I was staying with friends and the subject of breakfast came up. Now, breakfast is a subject on which I can wax lyrical - for me, it is the most important meal of the day, the careful ritual by which we are gently lowered into its swirling maelstrom and the source of energy and strength to manage the sturm and drang of the morning before lunch cuts in.
I remember the great breakfasts I have had. There was the wild asparagus omelette I had one Easter, sitting outside in the Colli Sabini outside Rome - the egg part was a vivid, buttercup yellow, about the size of a manhole cover, and it was studded with long, thin stalks of dark green asparagus of explosive flavour. There was the breakfast of cold petit salé (belly pork) and saucisse left over from dinner in the champagne house of Jacques Vazard, washed down by cool red wine - and all at 6am, before going out to pick grapes. And there were sandwiches of debowiecka sausage, fruity mustard and rye bread, eased on their way by warm krupnik (a Polish spirit infused with honey and spices) on pike-fishing expeditions with Adam the Pole. Ah me, I could eat back then.
There was a time when my breakfast rituals were as unvarying as the seasons. Spring: freshly squeezed orange juice, soft-boiled egg, soldiers, coffee. Summer: croissant, crème fraîche, honey, coffee, summer fruits. Autumn: shavings of bacon and tomato, coffee, apple or pear. Winter: freshly squeezed blood orange juice, porridge, cream and demerara sugar; or poached egg on a toasted muffin. Saturdays: kipper, toast, butter, marmalade, tea. Sunday: sausages, tea. Call me hidebound, if you like.
Sadly, I can't maintain that schedule any more - even I can recognise that breakfasting on such a scale every day is a bit much, so I have modified my habits. Nevertheless, the taking of breakfast is an immutable ceremony - as Lady Jekyll, one of whose recipes I have purloined, wrote, "Nevertheless the law of the kitchen should remain, and at a breakfast table thus furnished, 'Good morning' will not be a perfunctory greeting or a merely pious wish, but the assured prelude to a good day." Precisely.
All recipes serve four.
Light and fluffy buckwheat pancakes
It was buckwheat pancakes that set off my thoughts about breakfast. It had been a long time since I had had pancakes for breakfast when Irene dished some up for me at breakfast, along with yogurt and maple syrup. They were light and fluffy as down, with a thin, crisp crust. The buckwheat gave them boom. In short, they were sensational. I am not sure about the exact details of Irene's recipe - she didn't seem to be entirely sure herself, though she insisted on the banana and the sheep's milk yogurt. This adaptation works pretty well, however. Serve with: a) crisp bacon and maple syrup; b) smoked salmon with sour cream; or c) on their own with butter. All of them are fabulous.
175g buckwheat flour
115g unbleached plain white flour
1 heaped tsp bicarbonate of soda
Tiny pinch of salt
1 large ripe banana
2 tbsp sheep's milk yogurt
Put the flour, bicarbornate of soda and salt in the bowl of a food processor and whizz. Add the banana and whizz again. Finally, pour in the yogurt and enough water to create a thick, creamy batter. Set aside to stand for around 30 minutes.
Grease a frying pan or, better still, an old-fashioned griddle and place over the flame until very hot. Plop in as many serving spoons of the batter as your pan will take comfortably - allow space for a bit of spreading. Fry over a medium heat until little bubbles start forming on the surface, then turn over and cook for another minute. Serve warm.
Baked eggs with mushrooms and bacon
Technically speaking, these are oeufs en cocotte, but my mother always called them baked eggs, so I do, too. They make a very good Sunday night supper.
2 rashers unsalted back bacon
50g butter (goose or duck fat would be even better)
Salt and pepper
8 very fresh eggs
Preheat the oven to 175C/350F/gas mark 4. Finely chop the bacon, mushrooms and onion, and fry in the butter (or fat) until very soft. Oil the inside of four ramekins. Divide the bacon, mushroom and onion mixture between them, and season with salt and pepper.
Break two eggs into each ramekin, dot with a little butter and season again. (You could also add a teaspoon of cream on top of the eggs, should you so wish.) Bake for 10 minutes or so, until the whites have solidified but the yolks are still runny.
Dried fruit compote
Of course, there are oranges, pineapples, bananas and various other exotics at this time of year (not to mention strawberries, apples and pears from goodness knows where), but I've always had a softish spot for dried fruits. Compoted, they are a warm and cheery presence on the breakfast table on damp, dank, dreary days. The orange flower water adds a whiff of the exotic.
150g dried prunes
150g dried figs
150g dried apricots
The juice of 1 lemon and its rind, peeled and cut into thin strips
½ stick cinnamon
1 or 2 pomegranates
Orange flower water (optional)
Put all the ingredients except the pomegranates and orange flower water into a bowl. Pour in enough cold water to cover, and leave the fruit to swell, sweeten and mingle flavours for at least 24 hours.
To serve, cut the pomegranates in half and scoop out the jewelled seeds. Sprinkle these over the compote and add a few drops of orange flower water, if you are in the mood.
From Kitchen Essays, by Lady Jekyll, a collection of articles and essays from the Times, first published in 1922. They conjure up a bygone world of "Country friends to a Christmas shopping luncheon", "Food for artists and speakers" and "Batchelors entertaining", dispensing sound advice, wisdom and eminently practical recipes along the way. I think the use of the word "ropey" in this recipe shows that she was a real cook and a real writer.
'Collect one onion, six tomatoes, a slice of ham, some grated cheese, red pepper and a pinch of allspice. Fry the onion lightly, add the tomatoes and ham, both cut up small. When these are well browned in a buttered sauté pan, add a little water and the diced potatoes, and cook slowly until these are done. Before serving, mix in the cheese, slightly flavoured with red pepper, and heat till the mixture is ropey. Pour on a hot dish and serve with a nicely poached egg on top. If preferred, omit the cheese.'