A full English breakfast is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in a domestic kitchen—or even in a professional one. When I was still happily slaving away at Bibendum 15 or so years ago, I once thought it would be just spiffing to offer a mixed-grill breakfast on a Saturday lunchtime—one of the busiest times of the week. The ingredient count was about nine items per plate, with the logistics manifesting themselves most horribly when an order came in from a table of six, all braying for the grill. Never again.
To be a really fine meal, a full English needs much thought and exact forward planning; after all, we are not just talking about poached eggs on toast. For me, about 9.30 on a Saturday morning is the perfect time to eat it. So here are my six staple ingredients for a breakfast for champions, in order of cooking.
First the sausage. I beg you not to choose anything that is not a normal pork sausage (or beef, if you don’t eat pork). The trouble with leeks, honey, cheese, onion, garlic, chilli or anything else is that they muddle the flavour of the meat, fat, seasoning and a touch of rusk; the merest whisper of herbs is allowable, but only just. Always fry sausages very, very slowly, so allowing the skins to brown quietly and crust without bursting—this should take up to 15 minutes.
Mushrooms come next, those nice, big, dark-gilled fellows. Shops often call them “field mushrooms”, a nomenclature that is, generally speaking, horseshit; in fact, that mild expletive is exactly what has never been involved in their growth. A true field mushroom grows in a naturally manured field, and only at certain times of year; the rest of the time we should simply call them big mushrooms. Fry slowly in a chosen fat, or bake in the oven, smeared with butter, for ten minutes or so, and season well.
Tomatoes should be ripe and juicy and not too big, or they’ll take too long to cook right through. And there is nothing worse than a half-raw, just-warm tomato skeetering around the plate. Bake them in the oven, or grill under a medium heat, and let them brown a bit before you add the seasoning.
Then, delicious fried bread. An old-fashioned white loaf is best, as sliced bread contains sugar that burns when you fry it. It is the particular cooking of this final staple that is so important. First, never fry the bread in hot fat in a frying pan; this will make it too greasy. Instead, thinly spread both sides of the bread with dripping or bacon fat, or spray or brush them with oil. Let the bread cook quietly in a thick-based frying pan, turned once, until pale golden and crusted. Just gorgeous.
Bacon should be rind-on and dry-cured, because then it won’t throw out so much of the milky stuff when you cook it. I always fry mine, so that I can keep the precious dripping, but I know many people prefer a gentle grilling. If you are looking for a veritable feast, you may also like to add some black pudding, and a small slice of luxurious calf’s liver (lamb’s is cheaper, but too variable in quality). And, a lamb’s kidney, especially in springtime, can be a lovely addition. All of these should be grilled.
Eggs are the number-one ingredient, yet you cook them last. They should be as fresh as can be, preferably from chickens at the bottom of someone’s garden. I fry mine, as did my father, in bacon dripping, but butter is just fine—as long as you go gently, for fear of burning it. When poaching eggs, I add a splash of malt vinegar in the pan of simmering water because I like the taste and it helps the whites coagulate—though if the eggs aren’t fresh it won’t make any difference. Some slide the egg in from a saucer, but as long as it’s fresh, just cracking close to the water will keep things tidy. Scrambled eggs need only best butter, plenty of it, with no milk or cream getting in the way.
Above all, remember to be well organised, with pans heated, grill lit, oven on and a kettle boiled. And, don’t forget, cook the eggs last.
Eggs Burford Brown hens’ eggs have a good taste, though the yolks can be absurdly orange. For British suppliers, go to clarencecourt.co.uk. Elsewhere, the freshest eggs can be found at farmers’ markets.
Sausages and bacon The Ginger Pig butchers in London does a particularly good dry-cure, but you have to visit the shop to buy it. Proper English (as opposed to Danish) bacon is notoriously difficult to find outside Britain, but Epicerie Barenton delivers English-recipe sausages and bacon anywhere in France for a €15 delivery charge, while RJ Balson & Son delivers pork bangers and smoked back bacon across America.
Black pudding My preference is for the local recipe sold at Bury market in Lancashire—but export restrictions mean you can only buy it in Britain (boudin noir is a quite different recipe, and contains no oats). Elsewhere, look for the kind of black pudding with lumps of white fat—not like the one Michael Palin ate in “Ripping Yarns”, which was so black, “even the white bits are black”.