on low heat and to attend to several things at once, but it was definitely easier than I expected a meal with so many components to be. Plus, once it was all made, I could pretend that I was medieval royalty… that is, until I had to do the dishes.
Classic English Breakfast
For each person*:
2 tomatoes, sliced
1 large, flat mushroom, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 small can of Heinz beans (though any brand of baked beans will do)
1 slice of bread
2 slices of bacon
1 British style sausage
Complete all of the following steps in this order, moving immediately to the next step after completing each one:
Put the bacon and sausage in a pan together and cook on medium heat, flipping each over several times. Bacon should be crispy, and sausage should be golden brown.
Empty beans into a small pot and simmer on low heat, stirring every so often.
Place tomato slices and mushrooms in a large pan on low heat. Flip tomatoes and mushrooms occasionally to avoid scorching. Mushrooms should start to release juice, and tomatoes should be slightly blackened.
Crack the egg into a pan and let it sit on low heat. It will become light brown around the edges.
Toast the bread in a toaster for as long as desired.
When everything is done, put it all on a plate and enjoy!
*Obviously, portion sizes of each ingredient don’t matter very much. If you want five eggs and only one tomato, go for it.
Illustrations by Mackenzie Anderson