Looking For A New England In A Full English

The Full English is the one meal England does well, with fat bangers, sizzling rashers and eggs oozing sunshine, strong tea and two buttered toast. This is food that makes you feel good just thinking about it, a platter that pulls on the heartstrings (as well as straining the heart).

It’s an icon of Englishness, as much of a symbol as the flag of St George, but here’s the thing: who really eats it these days?

Less than 1% of the population starts every day with a cooked breakfast, compared to the 1950s when it was more than half of us. I was thinking about this the other day, chewing (and chewing) my compulsory muesli while dreaming of bacon and eggs. If the full breakfast is so representative of the English, what does it say about us? And if our attitude to it has changed so much, what does “the Full English” really mean — not just in the sense of what is on the plate, but in terms of being fully English?

Those questions inspired a mad, bad, saltsoaked road trip from culinary heaven to hell and back, and from one end of the country to the other. Come with me, if you want to see what the English are really like now. But prepare for some very strong and surprising tastes.

The Sunday Times Magazine 7 April 2010

Where better to start than at a place that dares to call itself a “quintessentially English hotel”? The Goring in Victoria has been run by the same family for four generations and claims to be the last five-star luxury hotel in London that can say that. Breakfast here is not cheap, if you include a room. My £850 suite is nice enough, and has a very groovy mirror that turns into a television, but I wake up raging at the wallpaper.

It is covered in drawings of scenes from an estate, including the lady of the manor wafting around and a gardener who is hauling a manual lawnmower across a back-breaking expanse of grass. What makes me so angry is that almost everybody who slept in the bedroom before me over the past 100 years would have identified with Her Ladyship. Not me.

Downstairs I walk past a bust of the Queen Mother and into a dining room recently made over by David Linley, the viscount and designer. The tables are draped in heavy cream linen and set with blue-and-white china. The chef comes out to meet me, and the first thing I want to ask Derek Quelch, who worked at the Savoy and Claridge’s before this, is a burning question that occupies all lovers of the English breakfast. Hash browns, Derek. Yes or no? “No,” he says, quickly and firmly. “Never. They’re American.”

Derek is a hardliner on this one. All traces of foreign influence have been struck from the menu, including baked beans (unless the customer wants them, because the service here reaches cult-like levels of intensity). Ask for the works and you get a truly wonderful breakfast with a lot of English pig: sausages with natural skins, sweet-cured, unsmoked bacon rashers cooked crisply, and black pudding from Cumbria made with blood. There are eggs, of course, mushrooms, lightly grilled tomatoes and a cute bubble of meat that turns out to be a lamb’s kidney. Bless.

“For us, the breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” says Derek. “If a guest is spending hundreds of pounds on a room, the breakfast has to reflect that. You will see captains of industry and cabinet ministers in here, we get some real high-flyers in the morning.”

There is wealth on display. Even “Big Dave” Morgan-Hewitt, the hotel managing director, tells me he spends thousands on a good suit. Those are big suits, mind. “I shouldn’t be having this,” he says, scooping cold bacon into toast for a quick sarnie after the guests have all gone, with a napkin at his throat in a Bunteresque fashion. “I’m having lunch in an hour with the princes’ private secretary.” Yes, he does mean William and Harry. We are only a stroll from the palace, and this has long been the haunt of royalty.

The first thing you learn at the Goring is that the class system has become a theme park, where people with money can pretend to be aristocrats. The clever ones do it on the cheap, bringing their contacts here for breakfast to be impressed. “Since the recession, more people are coming for breakfast,” says Derek. “They don’t have to buy wine, so it is cheaper, and they can get back to the office for a full day’s work.”

Eccentricity is very much part of the brand, in a mild form. The 44-year-old owner, Jeremy Goring, is a surfer who wears an open-necked shirt and swears quite often. “Ninety-nine per cent of sausages worldwide are shit. Particularly when you go outside England.” He goes on frequent road trips with his chef, “out in the middle of nowhere to find food that they don’t want us townies to have”, and was the first hotelier of his kind to employ his own forager. It is also hard to ignore the eccentricity of the Swarovski-crystal chandeliers in the dining room, which hang down, as the regular diner Michael Winner said, “like leftover Christmas decorations from a bad day at B&Q”.

Under those chandeliers, Big Dave suddenly treats the remaining staff in the dining room to high-decibel excerpts from a one-man opera. His boss teases him in a very un-PC way — “I am banning all poofters from this hotel” — then tells me: “Being very English is quite a rebellious, anti-Establishment thing to do now, because the Establishment has become the world of political correctness.” Maybe. There is one thing you see very clearly, though, in this place that seeks to elevate Englishness to an art. We’re all foreigners, if you look far enough back. The Gorings came here from Germany in 1893 but assimilated so quickly that the hotel became the command centre for the chief of the allied forces during the first world war. “We’ve had immigration here for 400 years,” says Jeremy Goring, “so we’ve got to be quite good at it by now.”

