I can guarantee you that no two Brits you speak to will define a proper English breakfast in the same way. The variations are endless; there are a million different ways to cure and cut bacon, different thicknesses and varieties of sausage, different sauces, different ways to prepare your egg (and different methods even when you’ve settled on a way to prepare it), the shouting match about whether the bread should be white, brown, fried, toasted or just sliced straight from the loaf and buttered…and then there’s the vexed question of tomatoes.
My kitchen cupboards are stocked with non-perishables for emergency overnight guests of all breakfast persuasions. There’s brown sauce for my brother and my Dad (I suspect I may not really be related to them) and variety packs of cereal for my god-daughter, none of which Mr Weasel or I ever touch. We very seldom eat a real cooked breakfast, but when we do, there is no better way to spend a Sunday morning. Spread out the newspaper, make sure there are plenty of napkins for the grease, and tuck in.
The greasy fry-up we recognise as a traditional breakfast here isn’t all that old; it’s a 19th century invention, meant to fuel up agricultural and factory workers who expected to be spending the day hard at work. It’s a nutritionist’s nightmare now we’re not working behind a plough, at a loom or down a pit, so is best reserved for special occasions.
Given that every family does a cooked breakfast completely differently, the following directions on making the perfect cooked breakfast will be very subjective. Please feel free to fight about the way you’d do it in the comments section.
In this house, the bacon must be a) streaky, b) smoked, c) cooked until shatteringly crisp and d) dry-cured. No bacon shall widdle nasty white clods into the pan when I cook it, thank you very much. Years of experimentation have revealed that the best way to achieve the perfect bacon (golden, crisp fat and a glassy-cracking texture) is to lay it all out in a single layer in a non-stick baking tray and set to cook in the oven at 180° for 20 minutes. Check for done-ness and give it five minutes longer if it needs it.
There must be a black pudding. Black pudding is a gorgeously rich and unctious sausage made from the blood and fat of a pig, bread, barley and oatmeal. You can find it pre-sliced or made up as a whole sausage. Remove the plastic skin when you’ve fried slices of the pudding until the outside is crisp and the inside gives delicately to your teeth.
Sausages were a point of dreadful conflict in our relationship for years, until we discovered Waitrose’s Free range pork, apple and honey chipolatas. Since then, we’ve been in a state of blissful accord on the subject of sausages. You’ll find these at the butcher’s counter, not on the shelves. Wimpole Hall and Home Farm, just outside Cambridge, also carries an excellent sausage. They’re sold in the gift shop in the stables, by the car park, but their supply is limited to what they can make out of their own pigs, and they won’t always have them when you visit.
The bread must be fried, and made from a grotty supermarket pre-sliced white loaf. Fry the bread in the fat which has come out of the bacon, adding a little extra dripping if you have any in the fridge, or some vegetable oil if you don’t. The fat must be blisteringly hot before you drop the slices of bread in; so hot that a few seconds is all that’s needed to turn each side golden.
The egg should be poached or fried. I usually fry it to avoid using another pan, but if we’re in a hotel somewhere, I am likely to ask for my egg to be poached. If fried, the egg should be sunny-side up, as in the picture and cooked in olive oil…and if the yolk breaks in the pan, the egg is spoiled and I shall cook another one.
I suspect the sauces are where people are going to have the biggest arguments about the way we do breakfast here. Worcestershire sauce is to be drizzled on the fried bread and the egg, but shall not touch anything else on the plate. A judicious dollop of ketchup goes next to the sausages, for careful dipping, and no sauce at all will sully the bacon.
No tomatoes. If I want vitamins on a Sunday, I shall take a pill.