It has always been an enigma to me that the English, so universally condemned for the uninspired nature of their cooking, could have managed to impose on our planet such a varied, copious and delicious meal as the cooked breakfast; or how their French neighbours, who have elevated cooking to no less than a creative art, could have come up with nothing more imaginative than a miserable slice of bread and butter, or a solitary croissant, and a bowl of watery coffee or hot chocolate by which to start the day.
This is not to say, however, that the French fail to appreciate the qualities of a full English breakfast. But there exists, perhaps, no other country in the world where so many people unreservedly admit that there’s nothing like a substantial meal to get the day off to a flying start, and where so few actually find it possible to believe that anyone can have either the time or the stomach to take it – even at the weekend or during the holidays. This was confirmed to me during a recent trip to Portugal in the company of a group of 20 or so French people. Not only was I the only person hungry enough to indulge in egg, bacon, sausage, fried bread and tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans, but a great deal of surprise (and in one case horror) was expressed at my stomach’s ability to cope with such copious and varied quantities of food at that early hour of day.
And according to a recent survey conducted by the Credoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie) on Gallic eating habits the French breakfast has suffered such a severe decline over the past ten years that now only one person in five is willing to devote an average of 14 minutes per day to eating it. And they don’t necessarily do this every day. Is this a sign that the meal is on the point of disappearing in France? Whatever the case may be the danger is present enough for producers of breakfast foods and drinks to launch a campaign designed to convince their compatriots that going to work or school on an empty stomach is not the best of ways to start the day.
And not only has the number of French people who eat a breakfast progressively declined over the last ten years but the tendency seemed to have accelerated last year. Is it because people are in more and more of a hurry in the morning? Or is it just one more manifestation of the present economic crisis? It’s still too early to say – even if the common ingredients of the French breakfast are not outrageously expensive. This 2013 tendency does, however, confirm recent concern shown not only at the drop in consumption of bread, dairy products, cereals and fruit juices, but the impact not eating breakfast may have on our ability to concentrate later in the morning – especially when it comes to schoolchildren, 29% of whom go without breakfast at least once a week compared to only 11% ten years ago.
The decline of the French breakfast is all the more paradoxical as the meal enjoys a generally favourable image in France where 93% of people consider it vital for a good dietary equilibrium. Among those who spend an average of 14 minutes eating breakfast, nine out of ten consider it to be an enjoyable way of starting the day. 95% eat the meal at home (and not in a café), and 88% of these sit at table. However, almost half of them eat alone.
Just what does the French breakfast usually consist of these days? Ingredients tend to be varied. It goes without saying that bread is indispensable for 75% of them. Bread is followed by coffee (78%), butter (57%), fruit juice (51%), plain milk (38%), yoghourt and pastries (22%), fresh fruit (15%), honey (14%), while the various types of breakfast spreads available on supermarket shelves come last at 10%.