The Most Important Meal of the Day?

by Sam Bilton on February 9, 2016 No comments

At some point in your life I’m sure you have been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I know this is something I often tell my children (especially my youngest son) although for me it’s little more than a snack to usher in the day.

Smoked Salmon Scrambled EggsWhat I find particularly fascinating is how our attitude towards breakfast has changed over the centuries. The Romans took a frugal breakfast of bread and fruit at sunrise. The fact that not many ancient authors mention this meal indicates that it wasn’t considered a particularly important eating event. The breakfast fare proffered also varies through the ages, although most of the information available relates to the breakfasts of the well-to-do. I’m guessing descriptions of pottage or gruel didn’t make for appetising reading.

Timing is of the essence…

Breaking the fast usually takes place at the beginning of the day. This obviously has a different connotation depending on who you are. As Arnold Palmer notes in Moveable Feasts (1952):

“Who can say at what hour the Englishman breakfasts? It depends on the Englishman one has in mind.”

Irrespective of the time you take breakfast I would not expect it to be a sociable affair. However, if you lived in 18th century England it was precisely that. After rising early you could expect to get a few jobs out of the way (answering letters or perhaps a brisk walk) before sitting down to breakfast around 10am. It was perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, for people to drop in and join you for breakfast. It would be a leisurely meal, echoing our modern day brunch, with an array of foods available to choose from. By the Victorian era breakfast had moved back to around 8am and was more of a family concern or for invited guests only. Anyone popping in on the off chance hoping for some early morning sustenance would get short shrift. This stance didn’t really change in the 20th or 21st centuries.

The big breakfast

Book of Breakfast

They may well have been reserved but the Victorians revelled in breakfast. If you had the money you could well expect a lavish spread. In 1865, Georgiana Hill published The Breakfast Book. In this homage to the first meal of the day she divides breakfast into four categories:

  • Family Breakfast
  • Déjeuner à la Forchette (a breakfast served in courses of ‘made’ dishes)
  • The Cold Collation
  • The Ambigu where everything is set out at once.

Having numerous dishes to choose from was the accepted norm in wealthier households. The Italian word for breakfast, Hill tells us, is collezione – a collection. So for a family breakfast she recommends brain cakes, caviare, curry, devilled bones, mutton chops, oysters and sheep tongues. Not so much breaking the fast as totally obliterating it.

Brain Cakes Breakfast

By the 20th century breakfast would be scaled down to little more than fruit juice, toast and coffee for some. Whereas the Victorian breakfast was centred around savoury dishes (meat pies and the like), perhaps with the odd sweet bun thrown in, the advent of the breakfast cereal saw modern breakfasts erring on the sweeter side.

In the 1950s Palmer believed that breakfast was “aimed at the provision of meals designed less to please or even satisfy than to use as little crockery and cutlery as possible.”

Bill of Fare Breakfast

If you like the idea of a Victorian breakfast and would prefer somebody else to do the washing up then head over to the Historical Dining Rooms in Bristol. Their Victorian menu features dishes from Mrs Beeton, Alexis Soyer and Mrs Marshall and includes dishes like Lamb Collops (Lamb bacon, cured and dry aged in lard for 30 days, raspings of toasted bread and scrambled eggs with minced ham).

And to wash it down


In the middle ages everyone drunk beer, no matter what the hour of the day. Even Elizabeth I’s breakfast of choice was reputedly beef and beer. Wine too was not unheard of as a morning beverage. Hot chocolate, made with sweetened milk and flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg, would become a popular breakfast beverage of the rich in the 17th century. Sometimes it would be thickened with breadcrumbs and egg yolks making it a meal in itself. Tea and coffee were also available duringthis period but it would take a few more generations to pass before they would become the institution they are now.

I think there’s definitely an argument to be made for making more of this now largely overlooked meal, if not during our time harried week then at the weekend. Winston’s Wish, a charity which helps bereaved children, is celebrating the Great British Brekkie this week. They are asking their supporters to raise money during the week to help fund services, like their Helpline, by hosting a Great British Brekkie event. You can find out more information about the event or make a donation to the charity on their website.

GBB logo

Sam BiltonThe Most Important Meal of the Day?

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