A Brief History of The English Breakfast
The traditional full cooked breakfast is a national institution. Most of us love a full cooked breakfast; you can even travel abroad, to the Mediterranean resorts of Spain and find this quintessentially British dish on sale in cafes and restaurants.
There are many regional versions of this staple. For example, the Ulster Fry includes Irish soda bread; the Scottish breakfast boasts a tattie scone and even maybe a slice of haggis; the Welsh breakfast features laverbread and the Cornish breakfast often comes with Cornish hog’s pudding.
The tradition of breakfast dates back to the Middle Ages. At this time, there were usually only two meals a day; breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was served mid or late morning, and usually consisted of just ale and bread, with perhaps some cheese, cold meat or dripping.
A lavish breakfast was often served by the nobility or gentry at social or ceremonial occasions such as weddings. A wedding mass had to take place before noon, so all weddings took place in the mornings. The first meal the new bride and groom ate together would therefore be breakfast and became known as the ‘wedding breakfast’.
By Georgian and Victorian times, breakfast had become an important part of a shooting party, weekend house party or hunt and was served a little earlier. Breakfasts were unhurried, leisurely affairs with plenty of silver and glassware on show to impress the host’s guests. The breakfast table would groan under the weight of the produce from the host’s estate. Newspapers were available for the family and guests to catch up on the day’s news. Indeed, it is still socially acceptable today to read newspapers at the breakfast table.
The Victorian era saw a wealthy middle class begin to emerge in British society who wished to copy the customs of the gentry, including the tradition of the full cooked breakfast. As the middle classes went out to work, breakfast began to be served earlier, typically before 9am.
Surprisingly, the full cooked breakfast was also enjoyed by many of the working classes. The punishing physical labour and long hours of work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution meant a hearty meal first thing in the morning was necessary. Even as late as the 1950s, almost half the adult population began their day with cooked ‘fry-up’.
In today’s world, you may have thought that a full cooked breakfast was not the healthiest way to start the day, but some experts maintain that such a meal in the morning boosts the metabolism and needn’t be unhealthy, especially if the food is grilled rather than fried.
Perhaps the full cooked breakfast remains so popular, not just because it tastes so good but simply because it has been enjoyed for centuries by people from all walks of life.