Like most things considered common as muck nowadays, the origins of the full English breakfast started with the aristocracy.
In the 12th century, when England was starting to have her land carved up into rich and poor. In these times, the common person had a bowl of gruel to go along with their daily routine of milking the cow and Jeremy Kyle on ITV2. The acquisition of eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, bread, black pudding and tomatoes in one meal was hard to come by. After a good 16 hours ploughing fields, the last thing you want to do is knock up five different things to cook into one dish when one big bowl of stew would do. Nobody tell Neil Kinnock, he’ll be furious.
But the rich and the aristocratic could afford the economics of this. Landowners with hired help could rouse the utilities and sources; hens, pigs, farms, butchers, farmers, tradesmen, and the house staff to formally fix these into a competent and seamless meal. Having it in the morning was deemed a luxury that only the elite could afford. Starting the day with a meal that the average worker could only dream of looking forward to, like using £50 notes for toilet paper. Later on through the centuries, starting with the on-house farmers, the fry up began its slow progress through society. Farmers started tapping their own supply and slowly through the centuries, the full English made its way into the gentry class. By the time the 20th century came around the full English was the starter for workers in factories, while also making a niche for itself as a remedy for hangovers and late night outs. And through its ubiquity has become a national dish. It even has its own society!
What we have is one of the most quintessential meals of Englishness, a meal that started from the top and trickled its way down into every corner of society and culture (although the meats might not find its way onto the after morning-prayers breakfast for some!) Considering this history it was a difficult decision. Where do I go for the no. 1 fry up in London? Do I go up to the original roots and enjoy an upmarket, ironic breakfast? Or do I deign to slum it with the breakfast of the people in the greasy spoons with a dog-eared Orwell paperback? I ended up doing three, mainly because google was so divided on this issue. But it wasn’t difficult to spot that a commercially available fry up is commodified into two different forms; high and low. Upmarket and greasy spoons. I’m talking about clarse. Not claaass the way the Beast of Bolsover pronounces it. Clarse to rhyme with arse. And can one write about the fry up without acknowledging this history?
“. . . portobello mushroom, wibbly and wobbly, garlic and grilled to an inch of its water retention’s life. . . “
“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” – Karl Marx, the Communist Manifesto.
For my first fry up, I head to Hawksmoor, which makes no qualms about who it caters to. It’s literally in Bank. The mecca of brokers and merchants of ole lore and GQ called it the “best power breakfast in London“. We expected Patrick Bateman types and I wasn’t disappointed. Suits and meetings already taking place. This is what it means to charge up before a day of stock exchanges and executive meetings. Del Boy would have changed his “breakfast is for wimps” policy if it meant rubbing shoulders with this bunch of suits. Perhaps the £17 price tag for the breakfast would be used by Derek Trotters of this world as a status symbol.
Bank is a little more labyrinth that we would have liked. To quote Dave Lister; “down ‘ere, they even shampoo the rats!” For a breakfast, it’s gloriously decadent, and you should come here expecting to spend a lot. Needless to say, my student discount probably won’t work here. As a silent act of protest I turn up The Fall on my MP3 player: “Charmed to meet Cha! Eat choo self fit’ta!!!”
The Breakfast Club
“Is it your first time at Hawksmoor?” How did you guess?
The staff were actually really friendly. We turned up earlier than my booking and there was no problem with that, right this way sir. Apologies for not having sugar on the table, offers of tea or coffee or still or sparkling for when we sat down. Sparkling water, a sign of decadence if there was one! The remains of the bottle stay with the salt and pepper and sauces at the end of the table, a breakfast companion of sorts. A trophy of luxury. The black coffee comes minutes later, rich and roasted and bodied as a bog. Delicious. I sit with its aroma wafting while I take in the interior, bleary eyed at 10:30 am.
There’s a scene, about 20 minutes into every Bond film where 007 goes to some swanky posh restaurant to rendezvous with an insider over a glass of Bollinger and afternoon crumpets. Hawksmoor would certainly foot that bill in a future instalment. It’s exclusive enough to make you feel special but inclusive enough that the aspiring bourgeois patriarch could envision themselves here. Surely they can prop up a cardboard cutout of Roger Moore in the corner if they so desired. It does have a touch of the Diogenes club about it. The front is so quiet and unassuming and hides this grandiose underground place. I love joints like these, pockets of rumbling quiet right in the thick of chaos and noise. No phone signal is available here, which closes it all off, you can skip a call from your boss in this place: “Nah sorry gov, I didn’t get your message. T’was at Hawksmoor. . . ”
I sit at the end and soak up the atmosphere. Like Brasserie Zedel there’s no rushedness, no hurried atmosphere despite the near full capacity. The four or five waiting staff attend to the 52 or so tables, not including the bar, which has an impressive array of glassware on the walls. This place must be fun for a party.
