Tuesday, 20 March 2012

No king ever breakfasted on Cornflakes

I hate breakfast. Seriously, I do. I know it's not very foodiefied or on trend of me, but it really is my least favourite meal of the day.

Actually, that oversells my relationship with breakfast – it goes way beyond 'least favourite' status.

Now some of this possibly goes back to all my years of dieting, when skipping breakfast was an easy way to avoid calories, so the habit was broken.

But it’s also far, far more than that.

Is there any other meal that has become so restrictive in terms of what is readily available?

I mean, when I get up at about 6.30am, I am not ready to eat. Frankly, it’s unusual for me to even drink anything at that stage except the occasional glug of fruit juice. I usually start feeling ready to break my fast around 90 minutes later.

So I grab something on the way into work or slip to the canteen for something once I’ve arrived.

The former means a sandwich or roll from one of a couple of places or possibly a warm pastry with filling from Pret or something ‘healthy’ from the same place, like a pot of fruit. Or a pot of yogurt. Or a pot of fruit and yogurt if I’m feeling spectacularly flash.

The latter means a toasted bread product (Chorleywood sliced bread or crumpets) and butter, with occasional jam when pushing out the boat. Cereal is available. Or you can have a pot of fruit. Or a pot of yogurt. Or a pot of fruit and yogurt.

There is some semblance of a cooked breakfast available at the latter, but even if you get there as the canteen is opening for business, the bacon is already tougher than an old boot and the scrambled egg has been sunning itself for so long under a lamp that it needs manually scrambling again with a fork.

Perhaps if I started getting up at 5am, I’d be ready to eat by 6.30am and could prepare something that I actually fancied before leaving home . Although then I’d have to contend with The Other Half objecting to whatever I chose to rustle up.

I don’t mind pastries occasionally, but seriously, where do you get a proper croissant outside of France – the sort of confection that is utterly fresh and so rich in butter that it flakes at the merest reverberation of lips smacked in anticipation.

When I give in to temptation and buy one here, it’s always to be reminded of the triumph of optimism over experience.

Staying in Brighton last month for work, I genuinely enjoyed having poached eggs on toast in the morning. And indeed, at a weekend, when I manage to discipline myself enough to eat before doing something else (like doing the shopping on a Saturday), it’s likely to be a couple of soft-boiled eggs.

Eggs, it’s worth stressing, that are free range and organic and from a farmer I trust. Eggs that are a glory and make such simple eating utterly worthwhile.

When I was a child, my mother would equip us for school with a small glass of fruit juice, an eminently sensible bowl of cereal (Rice Krispies or Cornflakes), followed by a piece of toast with marmalade and a glass of milk.

And therein lies part of the problem.

Why do people eat cereals? Doesn’t it say something that Cornflakes were jointly invented by a man who was three stops short of Upminster and believed that a diet of two bland meals a day was essential to control nasty sexual urges?

The world’s two biggest markets of breakfast cereals are the US and UK – is it a total coincidence that both these mass consumers of such starchy carb-laden fodder have particularly high levels of obesity?

But set that aside: the taste, just think of the taste! It’s largely like eating cardboard – unless you drown it in milk and add sugar to give it some interest. And that’s the healthy ones, as opposed to those that arrive complete with tons of salt and sugar, plus a veritable cornucopia of additives and gimmicks, like chocolate or marshmallows, just to get the children to eat this ‘healthy’ breakfast.

Look at the aisles in a supermarket and see how many different cereals there are; take a look at the ingredient lists and see how many don’t have added sugar, salt and god alone knows what else.

The variety is as great as that of ‘potato’ snacks – in the same places that you’ll struggle to find more than one variety of English apple.

Which might also say something.

There is, of course, porridge, but that needs things added to it to make it less boring and bland.

But all this raises another question: if you read a story about a man who ate Christmas dinner every day, you’d think he was bonkers.

Yet vast numbers of people eat exactly the same every day for breakfast and apparently think that’s entirely sane.

And personally, the lack of variety is one of the things that most peeves me about breakfast.

Occasionally, if I’m at home on my own (and therefore won’t have to suffer outraged complaints about the smell), then once I’m ready to eat, I’ll rustle up some nice, traditional fried bread and fried egg – cooked in lard, of course – or, if really feeling the pangs of hunger, a bowl of basmati rice, served with seasoning and a dollop of good butter.

‘Rice for breakfast’, you say in shock. Well why not? Indeed, it’s a central component of kedgeree, that wonderful dish created by cooks for those returned from the Raj and missing India.

Y’see, while I have no desire to go all Gosford Park on you, those country house types had some good ideas about breakfast – a wonderful array of options and none of them involving sugared cardboard.

Kippers, for instance, or devilled kidneys.

I’m making my own mouth water, contemplating such delicacies. Now obviously such things demand time – and that’s something that few of us have on a regular basis when it comes to breakfast, but come on – even bread and dripping would be welcome.

Or if you had the ingredients, pan amb tomàquet, the Catalan bread that’s toasted and then rubbed with a cut clove of garlic and half a really ripe tomato.

Hotels usually make it worse rather than better: most cooked breakfasts are far from great – not least because they’re almost never actually fresh; the cheeses and cooked meats on offer for those wanting a more ‘continental’ approach are mass produced and bland.

And whoever invented those bloody awful rotary ‘toasters’ that take an hour to give a slice of bread little more than the merest blush should be force fed Special K until they burst.

Not that it’s much better at hotels across the Channel. Which is why we never eat breakfast in hotels but go and find a local café. It usually works out cheaper too and you can watch the world go by while consuming good coffee and pastries or bread that’s rather better than what I’ve described here.

Now I know that breakfast is important and these days, I not only understand the reasons, but can see the affect on my appetite if I skip breakfast.

But given that breakfast is when you’re supposed to dine like a king, then how come we have such a deadly dull range of easily available choices? And the mere absence of meaningful choice, seen against the number of available cereals, shows how much breakfast has become, rather than something fit for a king, the most mass-produced meal of the day, driven massively by claims that it’s healthy!

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