That’s easy for him to say in his palace of splendour, but a dozen miles away on the High Road in North Finchley it’s a bit more of a struggle. People from all over the world are trying to make it work, using the thing they can bring to a new land: food. There’s an Indian restaurant, a Thai, a Chinese and a sushi bar — and outside a coffee shop is a sight that would have gladdened the hearts of the 150 Poles who were billeted at the Goring during the war (they were, of course, all officers): the Polish flag.

Polska Chatka (“Polish cottage”) was opened last March by Nick Taylor, a 48-year-old computer specialist from these parts, and his wife, Barbara, 29. She trained as a banker in Poland before coming to try her luck in England three years ago. Nick was in the pub, having a pint, when she came in looking for a job. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “For me, anyway. She always says she noticed me.”

Soon after they opened the cafe, Polish dishes took over the menu. Now most of the cooking is done by Gryzna, a woman in her sixties who doesn’t speak much English but grins a lot from under a tiger-striped turban. “Gryzna is the main guy,” says Barbara. “She knows the way things should be and she keeps order with a big spoon.”

She can cook, too. Her Polish version of a full English has imported white sausage and caramelised onions, scrambled eggs with chives, fat beans in a spicy tomato sauce, little mushroom dumplings called pierogi, and a bowl of cottage cheese with radish.

The Full Polish is huge and magnificent, and doesn’t just attract exiles. “Many of the customers have nothing to do with Poland, they just like the food. And the portions,” says Barbara, who thinks England has changed in the short time she has been here. “There is more tolerance. English people are being more careful about what they say and how they behave.”

Notice that she doesn’t say we’re warm and welcoming. She says we have learnt to watch our tongues. Our taste buds are changing, too. At places like Polska Chatka you can see English food being changed by the new Europeans, just as it was by the arrivals from Asia and the Caribbean. Her two-year-old son, Oskar, will be an Englishman in a country where the meaning of that word has changed — dramatically. We’re roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but we’re also chicken balti, born in Brum. It would be no surprise to find that the Full English of the future is served with that chunky white Polish sausage.

But not in Cannock. They like things traditional up at the Hollies Truck Stop on the A5 in Staffordshire, a transport caff that claims to be the oldest in the country, and looks it. A box set forlornly in a potholed lorry park, it has lost the plaster on the walls on one side. This is a place that sees trouble. “Once a year the Hell’s Angels come by on the way to their rally,” says Yvonne Jones, the manager. Most of the customers, though, are men who spend their days behind the wheels of massive articulated lorries. Four pounds and 99p buys the Mega Breakfast, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The truckers get shirty if “civilians” stop them getting their food quickly, she says. “Mind you, they don’t mind waiting when the place is full of girls coming back from their hen nights, half naked.”

With a couple of fried slices, a hash brown, a scoop of beans and two toast as well as the basics, the breakfast is truly mega. “We sell 3,000lb of bacon and 2,000 sausages a week,” says Chris Edwards, the Mancunian co-owner. The sausages are inviting on the outside, but tubes of pink mush inside. Asked where they come from, he says: “They’re ‘best pork catering sausages’. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

They are foul, frankly. The bacon is limp and mushy. Half a tin of tomatoes has been dumped on the huge brown-and-white plate, so that everything floats on the juice. The fried bread is soaked underneath and crispy on top, but when you bite into it the grease floods your mouth and leaves a slick, nasty aftertaste. I feel so ill, even as I’m eating, that for the first time in my life I can’t finish a Full English. It’s a relief when they take it away. I’ve got a raging thirst. Consensus Action on Salt and Health, a group of experts and campaigners, says a Full English like this will give you more than the entire dose of salt a person should have in a day.

Yvonne frowns. “If it’s a killer, why do so many people want it? We did put on a healthy option for the truckers. Fruit salad, porridge, that sort of thing, we gave it to them free. They still paid a fiver for the Mega Breakfast.” Then they went and sat in their trucks all day, presumably? “We do get some very big men. But you can’t give truckers what they don’t want. And they don’t want healthy.” One customer, Brian, says: “I’ve had good food here. Sometimes there’s so much you can’t move after.” He looks surprisingly trim and fit, but rising from the table, he adds: “Actually, I’m just getting over a heart attack.”

Here, then, is proof that English bloodymindedness endures. Never mind anti-obesity campaigns, free fruit or the knowledge that the big plate of fatty crap is killing us, some people will just pile on more.

