Sumptuous breakfast lovers of the kind that comes stacked on a plate or stuffed into a bap, baguette, bun, huffa, muffin or roll should probably skip this opening bit, because it is not going to be complimentary and it might even be objectionable. Those of you, whoever you are, who love to tuck into a calorie-rich breakfast that consists of carbohydrates, fats and proteins and then go on to spend your working day sitting on your arse should stop and wonder. If someone set in front of you a plate containing a combination of all or some of the following – steak sausages, pork sausages, rashers of bacon, slices of black pudding, slices of white pudding, fried eggs, fried soda bread, fried potatoes, wheaten bread, white toast, potato cakes, tomatoes, white mushrooms and baked beans – you would, if you weren’t young and healthy with energy to burn, be looking at a heart attack on a plate.
This was the reaction of a French anthropologist when he first encountered the Irish breakfast. ‘The shock of eating this salty fat food was very real. At 8 o’clock in the morning having to eat an egg, two slices of bacon, two spicy sausages, a fried tomato, white beans served in a curious sweet tomato sauce and slices of a fried dark thing called pudding, was truly at the limits of the possible.’
In recent decades that plate has beome mobile and while the bacon, egg and sausage is now contained in a bun or a farl, it remains a lesser necessary evil.
Across the diverse culinary landscape of Europe, breakfast is a fast and furious affair for workers. A coffee will suffice until the mid-morning snack for some. For others it is a bread roll filled with a variety of items. Or it might be a hot drink with a cake or a pastry. A cold drink with an energy bar. Rarely will it be a hot plate. More often than not it will be a cold plate. Mostly it is a little something just to get going for the day, and that is no bad thing. Some bit of breakfast in the stomach is better than none at all.
On the street, by road sides and in motorway stopping places, fast food outlets will offer a combination of breads and pastries including bagels, baguettes, croissants, muffins and rolls filled with a variety of foods, cheese and ham prominent. In cafés and hotels the breakfast menu may include the ubiquitous cold plate and the pragmatic hot plate, of which fish in its different disguises will feature in both. In the home cereal is a fast food and in the form of müesli a slow food, made with cow’s milk or soy milk. Pancakes of different shapes and sizes offer the opportunity to indulge with honey or jam. Toast has become an elaboration with an array of toppings. Fruit on its own or with yoghurt is a popular breakfast food. Coffee is universal yet fruit juice, fruit nectar, black tea and herb tea cling to the periphery.
What is obvious is the symmetry. Breakfast is a choice of staple foods that define the particular and peculiar culture, like the Irish breakfast, which appears to have all of them on one plate, so let’s take a closer look at these staples. First the raw produce.
THE INGREDIENTS OF BREAKFAST
Cereal — For those who like to think about the exact purpose of breakfast food, that it must provide for the body and the brain, müesli – mixed cereals, dried fruit, seeds and nuts – drowned in milk of one kind or another is a genuine breakfast dish. A tough choice for the energetic, carnivorous youth but one that can become regular for those prepared to seek sustenance in a different form.
Coffee — Italians who start their day early are content with a double espresso. If they have time they will take a cappucino. Elsewhere across Europe coffee black, coffee concentrated, coffee frothed and coffee white are the order of breakfast.
Corn — Squares of cooked potenta topped with a range of items or slices of polenta in the Romanian fashion (made with cheese and cream) are a breakfast food for those who follow the tradition, largely in central Italy and across the Adriatic region into the Balkans and the east.
Egg — Breakfast eggs are baked, boiled (hard and soft), fried, poached, scrambled and mixed with cheese and cream, and served in a variety of styles.
Fish — Pan-fried fish was once a breakfast food of the Atlantic fringe and of all the coastal regions (the Aegean, the Adriatic) where fish such as the capricous mackerel were caught early in the day. Herring was rolled and pickled and became a breakfast favourite of the Baltic countries, of the Dutch and the Germans. Haddock was smoked to become an iconic breakfast product, whereas in Norway everything from eel to herring to saithe and salmon was smoked. Squid was battered and became an essential ingredient in the mid-morning fried fish snack of the Mediterranean countries.
Fruit — Fruit of all kinds can be found on the breakfast table. More often or not that is in the form of compotes, jams, preserves and marmalades.
Honey — A breakfast favourite in the countries where honey is revered and celebrated, used in all kinds of preparations from pancakes to syrups. Used to sweeten black tea.
