The “Full English breakfast”, or the “fry-up” is most certainly a staple of the United Kingdom. Whether it be to set yourself up for the day, or as comfort food the morning after the night before, a Full English is embedded in the nation’s culinary make-up.
However, the precise nature of it, believe it or not, is controversial. Firstly, it varies regionally (something that we will delve into later), but there are also variations into what is considered acceptable to include on the plate.
My desire to write this piece came about from debates about whether black pudding was a required component of a Full English or not. What my research has uncovered is a great deal of debate about other components you may take for granted.
Also, given the evolution of the Full English, it is also now my opinion that there is no de facto answer to the question of what should go into one. Instead, I think there is a way of approaching this subject by ranking common components by the debate around them.
Least controversial items in a Full English
I have yet come across any source, reference or otherwise, that doesn’t accept that sausage, bacon and eggs forms the core of a Full English breakfast. However, the type of bacon, believe it or not, is a subject of debate. A survey published by The Mirror suggested that in England, there is a North/South divide on whether the bacon should be smoked. Northerners prefer their bacon unsmoked, whereas the those in the South prefer theirs smoked. At no stage has anyone suggested that the bacon shouldn’t be back bacon*, nor the eggs fried, although I have to admit that the flexibility of the humble egg does afford the enjoyable option of varying your Full English with scrambled or poached from time to time.
In Ireland, they would have Irish Bacon. Irish Bacon is back bacon just the same, but is so named because of localism, nothing more. In fact, the Full English is a perfect vehicle to support local artisan producers of the ingredients.
In terms of the egg, there is a specific approach to a fried egg that I personally think is an essential part of a Full English. The base of the white should be crispy, the yolk hot and runny, and there should be no uncooked white running around. Unfortunately, this approach requires some care and attention and doesn’t lend itself to a more industrial scale production, which is why it is annoyingly rarer than I would like.
At no stage has toast been controversial. Or, rather, I should say toasted bread. One could write a thesis on whether it should be brown or white bread that is toasted, and the extent of the toasting. For me, personally, it’s granary bread toasted well (otherwise it’s just warm bread!) but I know many that disagree. It is also relatively uncontroversial as to whether or not fried bread is included (but only as an addition to toast, not a replacement).
* bacon cut from a pork loin; known (unhelpfully here) as Canadian Bacon in the USA although strictly Canadian Bacon has less of a layer of fat than you would want on your UK bacon in my experience.
Moderately controversial items in a Full English
Black pudding, a sausage made from pigs blood (part of the same family as blood sausage, blood wurst or boudin noir) is also something that finds itself in a North/South divide. Apparently, Southerns are squeamish and do not care for this delicacy. However, offal has always had a place. From Mrs Beeton’s description of a hearty breakfast in the 1800s, through to the Scottish adding the wonderful Haggis to a Full
English Scottish breakfast, it is difficult to find any piece that doesn’t reference it somewhere. Also, the Full English Irish in Ireland would almost certainly feature white and black pudding; whilst an over simplification, white pudding is black pudding without the blood (but with different quantities of oats, fat and spices accordingly).
If I were being particularly mischievous, I would suggest that the cheap sausages used in the worst of the greasy spoons’ Full English may well contain offal and it’s present even if you didn’t overtly order it. However, a good Full English should feature a plump juicy sausage from decent cuts of pig (belly and shoulder being my local butcher’s “go to” parts). Plain, Lincolnshire (flavoured with sage), Cumberland (pepper) are probably the three least controversial varieties. Whilst wild boar sausages, venison sausages and merguez all have their place, a Full English isn’t really for them.
However, I consider there to be one exception; the Welsh Dragon sausage (leeks and chilli) deserves a look in, not just if you were having a Full
English Welsh in the Valleys, but it is an exceptional variety of sausage.
Properly controversial items in a Full English
Whilst not at all controversial in our Welsh cousin’s equivalent, I think the presence of laverbread would send the aforementioned squeamish Southerners for the hills. Helpfully, laverbread isn’t bread at all. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s a puree made from seaweed (laver). In breakfast terms, it could be served on hot toast, or as a laverbread cake (which, equally helpfully, isn’t really a cake either – it’s a mixture of oatmeal and laverbread fried). Personally, I think it has a bad reputation and I thoroughly enjoy its presence in my Full
English Welsh when I visit Wales.
Now, perhaps surprisingly, I am going to list the hash brown as controversial. This also has the effect of sucking Scotland back into the debate as the tattie scone (not a scone per se, it’s a potato cake) is an omnipresent feature of the Full
English Scottish North of the border. We also shouldn’t forget a similar thing is called a potato farl in Ireland and would feature on the plate there. Anyway, some of this part of the debate can be dealt with swiftly; the hash brown is an American import. It works well with eggs-over-easy, American bacon (being the crispy, streaky kind) and syrup. Or, as I discovered in New Orleans, a chicken-fried steak and hash browns was an epic way to get over Bourbon Street the night before. It has no place in a traditional Full English; saute potatoes, a once British stable would be more authentic and I’d see bubble-and-squeak on my Full English plate before a hash brown.
That really just leaves the accoutrements; mushrooms, baked beans and tomatoes. The Mirror survey says that the British public expects baked beans, however, various other pieces vary on whether they should be included. I have two things to add to this debate; firstly, as a breakfast item, beans have a high risk, higher than egg yolk, of staining your nice white work clothes before you arrive in your office, so there’s a practical consideration. Secondly, their presence has to be conditional on whether there’s a tomato, as their similarity means it’s kind of one or the other.
Mushrooms are not universally adored, but are an inoffensive addition to a Full English; there is very little debate as to whether or not they should be included, perhaps for this reason.
This piece is really on the “fry-up”, one of the key take home messages is that it is very regionally specific. The core of sausage, bacon and egg is taken and varies within England, and across into Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The only really common element is that it is well-loved by many and a hearty start to the day.
Personally, I’m a born and bred Southerner with a Northern and Scottish ancestry. This means my own preference for the perfect Full English is a fusion of it all. It’s sausage, smoked back bacon, fried egg, mushroom (has to be a large one preferably), no beans and no tomato, black pudding and granary toast.
The most controversial thing of all though, it what I add to it; it’s only HP sauce and there should be no ketchup within 100 miles of my plate!