Okay, so as soon as the breakfast landed on the table I took a big inhale of what it smells like. And it smelt . . . clean? Anticipations of fried and salts scents were dispensed with, this meal has been cooked with care instead of blasting it all on a high heat till it was needed. I would start by describing the sausage but it just tasted dam good. And you know it’s good food when you give up writing the description and fall back on the superlative “my god”. Fresh, with hints of herbs and the meat tender against wrinkled skin.
“. . . baked beans with chunks of onion and potato. . . “
Black pudding was herby, and crumbly, falling apart with the slightest manoeuvring of cutlery. Same with the hash brown, clearly made a scratch above straight from a bag of McCain’s, with ropes of onions in the rich potato “meat” with the outside thin and crispy. The tomatoes came grilled with sprinklings of rosemary sprigs, and the knife went through it like butter. It’s those little details, the rosemary sprinkles and the potato and onion in the baked beans that make this all stand out.
The bacon was much more than just wilts of pure salt, it had fleshy character, thin with the fat rind fried and left on. The rashers come apart well and taste as you want cured pork to taste, more than just salt. I found my eggs a little overdone but then again they were fried rather than poached. Still, had yolk to dip everything into it. And of course, there were refills of bread to clear the plate up. Brown bread, crispy and slightly toasted on its own little plate with that posh, delicious butter, full fat and salted. Nom nom nom.
A counter to salt and brine; One portobello mushroom, wibbly and wobbly, garlic and grilled to an inch of its water retention’s life, it was so delicious, and I couldn’t work out specifically what flavourings they put on it but it was gorgeously pungent. It’s interesting that in Hawksmoor I got one single large mushroom, and Maggie’s give chopped up a bunch of little mushrooms.
Now this is important, so remember this for next time, the baked beans came in its own little gravy boat. High class indeed. Having the baked beans isolated is a point of contention for many fry up enthusiasts. With the beans coming in a sauce, they risk spilling into other items on the plate, which effectively coats everything in a bean juice. Eliminating this incredibly traumatising event is the silver gravy boat, allowing me to pour them at my leisure. Another little liberty afforded to the customers of Hawksmoor. The trotter baked beans have chunks of onion and potato, making it a little closer to stew than baked beans, and tastes sweeter. Rather like the little twists and tweaks mentioned earlier, you’re paying for these little quiros and odds and ends. One word of advice? This breakfast is filling and even if it isn’t there’s replenishable bread and butter. Only order the full English if you are really hungry.
Land, Liberty and the Pursuit of Breakfast.
So all in total? £28.50. That’s for breakfast, one coffee, a liter of sparkling water, plus tax and a service charge. It’s dastardly decadent for a breakfast but consider it a reward for dragging yourself out of bed. Well, that’s how we’re seeing it anyway. (Funnily enough, if you’re including travel, this works out cheaper than Maggie’s for us) It was hard not to feel a touch of liberty about Hawksmoor. “Have capital, will eat” so to speak. The waiter who added the “optional” service charge while putting my card in would probably agree.
After my meal, I reflect on how far the meal has come in seven centuries. The fry up is a meal that delivers more questions than answers. Interesting, how vogues come and go and the world of food is no exception. What once was gold is bronze, what once was king is usurped. Nowadays, the richer and bitter the food the clarssier it is. (Ed Note: There’s a brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch that nails this phenomenom) To think, this meal initially was viewed the same way we see owning your own yacht or jet. Or that it was once a sign of wealth much like Airpods currently have become a status symbol. It makes me wonder what luxury items will be considered cheap or common in 700 years to come? Will the kidz be quaffing Bolinger in bus shelters while rubbing foie gras into their gums? And is it a sign of a successful society that anyone with £30 could have as many bacon and eggs as their heart desires? Or has the ruling class lost their touch by failing to recognise where their breakfast comes from? Smashing toast though.
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” – Karl Marx, the Communist Manifesto.
Do you like your eggs with a side order of the Communist Manifesto? Does your bacon taste like liberty? Have you been to Hawksmoor before? Agree? Disagree? Comment below and let us know?