It’s seven weeks until the launch of my new book, Pie Fidelity.Here’s a bit that got cut from the chapter on breakfast, not because it’s no good, but because I had way too many breakfasts in the book, and my primary readers were starting to feel stuffed and greasy just reading it.
I don’t think it’s too hysterical an observation to make that civilisation has peaked, and has now entered a sustained period of decline. I don’t base this on the blanket coverage of war, famine, refugees and insane megalomaniacs in positions of power – these have always been with us. I’m talking about peaks of civilisation and progress that we attained in the past, but no longer enjoy.
We used to have regular manned flights to the moon and ambitions of going further beyond into space. We used to have supersonic passenger aircraft. We no longer do. To this list, I’m preparing to add the mighty bacon sandwich.
Time pressures and health concerns mean that, for most of us, the full English breakfast or its equivalent is no more than a weekend treat. But it sends forth its ambassador, the bacon buttie, to do battle in the week, a signifier, a reminder, of what breakfast is really all about. In many of the surveys I’ve seen, the bacon buttie rivals the full breakfast itself as an icon of British life. Like fish and chips, curry or the question “Fancy a pint?” It’s impossible to hear the suggestion of it without it raising a smile. But for no good reason, we seem to be in reverse gear on our journey to bacon nirvana.
You can spot civilisation’s decline in public buildings too. The Victorian train station, for example, was a grand edifice that inspired you with the possibilities of travel and made you feel as though you were embarking on a great and noble adventure, even if you were only going to Swindon to see your aunt. These and other municipal buildings erected around the same time were nicer than they had to be. They were designed to prompt an emotional response, to have aesthetic value rather than being strictly utilitarian.
New or rebuilt railway stations could not be more different. Their functionality is brutal to the point of outright hostility. The ‘seats’ on the platforms of stations such as Derby could only have been designed by someone with a pathological hatred of other people: shiny, slippery benches four inches deep, sloping forward at a 45-degree angle, mocking you for even daring to think they could offer any kind of comfort. It’s more restful to stand.
This contrast is echoed by the refreshments offered in each kind of station. Until recently, inside old Victorian stations such as London’s King’s Cross, homely little cafés would lurk. These independent businesses were run by shiny-faced men and women in their fifties, blasting steaming tea from huge urns into chunky white mugs. This tea was tannic and dark, as a friend of mine once remarked, ‘the colour of He-Man’s skin’. They served bacon rolls made with thick juicy rashers. And a roll and a cup of tea would cost £2.50.
In all but a handful of British train stations, these cafés have been replaced by the same chains you find in the new stations. These franchises, with names like Pumpkin and Lemon Tree, come across as low-rent versions of Costa and Starbuck’s. Along with Upper Crust, Caffè Ritazza and every other stand on a typical British train station concourse, are all owned or operated by one company, SSP. Whichever franchise they’re working in, the staff are trained to ‘upsell’ you, and seemingly trained to do little else. The bacon is always overdone and the bread is the wrong kind – baguette, ciabatta and focaccia all have their time and place, but by the gods it’s not here, not now. The staff often seem confused when you ask them to heat the roll or baguette, despite the fact that the little card on the stand says ‘served hot!’ If they deign to ask you if you want sauce, you’re lucky if they remember which one – often they give you tomato and brown because that’s easier than trying to remember the answer to a question they asked you ten seconds ago. And instead of costing £2.50, like the bacon roll and cuppa in the café that stood here before the station’s last refurbishment, your baguette and flimsy cardboard cup of wan tea costs at least double that.
The first time I was presented with this perplexing excuse for a bacon roll and a cup to tea, I simply couldn’t understand how any big corporation could get something so simple so colossally wrong. And then I realised that part of the problem is that in every chain like this, everything is prepared off-site, packaged in cellophane and delivered to each branded outlet, foolproof and ready to eat or microwave. Head office has decided that the branch staff can’t be trusted with the simple act of cooking, that they’re incapable of performing tasks at work that they, you and I carry out perfectly well at home in our leisure time. This is what now passes for ‘progress’, as our civilisation starts to pick up speed on its downward curve.
In any of these franchises, or on the trains themselves, or even in the supposedly more upmarket coffee shop chains these places emulate, a closer inspection of the contents of whatever they pass off as a bacon sandwich provides further confirmation of the inevitable demise of our way of life. I can’t have my bacon sandwich, baguette, ciabatta or whatever-else-they’ve-decided-to-serve-it-on-except-a-simple-fucking-roll without sauce, so this means I have no choice but to open the thing to apply my sachet of HP. (Despite the sachet’s design, I sometimes even succeed in getting more onto the roll than on my hands, sleeve and chin.) Opening the roll to apply the sauce makes it more edible, but at the same time removes any desire to eat. Inside, you find a few gossamer-thin strips of streaky bacon the colour of old blood, covering a quarter to a third of the surface area of the bread. In my time, I’ve bought some pretty cheap and nasty bacon from some fairly down-at-heel supermarkets and corner shops, and it’s never looked as mean and ugly as this. I’ve no idea where they get it from.
