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The great British breakfast! The regional treats that make the perfect fry-up – from laverbread to fruit pudding

In search of the perfect breakfast … Felicity Cloake.
In search of the perfect breakfast … Felicity Cloake. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Despite the somewhat chequered reputation of traditional British cooking, even its biggest critics will usually concede that breakfast represents its high point – and, while I wouldn’t say it’s all downhill from there, let’s be honest, the all-day fry-up is popular for a reason. As the late AA Gill once wrote: “Breakfast is everything. The beginning, the first thing. It is the mouthful that is the commitment to a new day, a continuing life” – and, as a country, we really take that commitment seriously.

Not only is “le fry-up” one of the things we’re most famous for abroad, but unlike the royal family, or Mr Blobby, it’s one national treasure we can all be proud of, whether we sit down to a full Scottish in the morning, or grab a vegan sausage bap on the go. Mind you, that’s just about all we agree on, as I discovered last year when I set out on my bike to write a book on the subject – Red Sauce Brown Sauce. Any discussion about the great British breakfast tends to get bogged down in baked beans, or end in fisticuffs over back versus streaky – to say nothing of whether porridge should be salty or sweet, or the proper thickness of peel for marmalade. Instead of squabbling about such details, here are a few regional treasures I encountered en route that I think we should all be fighting to put on our plates:

1) Hogs pudding – West Country

Hog’s pudding
Hog’s pudding. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

Also known as groat pudding, this rich and spicy white pudding is now found mainly in Devon and Cornwall, but was once common throughout the south – it pops up in Samuel Pepys’ diary of life in 17th-century London and Jane Austen’s Hampshire housemate Martha Lloyd’s recipe collection (a detail that conjures a delicious image of Jane writing Mr Darcy into existence while munching on a hogs pudding bap). Like its blood-based cousins, it was originally designed to help use up odd bits of a pig when that valuable animal was slaughtered, generally in the autumn. Offal and scraps were mixed with cream, eggs, herbs and spices, bulked out by breadcrumbs or cereals (hence the groat variation), and then made into a sausage, and boiled, a measure that would have extended their shelf life considerably before the advent of reliable refrigeration.

These days, the squeamish will be relieved to know that hogs pudding tends to be made with pork meat, rather than internal bits and pieces; Sally Lugg of The Primrose Herd, near Redruth, uses belly and shoulder in her award-winning version, though she is wisely tight lipped about the other ingredients. Pepper often features prominently, though, and I like the ginger, allspice and mace found in older recipes, often alongside currants, as a reminder of the dish’s medieval origins. As hogs pudding is sold cooked, all you need to do is add it to the frying pan to heat through before you tuck in and realise, to quote my friend Pam: “Oh, it’s just like a sausage!”

2) Laverbread – Welsh coastline

Laverbread
Laverbread. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; neiljohn/Alamy

Nothing to do with bread, or molten rock, laverbread is in fact a paste made out of seaweed – Porphyra, known as laver in Wales and the West Country, sloke in Scotland and Ireland, and nori in Japan. Even if you don’t come from a laver-eating region, you’ve probably had it in a sushi roll at some point. Not that that dried nori sheets bear much resemblance to laverbread’s rich, dark, almost gelatinous good looks, described by Richard Burton, no doubt in his usual mellifluous tones, as “Welshman’s caviar”, and bushcraft instructor Andrew Price as “a bit like a cowpat … except it tastes absolutely delicious to anyone brave enough to try it”.

Kate Jones of Selwyn’s Seafoods, in Penclawdd, explains that to make it they gather the seaweed from the rocks by hand, wash it to “get all the sand and the little shrimps and things out” and then slow cook it for hours with a bit of salt – “it doesn’t need a lot” – until it’s soft enough to spread on toast. Traditionally, the puree is then dolloped into the same pan as the bacon to sizzle in its fat, though a local chef tells me this can be an acquired taste, so, for English visitors, he makes it into little cakes flavoured with cheese and oats as well. However you eat it, packed with iron, as well as vitamins and minerals, it is an unusually nutritious addition to a fry-up – especially with a handful of cockles on the side.

