To eat well in Britain, Somerset Maugham observed in those imperial days before Indian and Chinese restaurants and Elizabeth David and designer chefs had contrived to transform the culinary habits of a nation, it was necessary to eat breakfast three times a day. And what breakfasts they were, the sizzling bacon and the plump sausages, the black pudding with its glistening skin, the fried eggs with their yokes not quite set, the grilled tomatoes and the fried bread, all steaming with the promise of a day evidently starting so well. And then the wholemeal toast, the fresh butter and marmalade made of thick-cut bitter oranges, all washed down with strong tea.
Such a breakfast may have constituted a heart attack on a plate, but it established the soundest of foundations for any empire-building challenges to come. I happen to know that it's how generations of Churchills grew to greatness. And it may be no accident, as the Soviets used to say, that the empire began to fade with the invasion of the British breakfast table by cornflakes, yogurt and croissants.
To consume such a robust dish three times a day, however, might appear to have been too much of a good thing. No matter. The British breakfast was in its golden age almost infinitely varied. The covered dishes on the sideboard contained not only the ingredients of the classics listed lovingly above, but a range of interesting alternatives.
There would be the aromatic kipper, the smoked and salted herring with its fiddly bones, and a vast and steaming bowl of oatmeal porridge with the heavenly treacle of Tate and Lyle's Golden Syrup, whose label portrayed a fallen lion and biblically proclaimed "Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness." There would be deviled kidneys and gently fried mushrooms, a good game pie or the yellow fillets of finnan haddock, that splendid fish smoked and then poached in milk that goes so well with bread and butter.
And there would be kedgeree, India's first gift to its colonizers, the flaked fish gently curried and mixed well with rice and onions and eggs and parsley. There would be laver bread in Wales with its marine scent from the seaweed, soda bread in Ireland, potato farls in Ulster and griddle cakes in Scotland. The more exotic tables might offer steamed spinach that could in a trice be elevated into Eggs Florentine, and adventurous cooks with Caribbean connections might offer that unusual delicacy so popular in British Honduras (now Belize) of fried rice with eggs and sliced bananas, seasoned with Jamaica's fiery Scotch Bonnet sauce.
Maugham's prescription is thus easily fulfilled, with eggs and bacon for the first...