I’ve always thought a lot of traditional English dishes merely consist of heating up raw ingredients – the skill is involved in selecting the components of the meal and ensuring they’re all ready at the same time. This last bit of synchronisation seems to be the most difficult part to perfect, as anyone who’s been subjected to a first-time Christmas dinner will attest. The ingredients – decent vegetables and proper meat (if you’re that way inclined) – are often forgotten in the melee as the cook ensures everything has gone the correct shade of brown.
Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding can be a miserable, flaky, dry dish, with the meat the colour of a rainy November afternoon and tiny, chewy puddings out of the freezer. On the other hand, it can be a delight: rich, tender meat, nut-brown on the outside and dark pink in the middle with fluffy, crispy puds. The procedure is the same for each dish, but one is a rewarding experience and the other is redolent of the Austerity Years: a style of cuisine much loved by the over 50s. Salted butter and instant coffee… I know we are monstrously lucky and gluttonous these days, but doing fake penance by eating plasticky Cheddar cheese is neither here nor there. If you’re worried about agricultural overproduction, the last thing you should do is purchase your local supermarket’s loss-leading own brand slop.
Fry-ups are a fine art in themselves. Unlike a roast dinner, the individual elements must be ready all at the same time or the moment is lost. Whether you’re having a vegetarian, kosher, diet or traditional fry-up, the procedure is the same.
Everyone has a different idea of what should go in the frying pan, although the basics are the same. There should be a tomato-based element, for moisture. Some slice and fry fresh tomatoes, while others heat up tinned tomatoes, and still others have baked beans. Heinz are now doing a baked bean with vegetarian sausages – I can report that the sausages taste the same as the ostensibly meaty ones.
There’s usually a starch section, although no doubt if you’re on the Atkins you would replace this with some horrendous protein-and-aspartame Soylent Beige thing. The tradition is to have a fried slice, but since this is essentially a bready sponge full of oil, I tend to avoid it. Hash browns are nice, but to be honest if you have beans, you can leave this part out.
Onto the proper proteins. I like Quorn sausages, since they’re not oily and one can avoid that nasty nagging worry that they’re not done properly that you can get with ordinary sausages. I like two eggs and I turn them over whilst frying. I know a lot of people don’t do this, but I find this way the white doesn’t go rubbery and burnt on the bottom whilst leaving the yolk completely raw.
Eggs are the home strait. The beans should be bubbling nicely. Heinz always warn you not to let them boil, but I quite like doing that. They bubble and pop sporadically like those hot mud springs that always seemed to feature on Blue Peter when I was little – I haven’t seen the mud springs yet but the beans are something of a consolation.
I like to apply a little artistry to the arrangement on the plates, ensuring all elements remain separate. It is for the diner to mingle the parts together, not the cook. Tomato ketchup or, if you’re common or from Manchester, brown sauce can be provided. No salt, though: I find there’s plenty of salt in there already.
One last word: I know a fry up is a traditional hangover dish, but I won’t stand for that. I am very rarely hungover and when I am the last thing I want to do is cook. Hungover fry ups are generally burnt, greasy and unpleasant – a bit like hangovers themselves.