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The great breakfast dilemma: should baked beans be part of a full English?

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey Felicity Cloake

Mudlark, pp.384, 16.99

A popular pastime in Britain is to post one’s breakfast on social media for strangers to pass judgment on bacon crispiness, egg doneness and whether baked beans are a vital component or just spoil the whole thing.

Felicity Cloake is a writer after my own heart: she is not a fan of beans with her full English. ‘I object to the way they encroach on everything,’ she writes in Red Sauce Brown Sauce, and then quotes Alan Partridge on the importance of ‘distance between the eggs and the beans. I may want to mix them, but I want that to be my decision. Use a sausage as a breakwater.’ Or, as one pseudonymous contributor remarked on the London Review of Breakfasts blog:

Beans are to the cooked breakfast as the Dutch Mercenary Forces were to the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. Keep them in check and they will perform unglamorous but vital tasks about the empire of the fry-up; sweetening sausage, lubricating toast… Exert insufficient discipline upon them, however, and they will soon exhibit their mania for chaos… they engulf an egg… they drown bacon…Your breakfast paradise becomes a gooey mess.

Now there’s someone who has really thought about the humble baked bean. Not as much, though, as a character Cloake meets on her travels who runs a baked bean museum from his council flat in Port Talbot. He’s so bean-obsessed that he changed his name from Barry Kirk to Captain Beany by deed poll. Beany caught hypothermia after spending 100 hours in a bath of cold baked beans in an attempt to set the world record. He raised more than £1,500 for charity but didn’t make it into the Guinness World Records book ‘because they hadn’t supplied anyone to certify the record’. He did, however, win Great British Eccentric 2009, so that’s something. He certainly sounds a few rashers short of a fry-up. In fact, there’s something Partridgian about the whole scene. If I was confronted with someone dressed head to foot in baked bean regalia with an orange rosette that reads ‘I JUST LOVE BAKED BEANS!’, I would have shouted ‘You’re a mentalist’ and run away. So kudos to Cloake for sticking it out.

The good captain is just one of the people Cloake encounters on her bicycle journey around the country looking at Britain’s breakfast obsession. She meets makers of mustard, kippers, butter and the last producer of traditional Dundee marmalade, which is, sadly, based in Arbroath. She even meets Kirsty Cockle, who is in the shellfish business and works for a company called Selwyn’s Seafoods. It was founded ‘with compensation money from the American government after Selwyn Jones and his mother were hit by a drunk GI while walking home from the cockle beds’. Cloake asks everyone she meets whether they prefer HP sauce or ketchup, hence the book’s title, though she herself prefers English mustard in her bacon sandwich.

But what kind of bacon? According to a butcher quoted by Jilly Cooper: ‘When a woman asks for back I call her “madam”; when she asks for streaky I call her “dear”.’ Which makes me think, are my parents, sticklers for smoked streaky, actually a bit common? Anyway, as you’d expect from Cloake, who writes a popular food column in the Guardian, there are lots of great recipes, including one for hog’s pudding which, despite being infinitely less gory than its black cousin, is dying out in its home in the West Country.

In other ways, however, Cloake isn’t the ideal person to take the nation’s breakfasting heartbeat. Much of the time she turns her nose up at pork products, ‘when the meat on offer is of unknown and unpromising provenance’, in favour of beans on toast with Marmite (she does like beans in some circumstances). I have visions of her walking into greasy spoons and asking if the bacon is organic. At times it seems her heart isn’t really in it. She even asks at one point: ‘Is the fry-up actually a bit gross?’

Whether you enjoy the book will also depend on how entertaining you find Cloake’s various bike-related mishaps. There’s an awful lot of drollery about cycling shoes, and while falling off her bike might have looked funny at the time, it needs a Geoff Dyer to make yet another tumble amusing on the page.

I can’t help thinking that Red Sauce Brown Sauce would make a better television series than a book – a sort of Rick Stein’s Food Heroes meets Last of the Summer Wine, with Cloake careering out of control down hills into hedges before emerging triumphantly still clutching her organic bacon butty.

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