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Kippers and toast (Pic: Kai Hendry)
Kippers and toast (Pic: Kai Hendry)
Kippers and toast (Pic: Kai Hendry)

For all that the great British fry-up is the king of all breakfasts (shut up, granola; back away, scrambled eggs; don’t test us, waffles, you will lose), it was not the only choice available to peckish Brits down the years. Not while there were kidneys to devil and kippers to smoke, at any rate.

Mind you, for a good portion of British history breakfast wasn’t even really a proper meal. It was more of a hastily-grabbed snack to prepare the digestive system for the more robust delights of a midday lunch. And with a couple of the recipes on this list, that’s probably no bad thing:

Porridge
Nothing too startling or original here, except to note that porridge is very, very old. Once mankind started planting seeds and nurturing them (around 7000 BCE), their diet began to feature a greater reliance on cereal grains, like oats. They would grind them in quern-stones and boil them in water to make a paste. And that’s exactly how the fabled Scottish porridge—also available cold and in slices for a lunchtime snack—is made to this day, give or take a quern-stone and a pinch of salt. Just make sure you use your right hand to hold the spirtle (a wooden stick) as you stir it clockwise, otherwise the Devil will come for you.

Horse-corn
Skipping ahead to Tudor times, we discover a distinct hierarchy of bread on the breakfast table, assuming you were rich enough to own a table, of course. The first meal of the day for most Tudor citizens would probably have been bread and beer (always a safer option than water, especially in cities) and maybe some meat. But it’s the quality of bread that changes depending on circumstance. If you were rich (let’s avoid the term ‘upper-crust’ for now), you would eat manchet, a yellowy-white bread made from wheat flour, bran and wheatgerm. A step down the pecking order, you’d be eating yeoman’s bread, made from coarser whole-wheat flour and bran. Those that were poorer still would eat the black bread known as carter’s bread, made from maslin (rye and wheat) or drage (barley and wheat).

And at the bottom of the heap would be the people gnawing on horse-corn, a mixed blessing of a loaf made from peas, beans, lentils and oats. Horse-corn was an option best saved for desperate times and crop failures, the kind of bread recipe even hipster artisan bakeries would think twice about trying to resurrect.

Kedgeree
A Victorian innovation, and one that is ripe with the spoils of empire. Kedgeree is a kind of curried risotto (although the rice is different) that contains flakes of smoked haddock, sliced hard-boiled egg, parsley, butter, curry powder, cream and possibly raisins. The dish it is most likely to have been based on is the Indian rice dish Khichri, which will have been brought back to England by colonial Brits and then altered to suit the ingredients in their larders. As a breakfast, it was served either hot or cold, although you’re far more likely to come across it as an evening meal nowadays.

Devilled Kidneys
It might be tempting to sneer about eating a spicy lamb’s kidney first thing in the morning so that you can be sure nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day. But this Victorian breakfast treat is actually rather nice, especially as it uses a marinade made of mustard, butter, cayenne pepper and Worcestershire sauce. The great British fry-up often features various offal delights, and kidneys—devilled or otherwise—are usually a welcome addition, even now. Still, this is maybe more of a weekend treat than the first thing your bleary eyes, nose and tongue should experience on a Monday morning.

Kippers
These smoky, oily fish—either eaten with scrambled eggs, toast, or solo—are such a strong part of British cultural life they’ve changed language (and appeared as a catchphrase in Red Dwarf—the faux-heroic “Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast”). A kipper is a whole herring, split from head to tail and flattened out, then, after a salting or a pickling, cold smoked over smoldering oak. If you prepare any fish or meat in the same fashion, that’s also called kippering. If the herring is stored in brine, it achieves a reddish tint, so a kipper is also literally a red herring. The use of the term “red herring” to denote a misleading argument is thought to come from a (possibly apocryphal) practice whereby hounds on a hare hunt were encouraged to follow a false trail, made by dragging a kipper along the ground.

In recent years, the followers of the British political party UKIP have been given the nickname Kippers, for largely phonetic reasons. That’s a lot of linguistic ground to cover for one little fish.

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By Fraser McAlpine