I have always been lucky enough to dislike both milk and breakfast cereals (especially corn flakes, which I detest ). This has left me free to get on with the rest of breakfast, and probably explains why I am still hungry enough to eat a cooked breakfast from time to time.
I may, for all I know, be the last Englishman alive who does this, as I never seem to meet anyone else who does. Toast and coffee, the occasional yogurt, a croissant - that's what other people own up to. In hotels, of course, it's different. Hotels still dish up a big cooked breakfast, even if it does seem to have been cooked two hours previously and left to keep warm and go hard. But those hotel breakfasts are never as lavish as they look. The sausages are always dull and the fruit juice is always supermarket-bought. Cyril Ray, I remember, used to test hotels by asking for freshly squeezed orange juice to be brought to his room. He rarely achieved it.
Well, he could get it at my house, because I still have old-fashioned ideas about breakfast. I don't mean that I have silver salvers of kidneys on the sideboard, or kedgeree for those who want it, but I still against all medical advice like a hearty breakfast and I quite often buy oranges or grapefruit for squeezing. Mr Bartlett the butcher in Bath does a particularly good smoked bacon, and once a week I do myself my mother's favourite breakfast, which is grilled bacon on toast and marmalade.
( My mother was American, which explains everything. Actually it doesn't explain anything, as whenever I have had had breakfast in America I have kept my eyes open for bacon on marmalade and never seen it. Hash browns and English muffins and eggs sunny side up and all that stuff, but never a sign of bacon on marmalade. Where did she get it from, then? No matter - it tastes wonderful.)
The most unusual breakfast I ever had was on board a Geest banana ship, where I found myself as the only passenger going from Barry in South Wales to the West Indies, in 1960. The crew were all German and spoke little English, but luckily I had just acquired a German A Level and my German flourished mightily for ten days. (‘Strange, but you have a Westphalian accent when you speak German,’ said one of the officers. I never found out if this was good or bad, or even true.) The only time I saw the officers socially was at breakfast, which I think they saw as a sort of test for the foreigner inflicted on them.
‘How are you feeling, English boy?’ they would say, and I would ignore away my glimmerings of sea sickness and say, to their chagrin, that I was fine.
‘Then you will eat a hearty breakfast!’ they would say, and pile my plate high with smoked sausage, black bread, tomato and raw onion. I always got it down, though not always with relish, and I didn't always finish my raw onion. Perhaps such a breakfast is normal in Nordic countries; I once found myself on Gothenberg Station in Sweden, catching an early train to Stromstad to visit my sister-in-law's grave, and the breakfast on offer included sausages, ham, cheese and strong beer.
‘Yes,’ said a man from Gothenberg years later when I told him about this. ‘The station is about the only place in town where you can buy beer at breakfast. That's why all the winos in Gothenberg go there.’
In Burma, I remember, breakfast was the only good reliable meal of the day. In China I only remember that most of the food was awful. In Italy... well, in Italy earlier this year I sat down at a sunny cafe table in the Campo di Fiori in Rome, and opened my mouth to order a typical Italian breakfast, when I realised I had no idea what a typical Italian breakfast was. It turned out to be the usual continental cover-up for a breakfast - bit of dull pastry, cup of excellent coffee. I once spent three months in Spain playing in a jazz group in a night-club (believe me, my life is not nearly as interesting as all this makes it sound - these are just the highlights) and the fishermen who shared the breakfast cafe with us all had bread and coffee, like us. But I noticed they regularly added something to the coffee and when I asked the waiter what it was he said, "Aguardiente", which is one of their very strong spirits.
I don't think I could manage that at breakfast. But the other day I had a breakfast which I consider near perfect, and all by accident. I had visited Bradford-on-Avon's Thursday morning market, which has an excellent fish stall, and had bought two kippers for a forthcoming breakfast. My eye was also caught by Mr Hart's mussels, smokies and oysters, and on an impulse I bought half a dozen oysters. I don't often eat oysters, but I do enjoy the ritual of trying to open them, and deeply gashing my finger with a knife instead.
So three days later when my wife reminded me that the oysters were still untouched, I vowed to have them for breakfast, and as the kippers were also untouched, I ended up having six oysters and two kippers, sitting in a garden in the warm Wiltshire sunlight, before the wasps were out and about.
Beats corn flakes.
Wednesday Sept 6th