As a child the old saw “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper” was repeated to the point of being one of those family in-jokes, mainly because it only ever seemed to be quoted at breakfast time to justify a plate groaning with the majesty of a “full English”; I certainly don’t remember dining like a pauper very often! But what makes the perfect breakfast?
In those distant days the choice of breakfast seemed to fall between the bowl of cereal option and the full fry. Just occasionally, when on holiday perhaps, one might encounter such mind-bogglingly sophisticated delicacies as a croissant – but not often. As time has passed however, an extraordinary transformation in our eating habits has taken place; breakfast (and I suppose I should include that American introduction, brunch, here) has become one of the most discussed, blogged-about and photographed meals of all. If anyone had told me even twenty years ago that mashed avocado on toast was going to become a gastronomic cliché, I’d have laughed in their face.
Personally, my breakfasts now fall into two categories: the slightly rushed (I know I shouldn’t rush my food) weekday grab-and-go, and the leisurely weekend treat, complete with newspapers, some nice music perhaps, and the prospect of very little to interrupt me while my digestion does its stuff.
As I write this, the clocks are just about to go back and the leaves are falling from the trees: porridge season is here. My go-to brand is Scotts Old Fashioned Porage Oats which has a pleasingly chewy consistency. In an effort to avoid my waistline growing, my weekday porridge has become quite an austere dish; certainly no more than 50% milk, and quite often just water (plus milk on top of course), a pinch of salt while cooking, and rarely any sweet toppings (unless I’ve been particularly good, in which case, honey please). It’s off how a self-imposed reduction in extraneous flavours, rather a trial at first, can actually become the preferred norm (I remember the same happening in my teens when I weaned myself off sugar in tea and coffee), and I now love the flavour of the actual porridge.
On this note I should mention a couple of recent developments on my porridge journey: firstly I now “toast” the oats before adding any liquid; I simply add them to the pan dry, and stir them around until I can smell the lovely toasty scent that they give off after a minute or so. I’ve also started to use oatmeal rather than rolled oats. This definitely takes longer, and overnight soaking is a good idea, as when undercooked they can be just a bit too knubbly. The flavour just seems slightly better though, and the texture is lovely.
If I’m in a real rush then nothing beats a bowl of home made granola. My sister-in-law who sadly is a vegetarian (well we can’t all be perfect) makes a fabulous granola, crammed full of whole nuts. However we have since created our own version here at Dukeshill and I highly recommend it. Hand made in small batches our granola is crammed full of nuts and fruit and coated in a generous quantity of honey (not sugar). Full of nuts and seeds it is baked very slowly to bring out the natural flavours in the oats and the seeds. With no added sugar and high in fibre this superb granola is a gratifyingly healthy and tasty way to start the day.
A few years ago, kippers were something that only happened in hotels, normally north of the border. That was until we started selling kippers from Craster. These are without doubt the best kippers that I’ve ever tasted – plump and tasty – and so easy to prepare.
There seems to be no end of methods advised in cookery books, but I simply wrap them in foil and pop them in the oven for about ten minutes. I realise that not everyone can face the wispy bones of a smoked herring so early in the morning, so we have started selling the filleted version as well, but for me nothing beats the whole fish as the perfect start to the day.
I should say that on the subject of fish at breakfast time, I adore a really good kedgeree. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a bit of a labour of love, poaching haddock, boiling eggs, sweating onions and cooking rice and for this reason kedgeree is more likely to appear as a brunch – or even supper – but if a hotel cares to offer me a carefully made kedgeree at breakfast tiem, they’ll have a very happy customer.
Toast & Marmalade
I should add that no breakfast is complete without a slice of toast and marmalade. The bread for the toast can be white (but please make it proper, tasty, chewy white!), wholemeal or new-fangled sourdough. The latter varies tremendously, and I don’t rate most of the supermarket offerings, but when in Oxford we get a fantastic one from Modern Baker, a lovely little independent in Summertown. Sarah used to be a stickler for always having a jar of homemade marmalade on the kitchen table but quite frankly she simply doesn’t have the time these days. Thankfully we have started selling our own marmalade at Dukeshill; coarse-cut, like our homemade version, this is a cut above most other shop-bought versions. Available in our two sizes you can always peel off the acetate label and pass it off as your own!
If I’m just after a relatively light breakfast, my favorite ingredient must be the humble egg. I must admit to finding a boiled egg with toast one of the best inventions ever. Sarah would happily eat one every day of the year! We no longer keep chickens, sadly, after one too many raids by the local fox, but a revelation in recent years has been the fantastic eggs from Clarence Court.
We make sure that we never run out of their Cotswold Legbars, Burford Browns, or occasionally their Braddock White duck eggs. They say we eat with our eyes, and the sheer orange vibrancy of their yolks is only just the right side of lurid. I’m 99% sure that they taste better than other, somewhat paler, yolks, but maybe I’m just a sucker for the visual and am being fed something radioactive on the quiet. I also adore a nice omelette, and ever since Delia recommended a little Mermaid aluminium pan (which gets used for nothing else), I must say I do make a damn fine omelette. I’ll occasionally add a slice of ham, some Comté cheese or even just fresh herbs, but a plain omelette lifted with just a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper, takes some beating.
The Full English
For the whole belt-and-braces breakfast however, we are privileged to live in a nation that has elevated this meal to an art form. Our continental cousins just don’t get breakfast, and as for the our American friends with a plate of bacon, eggs, blueberries and eggs, drenched in about a pint of maple syrup, well that’s is just going to remain a (very occasional) guilty secret.
The lynchpin of a cooked breakfast in our household is the bacon, and as such it’s got to be great. This is no time for limp, soggy bacon, drowning in its own white goo; Dukeshill bacon is dry cured, the old fashioned way (read my article on why our bacon is better here), and whether grilled or fried makes a great start. The next stalwart is the sausage. You can be as adventurous as you like, and if you prefer a herby Lincolshire sausage that’s fine, but for me a nice, traditional breakfast banger fits the bill perfectly here. Sarah and I differ somewhat on the subject of sausage shape here; I prefer a plumper sausage, she veers more towards the chipolata. Horses for courses here really.
I know it’s not to everyone’s taste, but for me a bit of black pudding is non-negotiable. Ours is made using fresh blood (sorry if you’re squeamish), but this really does make for a nicer texture than the normal shop-bought stuff which used dried blood. I tend to grill mine alongside the bacon, where it benefits from some of the bacon fat rendered by the latter, becoming crunchier and tastier as it cooks.
Eggs are compulsory, obviously. I refer you to my earlier thoughts on the subject, although if you’re cooking breakfast for a crowd I’d recommend some rich, buttery, softly scrambed eggs as a time saver.
Everything else is down to you, really. I avoid such “foreign” introductions as hash browns, but will cheerfully sauté some of last night’s boiled potatoes if there happen to be a few lurking at the back of the fridge. I also eschew fried bread, not because I dislike it (I adore it!), but it just seems a little de trop in the face of all the more enticing calories that I’m subjecting myself to. Grilled tomatoes are a must, of course. Again, they benefit tremendously by soaking up some of the other porcine drippings and seepings that are going on under the grill. Apart from this, I’d suggest a dollop of baked beans and a couple of mushrooms for good measure.
See, you’re well on your way to your 5-a-day!
I’ve written a further post on another favourite – the ultimate Bacon Sandwich!