I’ve called this chapter ‘Making Breakfast’ to emphasise a point. The great British breakfast is in danger of becoming moribund, suffocating under a tower block of cereal boxes or being sidelined altogether by those branded bars you’re supposed to pick up at the newsagent’s/service station with your morning paper (I remember when Alpen was a muesli, not a chocolate bar).
Now I’m not about to overwhelm you with recipes for a grand, heart-stopping Edwardian breakfast of devilled kidneys and kedgeree followed by a sideboard of cold meats and pickles. And I hesitate to trot out the mantra that breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it’s such a tired cliché that it almost seems to provoke the protest of skipping it altogether. I’d rather combine cherished tradition with some sound modern nutritional knowledge and say that breakfast is simply an unmissable opportunity to start the day well.
Of course, not everyone has the same appetite for breakfast, or indeed feels the same way about breakfast from one day to the next. What is required is a modest but effective breakfast repertoire that covers the needs of the whole family on a daily basis, and also allows for special-occasion or weekend breakfasts when everyone has a little more time. And that’s what I’m aiming to provide here.
On weekdays at home, we like to factor in just a little more time for breakfast than I suspect may be made available in many family households. Whilst we’re still juggling with the usual chaotic rigmarole of unfinished homework, misplaced footie boots and attempts to shirk morning hygiene rituals, we try to make sure there’s always time to make porridge or pancakes, or a soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers, as well as to squeeze some juice from a few oranges (or, in the autumn, from our own apples).
One of the best ways to make this work is to get the children involved from an early age. Easy breakfast dishes are the perfect nursery slopes for young cooks, and a little coaching of junior members of the household so they can do their bit at breakfast soon becomes a great asset to the whole family. Show them how to prepare their own favourite breakfast dish and before long they can take responsibility, once in a while, for dishing it up for the rest of the gang too.
Oscar, ten, can now knock out pancakes from scratch for the whole family, in about half an hour flat (well, they are pancakes). That’s just as well, because we probably have pancakes for breakfast at least once a week. Chloe, twelve, makes wonderful porridge, and can fix anyone an egg or two just about any way they like it. Freddy’s only six but he’s very good at doing tomato toast and oily toast, sometimes without getting either tomato or oil on his school shirt.
One strategy for taking the heat and rush out of weekday family breakfasts is to do a little basic prep the night before. Nothing too strenuous. But if you knock up a pancake batter and stick it in the fridge, then the job of the designated flipper the next morning is plain sailing. Similarly, pre-soaked porridge using pinhead oatmeal practically makes itself in the morning. And a readymade fruit compote chilling overnight in the fridge is at least half a breakfast waiting to happen.
On a Saturday or Sunday morning I love a pair of eggs on toast or a nice pile of creamy scrambled eggs with mushrooms or smoked salmon, but I’m pretty much a fruit and grains man during the week. Having said that, I certainly won’t say no to a pancake or two, and if we’ve got a good fruit compote/salad on the go – perhaps rhubarb or apple in the colder months or macerated berries in the summer – I’ll often have it with some yoghurt, and maybe a sprinkling of muesli or wheat flakes on top of that.
Fads for smoothies and the like come and go in our house; currently it’s strawberry season, and I’m on an almost daily dose of strawberry and mint smoothie.
And so you can see that some form of fruit pops up on our breakfast table more days than not, which is clearly a good thing and should satisfy the phantom nutritionist whispering in our ear. But it’s also life-affirming in a subtler way. A handful of summer berries for breakfast, or a tangy, crunchy autumn apple, a sweet juicy winter pear, or a bowl of tart poached or baked spring rhubarb, means that you head out of the house not just knowing what day of the week it is, but also what time of the year it is. Call me seasonally sentimental, but I think that counts for a lot.
Talking of heading out of the house, there’s no getting away from the rushed start-to-the-day, and resulting missed breakfast syndrome, in some households. But that doesn’t make the corner shop or the station buffet the right place to sort out the missing calories. A peanut butter and banana sandwich, plus an apple, is a genuinely delicious and actually pretty well-balanced portable breakfast. And the honey and peanut butter booster bars will beat any branded so-called breakfast bar every time.
Although first thing in the morning is not the obvious time to be thinking of leftovers, in our house breakfast certainly begs, borrows and steals from other meals (and other chapters in this book). Our breakfast toast is usually made from our home-made sourdough loaf and if it’s second- or even third-day bread then it’s none the worse (and quite possibly all-the-better) for that. The same goes for eggy bread – that lovely, substantial breakfast dish where pancakes and toast collide. And if ever an oversight leaves us breadless at breakfast, I’ll soon be raiding the larder for oatcakes, home made or otherwise.
Personally I really like something a little sweet and a little sharp on the morning palate – but not too greedy or cloying. So any leftover apple or rhubarb crumble will make an appearance and usually disappear before any other options have even been discussed. Granted, it’s more likely to get a dollop of yoghurt than custard or cream. Unless of course, there’s some leftover custard or cream… By the same token, I wouldn’t actually bake a sponge or fruit cake for breakfast, but if a home-made cake happens to be knocking around, I wouldn’t hesitate to put it on the table as an option, though I might insist on some fresh fruit as a virtuous counterbalance.
If breakfast at the Fearnleys is starting to sound a bit lawless and outré, then I’m fine with that; because, so often, for so many, it’s become the meal most hidebound by convention and tradition. But why is that? Perhaps it’s because breakfast was the first of all our mealtimes to fall victim to industrialised food production and the seductive pressures of convenience consumerism. I understand that the box of cereal is a time-saving device that few modern families, including mine, would wish to abandon altogether. But do those multinational corporations who manufacture such products actually have to own our breakfast? Of course not!
So let’s reclaim breakfast as an actual meal, and not just a calorie delivery system. Let’s find things to savour and share that don’t just fill us up, but make us feel good. And if we must squabble at breakfast time (it’s in the DNA of most families, isn’t it?) then let’s cross spoons over the last strawberry or pancake, and not just scrabble for the plastic toy at the bottom of the cereal box. Then we can tackle the adventure of the day ahead with something good and wholesome and home made inside us. You can call it breakfast, or you can call it love.
I’m sure I’m not the only parent who gives thanks for the advent of the smoothie – an irresistible and fun way to funnel fresh fruit into otherwise reluctant children. Smoothies can be great for fruit-shy adults too, packing a satisfyingly high dose of goodness into a single glass.
The following recipes are mere guides; you can, and should, tailor-make your smoothie to suit your taste and mood – and, of course, your fruit bowl. Be led by what is seasonally available, add lemon juice to reduce sweetness, yoghurt for more creaminess or oats to make your smoothie a thickie – whatever floats your boat.
The best way to ensure your smoothies are nice and cool is to chill the ingredients beforehand. Alternatively, add two or three crushed ice cubes, though they will slightly dilute the fruit.