We’re addicted to salt and still eating for the hearty, manual labour of old, when most of our work now involves sitting down, says the social anthropologist Kaori O’Connor. The Full English was born at a time during the Victorian era when new forms of energy allowed us to move from two meals a day — mid-morning, and just before the sun went down — to beginning with an early cooked feast. This then became a symbolic meal.

“The full breakfast is the secular sacrament of Englishness,” says Dr O’Connor, author of The English Breakfast. “In the devout early Victorian period, the day would begin with morning prayers before breakfast, which was a civilised meal for a civilised country. In time, the prayers dropped away and breakfast became a sacrament. You ate it as an article of faith.”

The Breakfast Book by Georgina Hill, published in 1865, lists some “things most commonly served for family breakfast” in a country-house buffet. They include “anchovies, bloaters, brain cakes, caviare, cold tongue, devilled bones, dried sprats…” Surely only those who could afford feasts had this high ideal of breakfast.

“No. Everybody had it,” says O’Connor. “Breakfast was the meal that everybody began the day with, whatever their place in society and however meagre the portions.”

The first world war put paid to the great house feasts because the servants disappeared. By the end of the second world war, rationing had reduced breakfast to basics. Things brightened up with the arrival of cafes: initially stylish places in which Italian immigrants frothed the milk exotically, but later — as they became more popular, and populist — the grim greasy spoon.

They’ve mostly gone now too, replaced by Starbucks and Costa as places to gather and chat. “We also saw the rise of the cereals, coming from America,” says O’Connor. “We were told they were highly nutritional, so Mum didn’t have to feel guilty about short-changing Dad by not cooking his bacon.”

My own children couldn’t believe their luck when I said they could have Sugar Puffs and Coco Pops just for a change. Soon they were flying around the room in a sugar rush. The consumer group Which? says some cereals have more sugar per suggested serving than a jam doughnut, including surprising ones like Kellogg’s Special K. Crunchy Nut Bites contain more saturated fats than a Burger King hamburger, apparently, and Honey Nut Corn Flakes from Morrisons have the same amount of salt per serving as a 50g bag of salted peanuts.

So the English are gullible. These imported foods we have been sold as a healthy option are just as bad as the things we avoid. Which makes me feel a lot better as I travel up to Lytham St Annes in Lancashire for a breakfast described by The Times reviewer Mystery Guest last year as the finest in the country. It is hidden behind the purple door of a boutique B&B, The Rooms, opened by Andy and Jackie Baker in July 2008.

“I am an obsessive,” admits Andy, an Essex boy who used to work in the City before sinking money into renovating this seven-bedroom Victorian townhouse. The builders did a spectacular job, but it’s the food that matters most to him. “We got mates round and the barbecue out and did tastings for the best banger, the best bacon, everything.”

They settled on local suppliers. “Janet comes down here with a tray of eggs that are still covered in shit, straight out of the chicken’s arse. You don’t get fresher than that.” The black pudding is made with haggis to give it a richer taste. The bread is baked across the road. Best of all, though, is the bacon, dry cured in Guinness and treacle in Suffolk (near a village where Andy used to live, so that’s sort of local). “It costs four times as much as the best at the cash and carry, but it has got six or seven times the flavour.”

While they’re piling it high in Cannock and on the Costa Brava, Andy is part of the foodie revolution, pushing for quality, not quantity.

“There has been a huge change in the past 10 years,” he says. “People want to know where their food is coming from. The French have been like this for years, but now we’ve got it. I want the breakfast to be good enough for a Michelin star.”

This seems to be a movement in the opposite direction to what’s happening in the truck stops, but actually it’s not. The motivation is the same and it’s this: in a world of sensual overloads, we are drawn to extremes. So the modern Full English either has to be made with the finest possible organic local ingredients (ideally from a pig you’ve met socially) or so huge that you can’t move afterwards.

The big surprise is that the businessmen and women who stay at the Rooms usually choose something else. “The problem is time. People say, ‘I’ve got to be down at 7 and in the office at 7.40, what can you do me?’ Some don’t even bother.” So even here, where it is at its very best, the pressure of time means the Full English a breakfast is now a rare treat. They sell more at weekends, when people are at the hotel celebrating an anniversary or just each other. We’re too harassed to have breakfast most of the time and the Full English is now a festival food; even if it’s only to mark that you’ve had a bit of a lie-in. A recent survey showed that half of British holidaymakers ate a full cooked breakfast, even if they never did back in this country.

“People do have an emotional attachment to food like this, and they use it as a statement of their identity, particularly when they are in a strange place,” says Dominic Abrams, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “That is why we are all more likely to have an English breakfast in a hotel or abroad. It offers an emotional pick-you-up as well as a physical one, and it reminds you of home.”