Kefir and Yoghurt — Kefir is the essential ingredient in the Russian pancake, unlike its French counterpart a breakfast food that contained every kind of filling you can think of. Yoghurt is now an essential breakfast food, either on its own or mixed with puréed fruit or with müesli.
Mushroom — Freshly foraged mushrooms once epitomised the breakfast tables whereas nowadays it is the cultivated white mushroom that is seen on breakfast plates, sautéed in butter, cooked in eggs to make an omelette and marinated in olive oil to feature in garlic-tomato concoctions spread on crusty breads.
Pork — Without pork butchery the idea of breakfast across Europe would be very different. Bacon, cured and smoked, is that ideal in virtually every tradition, used in different ways. Pork is the ingredient for salami and sausage. Ham made from pork is an essential ingredient in the cold plate that emerged in the delicatessen era. The Danish liver pâté called leverpostej is a popular breakfast food in Denmark and Norway. Made with pork liver and anchovy it is part of the Norwegian breakfast feast that includes breads, cereals, cheeses, coffee, crackers, crispbreads, eggs, fishes, milk, müesli, pickles, potato flatbreads, potatoes, smoked bacon, smoked fishes, tea, toast and yoghurt – the most diverse breakfast in Europe.
Potato — When the potato arrived in Europe it replaced porridge made with oats as the choice of breakfast, particularly in Switzerland where it was grated and fried to become known as rösti and gradually lost it role as a breakfast food. In Ireland it became an essential ingredient in the morning fry as a cake or farl. The Norwegian lefse is a flat potato bread made with rye flour. Back in Switzerland in the east of the country the potato made a comeback as a breakfast food in the shape of maluns, cooked potato rested overnight, crumbled into small lumps, rolled in corn or wheat flour and fried in oil.
Rye — Black bread made from rye flour is a feature of breakfast cultures that require toppings of various types.
Spelt — Rejuvenated by the Germans and the Swiss, the English and Irish have taken up the challenge to produce breakfast loaves made with spelt flour.
Tea — Good tea from the Chinese, Indian and Turkish regions is a refreshing start to the day. Not only black and green teas, breakfast include fruit teas and herb tissanes, especially in the Mediterranean basin countries.
Wheat — Without the soft wheat grown across Europe, breakfast would be unrecognisible. Breads (large and small), cakes, pancakes, pastries and other confections made with wheat flour dominate the breakfast table. For over a hundred years the Viennoiserie style that produced baguettes and croissants and the Danish style that produced pastries was the breakfast choice of western Europe and Scandinavia. With the German and Swiss small breads revolution that has changed. Now enriched, small bread buns and rolls offer a nutritional package, from doughs that include fruits, nuts and seeds and are made with mediums such as apple juice, cheese, cream, egg, milk, potato and yoghurt. Even toast has not lost its allure, especially in central Europe where it is combined with an egg-cheese-cream mixture in different formations to produce a breakfast legend.
Then there are the processed products, vis bacon, cheese, ham, pancakes, pickles, salami, sausage and of course the dairy products.
Bacon and Ham — Ubiquitous across Europe, cured by different methods and used in hot and cold preparations.
Breads and Pastries — Bread for breakfast varies but the emergence of the bread roll in recent years has seen a shift toward a breakfast package, with enriched bread rolls and bread rolls filled with various items. Pastries designed for breakfast include Austrian, Danish and French elaborations that are eaten whole or stuffed, like the Swiss habit of putting cheese and ham in the croissant.
Butter, Buttermilk, Cream and Milk (including Soy Milk) — Breakfast without butter to spread on various breads and other preparations would be unthinkable to most European food cultures, less so buttermilk and cream which are used with specific breakfast foods. Dairy and non-dairy (soy) milk is the medium for cereals including porridge, an old tradition that is still alive in northern countries.
Cheese — The list of cheeses that form the fabric of the breakfast table continues to grow as Europeans come to realise the extent of the raw milk cheeses available to them, all perfect as breakfast foods. The Norwegian breakfast has all the iconic cheeses of the country including cream cheeses and white cheeses, hard cheeses and semi-soft cheeses. French cheeses like brie and camembert, Dutch cheeses like edam and gouda and Swiss cheeses like emmental and gruyère provide fillings and toppings in breads and pastries. Most of the cheeses of Europe including mountain and valley cheeses play a role in the breakfast plate.