3) Oatcakes – Midlands

Oatcakes
Oatcakes. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; William Scott Lyons/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Before any Scots complain, I’m not talking about your lovely crunchy biscuits here, but the floppy oat-based pancakes found in the Midlands, and, I’m reliably informed, as far north as Manchester. Claimed by both Staffordshire and Derbyshire, the heartland of oatcake production is still the Potteries, where they were traditionally sold through the front window of terrace houses to workers on their way to clock in. The last of these “hole in the wall” businesses closed in 2012, due to redevelopment rather than a lack of demand; one baker told a recent edition of Radio 4’s the Food Programme, dedicated to the Staffordshire oatcake, that, after some years in decline, the market is now growing, as local people rediscover their culinary heritage. Indeed, Tunstall boy Robbie Williams even gets his mum to send supplies to his home in LA, while 6 Towns Radio’s annual Oatcake Day has been endorsed by the likes of Stoke-born Slash from Guns N’ Roses … and US rapper Coolio. Frankly, it’s a mystery to me why they’re not more popular outside their home region – anything a palm-oil-laced, long-life “wrap” can do, a warm, yeasted oatcake can do better. Mine’s a double bacon, egg and tomato please.

4) Soda farls – Northern Ireland

Soda farls
Soda farls. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Radharc Images/Alamy

Northern Ireland’s signature fry-up is a carb-lover’s paradise, which is why it may well be my favourite of all the national breakfasts. Not only does it often come with toast on the side, as is standard practice elsewhere, but, at its best it also boasts not one but two breads on the plate itself: potato, of the sort known in Scotland as a tattie scone, and the mighty soda farl, an uncompromisingly dense hunk of pure pleasure. It’s child’s play to knock up from nothing more than flour, buttermilk (or milk mixed with a little lemon juice or vinegar), bicarbonate of soda salt, and sometimes honey or treacle. And, with no need to faff around with either yeast or ovens, it can be on the table in the time it takes to lever your nearest and dearest out of bed. The only cast iron rule is you must serve it with generous amounts of butter – I’d recommend Abernethy, from Co Down.

5) Fruit pudding – Scotland

Fruit pudding
Fruit pudding. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Jim McDowall/Alamy

Fruit pudding sounds like something that would be good with custard, but in the northern regions you’re more likely to encounter it served with egg, square sausage and a few rashers of bacon. I’ll be honest: even as someone terminally greedy, the first time I saw a tray of what looked like raisin cookie dough in a Scottish supermarket, nestled incongruously between the haggis and the Wee Willie Winkie’s mini-sausages, I was seriously unnerved. Then I tried a piece. Made from a mix of suet, oatmeal and flour, dried fruit and spices, fruit pudding is really just a cross between a white, or mealy pudding as it’s also known north of the border, and a clootie dumpling. Hot and crisp from the pan, it pairs beautifully with cured meat. Trust me, if you like bacon in your hot cross bun, you’ll love fruit pudding too.

6) Kippers – coastal England and Scotland

Kippers
Kippers. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Jon Gray/Alamy

Sadly, kippers only seem to make the news these days when someone accuses the government of stinking like one – otherwise, this noble smoked herring has largely disappeared from the national menu, spotted occasionally in the odd hotel, where people feel able to order it without worrying that they’ll never get the smell out of their own curtains. It’s a shame, because not only is the stink no worse than the now ubiquitous salmon, but there are some fantastic examples produced around our coastline, in Craster and Whitby, on the Isle of Man, and the west coast of Scotland, Kippers from Jaffy’s Smokehouse in Mallaig beat more than 14,000 other entries to be judged Supreme Champion at last year’s Great Taste awards.

Made from herring, a proper oily fish of the kind we’re always being told we should eat more of, kippers are split, salted, then cold smoked, and never, in the case of the Manx ones, artificially dyed. And, if you’re one of those people who is averse to bones, they are available as handy fillets too. They can be cooked in minutes in a jug of hot water, and pair happily with creamy scrambled eggs, though personally I like them best in a fluffy, well-buttered white bap.

