To appreciate the continental breakfast is to first understand its opposite—The Full English, a hearty plate of eggs, back bacon, blood sausage, beans, mushrooms, broiled tomatoes, and, as my mother likes to put it, lashings of toast. Given the unhappy choice, it would probably be my last meal. In fact, it is so lavish a spread, I imagine the Full English has inadvertently been a last meal. And that’s really the problem; we no longer need a belly bursting with the rich fruits of the homeland to go forth and create empire. A roll, a small pot of yoghurt and some fruit, it turns out, is a very civilized way to start the day too.
The name itself is the essence of mild English derision. Was the Englishman abroad too preoccupied with his missing breakfast to bother using the formal names of the countries he visited? Or did The Continent just have a sort of carefree mystique, similarly attained by the term out west when used by Americans headed to California? Maybe both, perhaps neither; importantly, continental came to be mean anything in distinction to that which is British. Applied to something as sacred as breakfast, one can practically hear the raised eyebrow.
I think an anecdote at this junction would best color the surprisingly dramatic effect the appearance of a Continental Breakfast can have. I was a boy of, say, fifteen, traveling with my parents, first from relatives in Wales, then on to London, and then (here it comes) to The Continent. My father’s side of the family is spread out over Germany, France and Switzerland, and we struck upon the idea that it would be fun to rent a car and do a sort of miniature grand tour through these and other places—the Italian Alps, Austria, Liechtenstein. The British leg of the trip went well, filled with long walks in an old forest, castles, and, even once removed from the rolling countryside and in London, several mornings that began with the sort of earnest, multi-component meals as described above. And then, rather suddenly, we were in Switzerland. I should have anticipated the change in morning menu—it wasn’t my first time on The Continent, but somehow that initial meal of bread, jam, a few slivers of gruyere and muesli almost knocked me off my stool. Part of me felt cheated; the rest, light and satisfied. Whatever eyebrow arching had taken place that first Alpine morning quickly transformed into a wrinkled and upturned nose at the thought of anything more substantial before the PM hours. By the end of the tour, I could hardly fathom the Full English.
Of course, to the inhabitants of the places we visited, I was just experiencing breakfast, or, it should be said, a sort of romanticized version available at small hotels and cafes when moving through much of Europe. (The sad reality is that from Mitteleuropa to the American Midwest, food is often packaged and canned and generally abysmal outside of places that preserve tradition for the sake of commerce). But there is unity in the principle behind the continental breakfast, namely, a desire to begin the day with the appearance of austerity. At the heart of the meal is the promise of some small pastry anointed with impossibly delicious jam alongside a milk-enriched cup of coffee. One is almost unthinkable without the other, but even together, something else is needed. The ideal foil has at least the veneer of health: yoghurt with granola, muesli, bran flakes or fruit. A few shavings of ham or semi-hard cheese are quaint additions, hinting to the groggy tourist of the pleasures available at lunch. Juice is also part of the deal; it should be served in something only slightly larger than a jigger so as to give the impression of being a health tonic. A second cup of coffee, preferably this time black, is the final stroke and brings the diner to modesty’s precipice before shunting him out the door to see the ruins or the masterpieces or whatever.
Happily, this civilized start to the day can be recreated anywhere, and several times each week I start the day with some combination of baked good, yoghurt, fruit, grain, coffee and juice. A mix-and-match matrix featuring several columns of possible components was a tempting, if pithy way in which to end, but I came down on the side of that other European quality: the appearance of modesty.