The problem with the Full English in my book is it is served about three hours too early - unless you’re off on horseback to slaughter some wild animal. The weighty fry-up was designed to empower not workers off at dawn to till the fields as often thought, but to invigorate the landed gentry back in the 15th century as a grand hunt breakfast. The Victorian middle and upper classes adopted the meal before the Edwardians standardised the dishes, giving us today’s English breakfast.
French market stall holders have a better idea. They may be setting up just after dawn, but it’s only once the general public show up swinging their baskets that they settle back for their casse-croute. The French insist they don’t go in for snacking, an American abomination. So don’t point out that a casse-croute looks pretty close to one, being a croûte - a crust - loaded with good things.
In my book, it makes a much better break of the night fast than France’s traditional offering, the croissant. Those make me sluggish especially those that have been made industrially without the traditional long proving time applied by traditional boulangers. Like most breakfasts, they do come into their own once the digestion has swung into gear, somewhere close to mid-morning, which is why I’m all in favour of the American brunch, never served before 11 a.m. and always with an offering of a spicy slug of Bloody Mary.
Fruit for breakfast, fresh or as a compote seems a little too worthy, although each morning before school, my mother would set down a sugared half grapefruit before flourishing our dreaded hard-boiled eggs. (Whatever happened to that sour half citrus, no longer on any breakfast menu and rarely found in any supermarket where once they were piled high? Beware the fickle finger of Popularity.)
But while I don’t support an English breakfast except for well past casse-croute time, I am in favour of a Scottish one. When I first was served porridge walking the Western Isles and Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, I was surprised to discover it’s made not with sugar but with salt. Any Scot would be horrified by my personal recipe, slowly simmering the oats in milk that is flavoured with vanilla extract and a teaspoon of sugar until they turn into a thick slump then decanting them into a warm bowl, pouring over double cream and carrying them back to a snug bed.
Porridge is a good start to these days of rising in darkness. But if you’re not a fan, your answer may be Bircher Muesli.
This start to the day was developed by Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss physician and nutritional pioneer around 1900 to treat his patients. It needs no soaking, or cooking which should make it even more appealing to anyone burdened by fuel bills. I grew up stuffing my school clothes down to the bottom of my bed last thing at night and in the morning dressing in them before throwing back the bedclothes and scratching my initials in the frost on the window pane the going down to breakfast.
Comforting and cuddly for these often lowering days of the new year, Bircher Muesli is filled with slow-release carbohydrates that will energise you and warm you internally for so much longer than most other breakfasts without weighting you down. Plus, it doesn’t really need a recipe. These quantities for 2 servings, are completely flexible. Add more of everything or less, and double up my suggestions in order not to have to make it daily.
Coarsely grate one washed but not peeled apple into a large bowl. Add a handful (50g/4 tablespoons) porridge oats, preferably jumbo ones, 25g/2 tablespoons of whatever mix of seeds you like for crunch (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, linseed or others), 25g/2 tablespoons of roughly chopped mixed nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts), 25g/2 tablespoons (each or in total - it’s up to you) sultanas, dried cranberries, dried blueberries, chopped dates, prunes, apricots. Add ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon if you like the flavour. Mix everything thoroughly into 100g/3½ oz of full-fat yogurt. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, spoon into bowls and top, if you like, with a chopped banana or some fresh berries.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the January 2023 edition of The Bugle.