If you stay at a bed and breakfast (or guest house, inn, or hotel) in Britain, the first question your hosts will likely ask in the morning is: “Will it be the Full English?” Full English? What could that even mean?!
What it means is history, tradition, and…lots of protein.
As far back as the 14th century and into the pre-war 20th century, if you were landed gentry with the usual baronial “country house”, you were expected to provide your weekend guests with a sumptuous breakfast—especially if there was a fox hunt to follow. This might include a groaning sideboard laden with sliced cold roast beef, lamb, ham, tongue, cheeses, squab, pheasant, fish, kippered (smoked) herring, and more. And, of course, tea (there is no mention of vegetables).
Then came the Industrial Revolution, and to keep one going through those long factory hours, the “full English Breakfast” evolved. Unlike that precious (and miserly) “Continental breakfast” (bread, butter, maybe a dry pastry, jam, coffee) the full English remains a hearty mainstay—to such an extent that there are cafes across the land that offer it all day.
The “full English” is, simply put, a protein bomb. You may begin with juice and a choice of cereals, but the main event is the hot breakfast: invariably two fried eggs, fried sausage, back bacon, fried halved tomato and cubed mushrooms, fried bread and, in rare cases, a slice of fried black pudding (don’t ask). Also toast, marmalade, and tea. For obvious reasons, this is known as “a proper fry up.” Somewhere along the way, baked beans appeared. I’m not sure why, but they may have been a cheap source of protein during WWII. The beans persist today. And the brand is always Heinz. Nothing else will do, apparently. Tradition, you see.
If you’re a vegetarian, I can understand that this might not appeal. But let me tell you, it is sustaining. Some years ago, I put a pack on my back and walked roughly 1,400 miles through much of southern England. It took three and a half wonderful months. When I wasn’t camping in some farmer’s field, I stayed at B&Bs (one does need a shower and shave occasionally). And I had, always, the “full English.” I might stop at a pub at midday for a pint or two and a bag of salted crisps (potato chips), but that protein bomb kept me fueled all day.
In the evening, I’d repair to a good local pub for supper. These days, pub food has gone gourmet. At least in my beloved Cornwall, there are “gastropubs” everywhere. The menus can be sophisticated and surprising, with the freshest local ingredients.
But I know myself and, after a long day’s hike, I’ll probably tuck into a pub mainstay: “bangers and mash” (grilled local sausage, buttery mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, fresh peas). And a couple of pints of Doom Bar, St. Austell’s Tribute, Skinner’s Betty Stogs, or whatever other local ale is on tap.
Tradition, you see.
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