About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008
An English Breakfast
In my previous post, there was some mention of porridge being a national dish of Scotland and how the English used to look down their noses at it.

So what did medieval Englishman have for breakfast?

Well, for a start, there were two kinds of breakfast, one for the well off and one for the peasants. Bread would be in attendance on all tables, white for the wealthy and dark for the rest. In better households, breakfast would proceed with boiled beef and mutton, cheese, salt herring and ale or wine. Those less fortunate would more than likely fill up on bread, but sometimes would have salt pork or bacon, fish on Fridays and a mug of ale.

According to The Cooking of the British Isles, this meat and ale diet continued for some five hundred years. These days, it would seem alarming that the general population were drinking beer for breakfast, but in those times, general hygiene was poor and water was often contaminated and not safe to drink, beer was safer, which is perhaps one reason why tea drinking became so popular - boiling the water made it fit to drink.

There was also frumenty, which took the place of porridge and is thought to be one of the oldest English dishes known. Whole wheat or barley grains were soaked in warm water for a few days until the grains had absorbed so much moisture that they burst, in a process called creeing. The starch released then turned the whole mass into a thick jelly and this was eaten with hot milk, honey or sugar.

A class split continued up until the eighteenth century, the poorer had bread, cheese and ale, while those better off had also split, along gender lines, with the women partaking of chocolate, cakes and a gossip at 10 o'clock, whilst the man of the house had eaten his meal earlier, which might consist of chocolate, bread and meat.

From these beginnings, breakfast evolved into an important part of the day when the family came together and conversed with one another and remained this way through Victorian times, up to when it became a formidable Edwardian social affair, where, according to Harold Nicolson, a diplomat and author, one might see on the sideboard...

"Hams, Tongues, Galantines, Cold grouse, ditto Pheasant, ditto partridge, ditto Ptarmigan. No Edwardian meal was complete without Ptarmigan (a game bird). Hot or Cold. Just Ptarmigan...Edwardian breakfasts were in no sense a hurried proceeding. The porridge was disposed of negligently, people walking about and watching the rain descend upon the Italian garden. Then would come whiting, and omelette and devilled kidneys and little fishy messes in shells. And then tongue and ham and a slice of Ptarmigan. And then scones and marmalade. And then a little melon, and a nectarine, and just one or two of those delicious raspberries."

For others without resources, breakfast was a completely different, sadder affair, thin porridge and stale bread were their sustenance and up to a third of the population suffered from malnutrition or other deficiency diseases. These folk could only dream about chafing dishes full of crisp bacon, a truly English invention, like ham, or plates of soft boiled eggs, smoked haddock or kippers, breakfast sausages, fried wild mushrooms, black puddings with fried apples, potted meat, fresh fruit, honey and Dundee marmalade, or the recently arrived from India, kedgeree. Pots of tea and coffee were on standby along with hot rolls and different kinds of breads, there were cutlets in sharp sauces, game pies, cold ham and ale.

Like Scotland, things in Celtic Wales, things were far simpler. Siot, an oatcake soaked in buttermilk, was eaten along with brewis, an oatmeal broth, both very sustaining foods, like porridge (or porage), from which evolved today's trend of eating cereal with hot or cold milk.

These sorts of foods were essential in their day as times were much different to today. Work was far more physical, walking was how folk got around and energy needs as a consequence were much higher. Of course we no longer need to drink beer in the morning or have a shot of whiskey in our tea.

So tell me, what do you have for breakfast?
  posted at 7:47 am

At 12:33 pm, Blogger Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Oat bran flakes with skim milk and half a banana sounds pretty pedestrian compared to these breakfasts. Then again, my garden is hardly a farm, and the toughest work I do most mornings is pounding this keyboard! Great post, Neil.

At 1:18 pm, Blogger Kalyn said...

Mostly eggs, usually either egg muffins or egg casserole, warmed up in the microwave. Sometimes oatmeal with peanut butter, one of my faves.

I confess that I have to force myself to eat in the morning, although I function so much better when I do.

At 3:31 pm, Blogger Ed said...

Right now either a pink grapefruit followed by porridge with no sugar. Or plain goats yoghurt with poached rhubarb. Usually followed by sourdough toast. Weekends may be more exotic: streaky bacon and scrambled eggs on sourdough toast.

At 6:06 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Oddly enough we had oatmeal with strawberries
Good Gadfry I can not imagine eating all that! Great article Neil.

At 6:16 pm, Anonymous Dani` said...

Fascinating post. Our weekday breakfast is oats, combined with goji berries, linseeds, stewed fruit (or seasonal fresh fruit)which gets soaked overnight in water and yoghurt then cooked with milk in the morning. With a dob of butter and cream for maximum cod liver oil absorption. No instant oats and they have t be thick cut. I am VERY fussy about my porridge.

Weekends I cook eggs. Usually a scramble of eggs, tomato, spinach, mushrooms and water ever else lurks in the fridge and seems appropriate. Sometimes I'll do a benedict or pancakes if there are special requests.

At 9:07 pm, Anonymous Duncan | Syrup&Tang said...

My breakfast feels very very boring in comparison, but I love it: Rice Bubbles with full-fat milk. When my strawberry plants are producing, I slice in freshly picked strawbs. I've been eating Rice Bubbles for pretty much my entire post-toddler life! (Cultural aberrations notwithstanding: some countries just don't cater for me;)

At 1:23 am, Anonymous ntsc said...

Once a week I will do a full breakfast; omlet, bacon and hash browns with coffee. The rest of the week it is some combination of lightly buttered roll, vegetable juice, hard boiled egg and fruit with a cup of coffee.

Weekend I don't eat breakfast but a large lunch. However about once a month I will have a bagel with lox cream-cheese.

Dinner is my wife's territory and menus, with pictures after the meal is served can be found at http://menu.vldyson.com

At 7:35 am, Blogger t h e - g o b b l e r said...

'The Full English Breakfast' always makes me chuckle as it is described in the 'Vis Swearing Dictionary', I'll let you look it up Neil!
For me though, Slowly cooked Bok's bacon, so the fat renders & becoms crisp, poached eggs from my chooks, slices of my own sourdough with enough butter spread on while they'te hot to 'seep' into them.
Finally, now I might see a fork in the road here, COMMERCIAL TOMATO SAUCE, FROM MON FOODS IN SHEPPARTON!
there I've said it!
I usually cannot speak until i've gotton 3/4 of the way through this as I am so transfixed.

This is also my Desert Island dish

At 10:54 am, Anonymous Cam said...

Excellent post, great read.

To add to the knowledge base, muesli with dried fruit or Vegemite & butter on multi grain. I was brought up on fired egg, sausage, bacon never crispy, black pudding on Sunday fried of course and a big mug of black tea two sugars. Once or thrice a year i do have a cook up :)

At 8:20 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi all, and thanks for your input, some fascinating breakfasts there, though nothing to rival an Edwardian breakfast. Mine usually consists of milk and cereal, but sometimes when I'm bored with that, vegemite on toast. Every Sunday we have bacon and eggs cooked in different ways, fried, poached and scrambled are the most common. The bacon is European style, horseshoe shaped and raw, which we cook until just done.

At 6:02 am, Blogger katiez said...

Juice, cereal and coffee - talk about boring!
In Andorra (and, I assume, Spain) all of the workers had beer for breakfast... And wine with second breakfast....
I'd never get anything done if I started my day like that@!

At 8:42 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi katiez, Looks like some medieval habits die hard. No beer for me either though!


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