Even in the rare chains where the bacon is better quality than the scrapings from the abattoir floor, it’s still streaky. There’s a great deal I admire about American culture and cuisine, but bacon seems to be some kind of national blind spot. They seem unaware that back bacon exists, because if they did know about it they wouldn’t insist on serving streaky bacon on their breakfasts and burgers. And as the popularity of American cuisine surges in the UK, chains here are replacing back bacon with streaky, to be more like the Americans, even though they know it’s not as good.
We’re going backwards.
This is just one example of Britain’s food identity crisis, the sense that anything British must somehow be inferior to something foreign, even when this is evidently not true. At the time of writing, Pret à Manger’s ‘bacon roll’ is in fact a ‘bacon brioche’, served ‘with a dab of unmistakably French butter’. The French don’t do bacon rolls. The English do. So why would anyone think a French-style bacon roll would be an improvement on the English original?
As well as offering a warped version of the bacon sandwich or roll, these chains also offer something they usually call an ‘all-day breakfast’ roll, sandwich, bloomer or even wrap. These generally contain streaky bacon, a sausage sliced into tiny wafers, some kind of omelette and a ‘tomato relish’ because you could use ketchup or brown sauce like a normal person but where would the fun be in that? These products are a plangent reminder that the modern ‘on the go’ lifestyle – a phrase beloved of food marketers but no one else – means we don’t have time for a real breakfast any more. The whole concept depresses me so much I’ve never been able to bring myself to try one.
Until I went to Belfast.
St George’s Market is a beautiful Victorian indoor market that has won many awards. While it’s unashamedly foodie, it celebrates the traditional and affordable as well as the more exclusively gastronomic. I’m advised to get there early to try the Belfast Bap.
The saying around here is that the word ‘bap’ is an acronym for ‘bread at affordable prices’. This isn’t true in terms of etymology, but it is true in Belfast: the Belfast bap was created by an Armagh baker called Barney Hughes to help feed Belfast’s poor in the 1845-49 famine, and stuck around as a favourite food for the workers in the docks nearby.
Appropriately, given the history of shipbuilding in those docks, the roll itself is of titanic proportions. It’s roughly the size and shape of the millennium dome, deep brown, almost burnt on top. Served as a breakfast bap, it comfortably accommodates two thick rashers of back bacon, two sausages sliced once lengthways, and a fried egg, all sitting on a thick stratum of mushrooms and fried onions. I order it with a cup of tea, and haul my breakfast to a small table in front of the baked goods stall that assembled it. The roll is the same height as the top of the Styrofoam cup.
The first word that strikes me as I tuck in is ‘comforting’. Everything is well done without quite being burnt. There’s caramelisation and depth, richness, and an instinctive threat of danger. Rolls like this give the cooked breakfast its cancerous reputation: it has nothing to do with the scare stories stoked by the Daily Mail: you look at this, and taste it, and your gut says, ‘Oh wow, this is obviously carcinogenic. How could it not be?’
The roll is so big it probably inspired the building of the Titanic in the first place. And like the ship, it sinks. It takes time to work through this thing, and after the first ten minutes, while the dome that forms the top half remains unbowed, the base just can’t cope and simply dissolves in the watery grease that’s now pooling on my paper plate. It’s now no longer possible to gnaw away at this edifice unassisted.
On the counter, there’s a cup full of disposable knives and forks.
I have a word with myself. The dissolving base is a failsafe mechanism. You could quite reasonably walk away at this point. No one would blame you. You’ve done as much here as any reasonable person could. Whereas if you pick up a knife and fork and carry on, you’re making a statement, a declaration of reckless bravado.
OK, just another couple of bites…
Twenty minutes after I bought it, stuffed after eating about two-thirds of the thing, I finally admit defeat. The mess that’s left on my plate is so substantial it could easily be used to make a new all-day breakfast muffin or wrap of the same size and consistency as those found in high street coffee shop chains. As far as I know, this could be how those chains do source their produce. It doesn’t matter to me: I never need eat breakfast again.
Pie Fidelity is published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 4th April 2019, and is available for pre-order. Disclosure: my trip to Belfast was partially funded and made possible by Tourism NI. Thanks to the wonderful Claire Keenan for introducing me to the amazing worth of Northern Ireland’s food and drink.