By Geneviève Lacroix
A historical look at the first meal of the day
Etymologically speaking, break-fast is the meal at which you break your fast, seen as overnight when people don’t usually eat meals. Break-fast is therefore simply a case of breaking one’s overnight fast. But breakfast history is far from trivial…
Breakfast history on your plate?
In Europe, traditional breakfasts vary widely depending on latitude; the colder the climate, the more copious the first meal of the day, comprising carbohydrates and protein-rich dishes. Moreover, Sunday breakfasts are often the sort of meal you get when travelling, being more elaborate, more delicious and providing greater choice than their everyday counterpart.
In the more Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy, the pace of daily life means it is often a rush to get out early in the morning, with no time for breakfast. People may just swallow a quick cup of coffee to kick start their day: the idea being to stop off at the nearest bakery to pick up a few pastries on their way to work. Grabbing a strong coffee and a pastry in a street bar is commonplace. Why not enter into the spirit of it and sit at the counter of a bar or at a little table in a cake shop and watch all the locals come by.
Sweet cakes and fancy pastries are relatively recent arrivals in breakfast history. In the 19th century, they were the privilege of the bourgeoisie. And even then, gentlemen often used to leave them for women and children to enjoy. Men often got their energy and work stamina from consuming savoury dishes and beer first thing in the morning. Bread was the essential component of this composite meal. The poorer classes used to eat what they could – with a definite preference for substantial fare, particularly thick soups which were filling and set them up for their working day.
As for croissants: a French invention, no question! The eating of small pastries in crescent form was attested at a royal banquet back in the 16th century. For these luxury croissants to be worthy of the name, pure water and high quality flour and butter are needed as well as skilful kneading and precise cooking times. It’s a real art which stems from genuine professional savoir-faire.
Today, traditional French bread with butter and jam (or perhaps honey) can be found from the North to the South of the country. As for tea, coffee or hot chocolate which are always on the menu, their history is such that these drinks merit a whole article in themselves …
Breakfast in the UK
English, Irish, Scottish, British … breakfast is a substantial hot and savoury meal. The French version cuts no ice here; the Brits are still enamoured of their hearty morning breakfast (especially at week-end) – a time-honoured tradition which harks back to the ploughman. With bacon, vegetables and beans under your belt, you can keep going most of the day.
It goes back to the medieval habit and takes the form of a full meal: protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. It is meant to fill you up. The meat, generally pork, is cooked or fried: bacon, sausages and black pudding. Fried or scrambled eggs are served with beans. Vegetables were varied and seasonal, before the half tomato and white mushrooms became standard. These mass production products are easily recognisable by customers and they can be re-heated in the kitchens – or galleys – of hotels. Sometimes smoked fish pop up on the menu as well.
Smoked deer meat and fish eggs?
The Scandinavian breakfast proudly features regional products. Just as substantial as the British breakfast, the emphasis here is on seafood and whole grain cereals such as rye and buckwheat, grown in its northern soils. But what hotel would serve its guests a tasty dish of fermented shark meat, which is one of the essential elements of Norwegian cuisine?
In German-speaking countries you will find ham, boiled sausages (Brühwurst), salami, a range of hard cheeses, hard boiled eggs and smoked fish, with delicious little rolls flavoured with cumin, poppy or sesame seeds.
The Netherlands will surprise you with its aniseed sprinkles and coconut bread (kokosbrood), coming from trade with its tropical colonies. You will like the yogurt, easier to digest than milk, and fruit. While in authentic guesthouses in Catalonia, you will be served bread rubbed with a clove of garlic, half a tomato, a pinch of salt and pepper and dribbled with olive oil. This comes with a little goat’s cheese, as befits the mountainous regions of Southern Europe with a few olives thrown in for good measure …
Originally for medical and religious reasons
The variety of cereals in the form as flakes, sugared, covered in honey or chocolate, etc. are a very recent phenomenon associated with our consumer society. At the outset, corn flakes were the result of nutritional research carried out by Protestant American monks, keen to develop a cost-effective vegetarian food which would be easy to promote to people. It was a case of using the vast fields of corn on American farms on the plains. Since then, industrial cereal production has reduced the role of the housewife in the home. Their contribution in terms of energy and dietary intake is now open to question and sales are dwindling. However, they have long been a favourite in breakfast history with mothers of families keen to enjoy the modern American way of life.
Muesli (from the German mues and Swiss-German li = small puree), a mixture of cereals with dried and fresh fruit, was invented by a Swiss doctor around 1900, for his patients in fragile health. The original recipe called for the muesli to be soaked in lemon juice, not milk. This was much easier to digest and more energising. The craze for muesli began to spread in the 1960’s, buoyed up by concerns for a healthier, more vegetarian and alternative lifestyle.
Originally bunch was a meal offered on Sundays by the American housewife who was also keen to have a lie-in. The perfect fridge-emptier comprised leftovers from the week, eaten in a relaxed environment, at a relatively late hour in the morning. Breakfast-and-lunch, contracted to brunch, has become a specialised meal in its own right, where all combinations are possible. Its often forgotten forerunner was the “ambiguous buffet” in Renaissance times, where hot and cold dishes both savoury and sweet, were provided. However, no leftovers were served.
Changing meal times
In the 18th century, “High Society” whether in cities or at Court tended to widen the gap between other social groups and the provinces. Night life, in the glow of candles, meant that being tired the next day was not a concern, nor did one worry about the natural rhythm of daylight hours. This leisured society became keener than ever to distance itself from normal people, whose lives depended on daylight hours, the needs of their animals and the price of candles.
By retiring in the small hours, people rose later and later and breakfast ended up being taken very late in the morning, or even early in the afternoon. The day ended with dinner, so supper was relegated to a light meal taken after the show, in the middle of the night. As a reaction, some people started to take “little” breakfast at the beginning of the day so they could keep going until the late breakfast.
In the 19th century, the bourgeoisie, who then dominated the social and economic hierarchy, could no longer cope with such a late start. Men went out to work and started their day early. Moreover, improvements in lighting (gas, oil and then electricity) enabled soirées to go on longer. This “little” breakfast became a meal in itself in France, known as “petit déjeuner”. The elegant Parisian style gradually became the norm throughout the country, which adopted the names of “petit déjeuner” (little breakfast), “déjeuner” (breakfast) and “dîner” (lunch) for the three main meals of the day.
Now that the multinational food conglomerates have standardized the consumption of croissants, mass-produced jams, chocolate and hazelnut spreads and orange juice made from pasteurised concentrates, it is good to come across guest houses which uphold local traditions: soda bread rolls, dried meats, almond buns, porridge, black bread and grilled kidneys …
Do YOU know of any other typical regional dishes, which make a welcome change to the usual “continental style” breakfast usually served?