A Brit dives into the history of the edible class divide.
Visitors to Britain are often surprised that class is still a major factor in our daily lives. The middle and upper classes may have adapted their accents and professed a liking for soccer but they cannot shake off their backgrounds entirely. Nowhere is this division more apparent than in what we eat. The edible class divide has a long history. In Roman times the elite ate anchovies with wine whereas the peasantry consumed the ancient equivalent of aerosol cheese. At first glance, breakfast now seems free of such class distinctions. We all like bacon and eggs. But these superficial similarities flatter to deceive; the class distinctions are still there—they are just subtle. So if you are planning to visit these shores or perhaps you have the misfortune to have just married into a British family, here is a guide to class at the British breakfast table.
For much of British history nobody would have bothered much with breakfast. They might have had some leftover pheasant or gruel in the morning, depending on income, but it would not have been a separate meal. The British breakfast as we know it has its origins in the great country house breakfasts of the Victorian era, eaten before or after some form of manly field sport such as fox hunting. Since the other meals in these country houses were French or French-influenced, breakfast, largely overlooked by the French, became a repository for British values of plainness and common sense. The common sense extended only as far as the dishes themselves not the gargantuan quantities in which they were consumed. A normal breakfast buffet might consist of eggs, bacon, sausage, chops, deviled kidneys, kedgeree, cold meats, meat pies, pastries, kippers and so on. Hardly sensible.
The traditional breakfast, or Full English as it’s now known, of bacon, eggs, sausage, fried bread, fried tomato and black pudding (blood sausage) is an imitation of this traditional feast with the crucial difference that it’s served on one plate. Edwardian hotels probably invented the concept for middle class businessmen. Some, therefore, consider the Full English itself a bit common. You can always tell members of the aristocracy because they put imaginary quotations around the words ‘Full English’.
It’s a potential minefield but there are some hard and fast rules to recreating the plate if you’re still interested. Decoration, garnish and herbs have no place at the breakfast table. Bread should be fresh, unsliced and crusty. Fresh fruit is a no no. Eggs can be fried, poached, scrambled or boiled but omelets are not considered proper in the morning. Bacon should be smoked and streaky. It should be served crisp but not American brittle. A cheap sausage is an obvious sign that your host is not completely pukka [Brit for something akin to "genuine"] but an unnecessarily fancy one is also undesirable. The classiest thing to eat at the breakfast table is smoked fish: a good kedgeree, kipper or Arbroath smokie can melt the heart of even the crustiest colonel or disapproving maiden aunt.
The condiments: Ketchup, Tabasco, mustard and HP sauce (the only slightly fruity addition to the table, it’s also mildly spicy). They should be left in their bottles not decanted into little dishes. It’s quite normal to make your own preserves in Britain so homemade jam and marmalade are good ways of showing off without looking as if you’re trying too hard. It hardly needs to be said that only proper butter is allowed, not something spreadable from a tub.
The British are very backward when it comes to coffee. Many still think that Nescafe is acceptable. The best thing to do is to develop a taste for tea. It should be made from a robust English or Scottish breakfast blend ideally from loose leaves rather than bags. The biggest faux pas is to use Earl Grey which should only be served in the afternoon with no milk and lemon if at all. Commercial blends such as Yorkshire Tea, PG tips etc. are acceptable across all classes. The working class serve these extremely strong with tooth-rotting amounts of sugar. Fruit teas and herbal teas have no place at the breakfast table.
In short avoid daintiness and fuss and anything that could be thought of as Continental. Ingredients should be good quality but not ostentatiously so (don't go bragging about your single estate Sumatra coffee). A word of warning though: some of the British upper classes follow the rule of plainness to ridiculous lengths. They were educated at expensive schools where terrible food is a badge of honor. Many of the country’s best families consider it decadent and un-British to care about what you eat. If the food is truly inedible then you are breakfasting with some very old money indeed. I’m all for social climbing but really! Such people are best avoided.