Food as a statement of cultural identity is something Asghar Ali understands well. He is the owner of Lahore Cafe Bar, a surprising place behind the Alhambra in Bradford, near the university. It used to be a tired old curry house, but now it’s a dazzling mishmash of styles and ideas, colours and cultures: bright-orange diner chairs, a glass cabinet full of classic cakes, pop-art pictures of Georgie Best, and on the third floor, in a section called the Boudoir, there is ironic flock wallpaper, dripping glass chandeliers the colour of blood, and a prayer room. “My parents are from Kashmir,” says Ali. “I am an Asian. I am an Englishman. I am a Yorkshireman. I am proud of all those identities. Anyone who has a problem with that has to get over it. What we’re doing here is celebrating the new Englishness.”

The menu is food as a political statement. Here you can have a milkshake to start, a chicken karahi with keema nan, and a bowl of jam roly poly and custard. “We are not losing our culture, we are creating a new one,” says Ali, 35, who looks like a young Asian Bob Geldof, with designer jeans, leather jacket, long hair, stubble and baseball cap. “I like to see an 18-year-old Asian couple at one table, a white couple over there, and an Afro-Caribbean couple at the next.”

Academics are fascinated by Cafe Lahore, and have written papers based on what is served here before dawn during Ramadan. They call it the Full Muslim. The devout come to fill up before the daylight fast, with an Asian twist on the English breakfast. No pork, obviously, but an omelette served with a spicy version of baked beans, keema parathas and puri to scoop up a sweet mix of semolina, coconut and cardamom. This may be blasphemy, but it would be a wonderful hangover cure. “I don’t drink alcohol,” says Ali, but some of the white lads in the place look as if they do. They’re sitting, laughing, with Asian teenagers, which is supposed to be a rare sight in this country. “I started this place as somewhere my friends and I could go for a chat, but we saw that there is a brand new audience, of young people who do not see the racial and cultural distinctions of before and are happy to have something of this and something of that, all together in the same room.”

What we’re looking at in Lahore is the future of England. If we’re lucky. At the last census 87.5% of people described themselves as White British, but that was nearly 10 years ago and the percentage will be lower next time. Children are six times more likely than their parents to be mixed race, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The English are changing colour. Some people may want to complain, but at Cafe Lahore the mix of tastes and cultures looks like a reason to celebrate.

It’s loud, though. In your face. Some may prefer the calm, airy restaurant at the last stop on this road trip: the Ikea store at Edmonton in north London. A furniture shop may sound like a strange place to end, but here again, breakfast reveals huge social change.

“I am here because I was looking for calm,” says Hadi Haghighi, the 52-year-old food manager, who was born in Iran. “I am from Tehran and I was in the army. I wanted to go to university, but there was none after the revolution. I came here to get a visa for America, but the hostage situation was going on at the time and they said, ‘Do you want to kill us all?’ They refused a visa, so I stayed here. I studied computing but food is safer. I come from a volatile country and appreciated the stability of England. Even in a recession, they go on as they are, peacefully.”

And they come to Ikea, in great numbers, for a modern miracle: the Full English breakfast for 99p. Ikea do it by ordering in huge numbers — 2m breakfasts a year across Britain — but also by making a loss. They are deliberately using the emotional pull of the Full English as a way to draw people in to the stores. “The philosophy is to have a product that makes you go, ‘Wow’,” says Hadi. “With this one, the wow is the price.”

There are Asian women in hijabs, African women in headgear, and white women breastfeeding their babies. The price and the appeal of the cooked breakfast cuts across cultures. And here, at the end of the journey, I meet a young woman who is as representative as anyone could be of the new Englishness. Sade Tuite, 22, was named after the Anglo-Nigerian singer. Her mother is “half Irish, half Maltese. Does she have a temper on her? She sure does. My dad’s parents come from Jamaica”.

I feel fat, sick and salt-encrusted, but meeting Sade and her baby daughter, London — and looking at the people around us — confirms a feeling I had in my gut (before it started aching). We’re doing okay. The English are reinventing ourselves, just as we have done so many times before, fusing cultures as we did when the Vikings and the Normans came. The cooked breakfast has evolved with us, from the upper-class country-house feast to this miraculously cheap version served in a Swedish store by an Iranian man to a woman whose heritage is Irish, Maltese, Jamaican and local. Here in Ikea, more than ever, the Full English is an icon of our (new) nationhood.

“When I go to my gran’s for tea I have cabbage and bacon,” says Sade. “When I go to my other gran’s I have jerk chicken, rice and peas.” Where does that leave her? “I’m English. The full English, yeah. All mixed up, in a good way. Lots of flavours,” she says, spearing a hash brown. “That’s the way the English are now, isn’t it? We’re all from everywhere.”

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