In search of a great British breakfast... in secret
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
He's a self-appointed taste tester on the hunt for the perfect belly-busting breakfast, a man who truly knows his eggs from his bacon. In the run up to National Breakfast Week which begins on January 25, STACIA BRIGGS finds out why grease is the word for the mystery Fry-Up Inspector.
It's a proud tradition that is as English as Big Ben, black taxis, rainclouds and queuing, but considerably more calorific than them all.
The full English Breakfast, containing the so-called 'magic nine' of eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, a form of potato-based product and a form of bread-based product, has been a national institution since the 1800s.
In 215 years, the fry-up has made the move from mansion to greasy spoon and from landed gentry to ordinary Joe, casting off 'brain cakes' and 'devilled bones' along the way.
In 1840, a 'full English' might have included baked halibut steaks, fried whiting, pheasant legs, collared tongue, kidneys on toast, sausages with fried bread, pig's cheek and Melton pork pie.
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Twenty years later, Mrs Beeton suggested: 'Boiled fish, such as mackerel, whiting, herrings, dried haddocks, mutton chops and rump steaks, broiled sheep's kidneys, kidneys a la maitre d'hotel, plain rashers of bacon, bacon and poached eggs, ham and poached eggs, omelettes, plain boiled eggs, oeufs-au-plat, poached eggs on toast, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter.'
And four years later, Georgina Hill's The Breakfast Book listed some more fried breakfast treats: anchovies, bloaters, brain cakes, caviar, cold tongue, devilled bones and dried sprats.
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This list alone seems justification for the fact that I have never had a fried breakfast in all my days.
The Fry-Up Inspector – who must remain nameless in order to protect, well, him – has, however, eaten my share of fried breakfasts, more than 300 in the past few years, and knows exactly what makes the perfect Full English.
'All in the eggs'
Indeed, his approved fry-up, which bears his name – The Fry-Up Inspector's Breakfast, £9.95, available from Pandora's Kitchen on London Street in Norwich – has just been named one of Esquire magazine's top 25 breakfasts in the UK (although it notes, primly, 'not for daily consumption').
'You can normally tell if a breakfast is going to be a good one by the eggs,' notes the Inspector, who is in his 40s, works in Norwich and bears the lithe figure of one who breakfasts like a king just once a week rather than every day, 'if the eggs are well-cooked, there's a good chance the rest of the breakfast will be too. It's amazing how many places can't even cook an egg!
'I prefer people not to know who I am because I want the reviews to be impartial. Some people do know who I am now and it does change the way you're treated – staff make a bit more effort and that's not what I want. I want to review the experience that everyone gets, whoever they are.'
For the past two-and-a-half years, the Fry-Up Inspector has been searching across the UK – although mainly in Norwich on the basis he lives here – for the perfect full English breakfast, handing out accolades and criticisms along the way.
Those that attain the highest plaudits of 8.5 out of 10 or higher are awarded Inspector Recommended stickers which they can display like Michelin stars, those that fail the grade must be prepared to be named and shamed on his blog, www.fryupsgoodornot.blogspot.co.uk.
He has rated and reviewed more than 300 breakfasts based on first impressions, service, ingredients, presentation, taste and value and has attracted an online audience of hundreds of thousands, having started his quest for the perfect breakfast after a particularly grim early morning experience at a chain hotel.
'The weekend has started'
The Inspector has eaten across Norfolk, in London, Northampton, Cambridge, Ipswich, Peterborough, Nottingham, Brighton and Bristol, in Paris, New York, Brussels and in Spain. He has even reviewed mid-air, on aeroplane flights.
'I don't really remember fry-ups from home, but when I lived at the YMCA in the 1980s, there'd be a fry-up every morning. It was a real treat and it set you up for the day. But when I left, I'd had enough fried breakfasts for a while and I went off them. They later became a hangover antidote after I'd gone out!' he laughed.
'Fry-ups for me mean the weekend has started – they're a treat. For it to be a great breakfast, the meat has to be high quality, the egg needs to have a runny yolk but the white has to be cooked, the tomatoes need flavour – from a can if needs be – I love a bit of fried bread and mushrooms, baked beans need to be there to stop any dryness and there definitely, definitely shouldn't be any chips. Chips aren't for breakfast.'
The Inspector's wife accompanies him on his reviews and, having recently become vegetarian, is able to give him a meat-avoider's mini-review on the fry-up options for those who prefer Quorn to flesh. Brilliantly, the pair had a fry-up themed wedding reception, complete with a cake decorated in icing sugar sausages.
'I like to go into as much detail as possible because I know that lots of people like to go out for breakfast and it's nice to offer them an informed guide that let's them know the full story,' he said. 'A great fried-breakfast can be served anywhere – in a greasy spoon café or in a posh restaurant. It's about the vibe of the place, the service, the ingredients and the whole experience. I could buy nice ingredients myself and cook them at home, but what I'm looking for is more than that.'
There are more than a dozen establishments in Norwich that the Inspector has awarded a coveted sticker to although his favourite fry-up that he's reviewed so far is out of the city, at E Pellicci in Bethnal Green, which received a hard-to-beat 9.5 out of 10 and 'ticks all the right boxes in relation to what matters on my search for the perfect fry-up'.
With a perfect 10 yet to grace the leader board, the quest to find the ultimate fry-up continues. 'I still enjoy a good fried breakfast even after eating so many. I don't get bored of them and in fact it's the only time in the week when I actually eat breakfast at all – one day, maybe I will find the perfect breakfast. In the meantime, I'll enjoy the search.'