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Cape Town - Heart attack on a plate. Big, greasy mess. The full English. Ultimate hangover cure, especially if washed down with an ice-cold beer. You can feel your arteries clogging up just looking at it. Or just reading this. Yes, we’re talking about the big fry-up, that thing your doctor tells you to avoid at all costs but which for many people is the dish they eat most often, or most often crave.
Let’s not be snobs about this. Most of us love a fry-up, even if many do try to avoid it as far as possible for all the obvious health reasons. You’ll be sitting there with your bowl of muesli, fruit and yoghurt, having eschewed the honey, and be eyeing the pile of bacon, eggs, sausages, mushrooms, tomato and toast in front of the guy at the next table, thinking, damn, I’d kill for that right now.
The big, greasy breakfast fry-up is the world set out before you with Lucifer at your shoulder, whispering into your ear. All this could be yours. It’s the R1-million BMW being shown to the politician by the sharp-suited showroom salesman, while the new Deputy Minister of Yet More Wastefulness ums and aahs, knowing the handbook says no, but his heart is screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes!”.
It’s the chocolate bar beckoning you when you know you should be choosing the health-nut snack; the holiday to New York calling you when you know you can only afford Durbs. It’s temptation on a plate, and you know you love it.
We think of it as a full English breakfast but it is also as Irish as it is Scottish and as Welsh as it is American, Australian or, for that matter, South African. There are variations but the basics are common to all these countries: bacon, eggs, sausages and, more often than not, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, sometimes baked beans, and usually toast in one form or another.
The Irish add a small round each of fried black pudding and white pudding. Black pudding is something I was brought up with – it is something you often have with your breakfast in a Yorkshire family. Yes, it is congealed blood. Which generally is not an appealing idea. I accept that. But blood is a chief ingredient of red meat (you might have noticed), so if you have eaten meat all your life, you have been eating cooked blood several times a week since you were born. So it isn’t really much of a stretch to remove the blood from the carrier (the meat) and have it by itself.
Anyway, you don’t just heat it up and drink it, like a gourmet vampire. It is made, often, with oatmeal, barley, or both, and Wikipedia tells us it is often flavoured with pennyroyal, making it one of the rare culinary items to be flavoured with this herb. For a breakfast fry-up, the blood sausage is sliced and each slice is fried individually. Salt and pepper makes it a most palatable thing, depending on the quality of the black pudding.
I think it’s that word – pudding – that puts most people off. The idea of the word for something sweet and delicious being used for something made of blood. White pudding, by contrast, contains no blood. There is pork in it but it is mostly suet (beef or mutton fat), again with oatmeal, and like black pudding, it can be cut into rounds and fried.
The Welsh, God help us, add not only laverbread, but cockles. Cockles. With bacon and eggs. I have never liked the way the English talk about the Welsh, in terms that generally involve sheep and bestiality. I’m sure not all Welsh are sheep shaggers. Having said that, having cockles with your bacon and eggs doesn’t seem to suggest any high level of culinary authority, so I have my doubts about their other favourite breakfast ingredient – laverbread.
Laver is a kind of seaweed. In Japan it’s called nori and we all know it can be put to wonderful culinary uses. It’s found in prolific quantities on the east coast of Ireland and the west coast of Britain, notably Wales. Laver is purple, not a good start unless you’re dealing with aubergines. To make it, it’s boiled and boiled and boiled (also generally not a very good thing), drained and minced, and rolled in oatmeal to be fried.
I’m not saying it’s awful. I don’t know because I haven’t tried it. And I will try it. But I don’t want it with my bacon and eggs and cockles, which I also don’t want with my bacon and eggs.
I’m not the greatest fan of the hash brown with a breakfast, and especially of the recent South African habit of adding a pile of chips to the old-fashioned greasy fry-up. As if the breakfast isn’t bad enough, do we really have to add chips, very often the powdery, tasteless McCain’s you find served up at so many forecourt franchises?
As with anything in cooking, a breakfast fry-up can be humdrum, more often than not just ordinary and okay, but once in a while it can be a showstopper.
The difference comes down to quality, of ingredients and cooking.
I reckon at least 80 percent of breakfast sausages are a disappointment, most bacon will do, in many cases the fried eggs won’t be done properly or the scrambled eggs will be overcooked, the mushrooms will be unimaginative and underseasoned, the tomato will be half-fried and soggy and the baked beans will be lukewarm.
So, there’s no recipe this week as such, but rather, some pointers on how to lift this day-starter to a level that will make it more worthwhile.
* The sausages should be of a good quality and nicely seasoned, perhaps with some herbs or spices as well as salt and pepper, and should be cooked perfectly, neither under or over. Grilling is best, especially with pork sausages.
* The bacon, generally, for a traditional English breakfast, should be back. But whether it’s streaky or back, there are quality versions available from continental speciality food stores.
* The eggs. When we say “sunny side up” we don’t mean there should be gloopy raw egg white on top of the yolk. Would somebody please teach greasy spoon chefs how to use a tablespoon to scoop fat over the yolk before serving a fried egg? And scrambled eggs should be cooked in hot butter, not olive oil, and be served a little underdone. And no, they do not need the addition of milk or, please God, baking powder.
* The mushrooms should be seasoned while frying in a little butter or olive oil. A sprinkling of fresh herbs would not harm. A splash of balsamic vinegar while cooking, reduced, is lovely too.
* The tomato should be halved or quartered and fried on all sides. A little shredded basil is nice, and a little salt and pepper.
* Baked beans need only heating, but a little butter enhances them, and you can take it further by first frying some finely chopped onion and red or green pepper, a little chilli, and stirring the baked beans into this once cooked.
* Finally the toast. Whatever kind of bread you choose, do not overtoast it. Lightly toasted is best, and the only way to be sure of it is to tell the waiter, upfront, that that’s how you want it.