Ferments and Pickles — Generally fish and vegetables, herring and cucumber for example.
Salami and Sausage — The sausage, more than bacon or ham, is a truly global food found everywhere as an established breakfast item made to traditional regional standards. In the German speaking countries there are 1500 varieties of sausage made from pork, beef or veal with herbs, spices and milk including frankfurters (aka hot dogs) sold as a breakfast street food. Salami is generally a cold plate item at breakfast.
Lastly let’s look at the breakfast stables from the perspective of each country. Generally the choices are a cold plate, a hot plate and a takeaway divided throughout the morning.
British Isles — Bacon. Breads. Cereals. Coffees. Eggs. Fruits. Jams. Juices. Mushrooms. Pastries. Potatoes. Processed Cereals. Processed Foods (e.g. Baked Beans). Sausages. Tea. Toast. Tomatoes.
Czechia — Breads. Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Jams. Pastries. Sausages. Teas. Yoghurt.
Denmark— Breads. Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Fishes. Jams. Liver Paste. Open Sandwiches. Pastries.
Finland — Breads. Cereals (including müesli). Cheeses. Coffees. Fruits (including berries). Ham. Jams. Juices. Open Sandwiches. Pastries. Pies. Teas. Yoghurt.
France — Breads. Cheeses. Coffees. Fruits. Pastries. Pork Products. Yoghurt.
Germany — Breads. Coffees. Cheeses. Eggs. Fish (cooked, pickled, smoked). Jams. Juices. Mushrooms. Onions. Pastries. Pickles. Pork Products. Potatoes. Sandwiches. Tea.
Greece — Beans. Breads. Cheeses. Chickpeas. Coffees. Eggs. Fishes. Fruits. Halva. Herb Teas. Honey. Olives. Pancakes. Pastries. Peppers. Pickles. Pies. Rice. Vine Leaves. Yoghurt.
Hungary — Bacon. Breads. Cheeses. Cocoa. Coffees. Eggs. Ham. Honey. Jams. Milk. Peppers. Tomatoes. Sausages. Teas.
Iceland — Cheeses. Fishes (pickled). Fruits. Ham.
Ireland — Bacon. Breads. Coffees. Eggs. Fishes (pan-fried fish). Mushrooms. Pork Products. Potatoes. Sausages. Teas. Toast.
Italy — Breads. Cheeses. Coffees. Cornmeal. Fishes (including deep-fried mixed fish). Honey. Pastries. Pork Products.
Latvia — Breads. Cereals. Cheeses. Eggs. Milk. Sandwiches. Sausages.
Netherlands — Bacon. Breads. Cakes. Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Fruits. Pancakes.
Norway — Bacon. Breads. Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Fishes (cooked, pickled, smoked including roe). Ham. Liver Paste. Pastries. Pickles. Processed Cereals. Processed Meats. Peppers. Potatoes. Salami. Sausages. Tomatoes. Yoghurt
Poland — Bacon. Breads. Cakes. Cereals. Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Fishes (including pickled and smoked). Ham. Honey. Milk. Mushrooms. Onions. Pastries. Pickles. Sandwiches. Sausages.
Portugal — Bacon. Cakes. Cereals. Cheeses. Coffees. Fishes. Fruits. Ham. Pastries. Sausages.
Russia — Bacon. Beef. Breads. Cheeses. Eggs. Fish (including roe). Fruits. Honey. Jams. Milk. Mushrooms. Onions. Pancakes. Pastries. Potatoes. Sour Cream. Teas.
Slovenia — Breads. Coffees. Eggs. Pastries. Salami. Sausages. Teas.
Spain — Breads. Cheeses. Eggs. Fishes. Ham. Pastries. Potatoes. Sausages.
Sweden — Breads. Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Fishes. Pastries.
Switzerland — Bacon. Breads. Cereals (including müesli). Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Fruits (including dried fruits). Ham. Pastries. Potatoes. Teas. Yoghurt.
Turkey — Breads. Cheeses. Coffees. Eggs. Fava Beans. Fishes. Fruits (including fruit leather from apricots or berries). Jams. Meatballs. Molasses. Olives. Pastries. Peppers. Pickles. Sesame. Soups. Teas. Tomatoes. Yoghurt.