7) Dock pudding – Calder Valley

Dock pudding
Dock pudding. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Nigel Hillier

Vegetarians rejoice; unlike the fruit pudding, this really is entirely plant based, although, sadly, unless you happen to live in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, where an annual, and ambitiously named World Champion dock pudding contest is still held every April, you’ll have to make your own. In appearance, it more resembles laverbread than any of the puddings on this list, given it’s a mixture of wild spring plants, usually including nettles and sweet dock leaves (Polygonum bistorta), slow cooked with oatmeal to form an unprepossessing looking greeny brown sludge. Nevertheless, this was the equivalent of a multivitamin to our forebears coming out of a long hungry winter of salted meat with nary a fresh vegetable in sight. Traditionally, of course, it’s then fried in bacon fat to serve. Butter or oil will, however, do just fine.

8) Bubble and squeak – London and south-east

Fried egg with bubble and squeak
Fried egg with bubble and squeak. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Hugh Johnson/Getty Images/Foodcollection

Before you accuse me of trying to claim a well-loved national way with leftovers for the metropolitan elite, let me explain – I am, here, speaking of bubble and squeak in a fry-up that is, in my experience, only really found in cafes in and around the capital, and even then not often enough these days. A wodge of mashed potato and cabbage, fried until crisp on the outside, but still fluffy within, is, in my opinion, a fine addition to the breakfast platter, being better at soaking up egg yolk than such interlopers as the crunchy chip or greasy hash brown – and it offers the same soothing carby bland foil to the salty bacon and sausage as the divine tattie scone. Plus, it contains actual green stuff, which makes it, relatively speaking at least, the healthy option. More bubble and squeak please.

9) Fresh black pudding – East Anglia

Fresh black pudding
Fresh black pudding. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Martin Lee/Alamy

Black puddings are, of course, made all over these islands (Stornoway and Bury are particularly famous for them), but I hadn’t realised, until I started researching my book, that these days almost all of them are made with dried blood. Not that dried blood, unappetising as I concede it sounds, is necessarily a bad thing on a breakfast plate. I’ve never met a black pudding I didn’t like, so it must be doing something right, but, in my experience, the results tend to lack the silky richness of products made with blood direct from the pig, rather than reconstituted with water like a boxed cake mix.

Matthew Cockin and Grant Harper of Fruit Pig, in Wisbech, are still doing it the old way, driving an hour and 20 minutes to their nearest abattoir to get on to the slaughter line themselves, and literally holding the pig as the blood drains out of it – blood that would otherwise mostly go to waste (dried blood mainly comes from the Netherlands and Belgium). They believe it makes a better final product, and I agree, but I also applaud the way this embraces the original ethos of a black pudding: to make use of every precious part of a pig. If you eat bacon, I believe you should at least give black pudding a try.

10) Stotties – north-east

Stottie cake
Stottie cake. Composite: Steven Gregor/The Guardian; Washington Imaging/Alamy

You may, like Muhammad Ali, when confronted with this dense, round cake of bread on a trip to South Shields in 1977, be wondering what the hell a stottie is when it’s at home. But, rest assured, even The Greatest was won over after a couple of bites. Made from offcuts of dough and baked on the oven floor, the stottie (from the Northumbrian phrase “to stott”, meaning “to bounce”) has a robust, springy texture somewhere between an English muffin and a crumpet, and is a popular breakfast choice on its home turf, filled with all the usual things you would find in any other British or Irish breakfast roll (the traditional ham and pease pudding comes later). Oddly enough, like other fiercely regional bread products such as the Kentish huffkin or the Aberdonian rowie, they’ve never migrated further afield – Greggs, which opened its very first bakery in Gosforth in 1951, only sells them in the north-east, having trialled them elsewhere without apparent success. Fortunately, they’re now available online.

• Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey by Felicity Cloake is published by Harper Collins on 9 June 2022, priced £16.99. To order a copy for £14.78, visit the Guardian Bookshop.

• A subheading on this article was amended on 25 May 2022 to show that oatcakes come from across the Midlands, not just the East Midlands.