Breakfast at our kitchen table was fairly standard and uncolourful, by 1990s semi-detached Essex suburban standards. A bowl of Weetabix (two, with semi-skimmed milk) and a piece of toast after if you had PE or a particularly long day or it was cold or you just really wanted some and asked nicely enough.
Until one chilly autumn Sunday morning when my dad announced we’d be going off for a drive “to find a naughty breakfast”. I could not for the life of me imagine what this might entail.
‘Naughty’ in our house was rarely about calorific content. Something for which I find myself increasingly grateful to my parents for, as I am largely free of the harmful notion that food can be a ‘treat’ or that sweet, delicious things are ‘a bit naughty’. Food is for eating, and enjoying. Nothing more complicated than that. In more recent years, I have ground my teeth so tightly my jaw has fought for freedom with a loud cracking sound on release after listening to ladies (yes, almost always) inhabiting offices I’ve worked announce “oh, I am naughty” when snaffling a teeny tiny micro-chocolate from a selection box.
And so, the very mention of a “Naughty Breakfast” baffled my 11-year-old self.
My family are Jewish, and my mum did her best to keep a kosher home in those days, so there were no weekend bacon sarnies. Sausages, on the rare occasion we’d have them, were an expensive chicken or beefy feature of the occasional summer B-Word (we weren’t allowed to say “barbecue” out loud because that would make it rain). I still maintain, by the way, that this meat situation is fully responsible for the entire trajectory of my adolescence and consequently my entire adult life, as my attempts to attend the local grammar school were thwarted by my failure to answer a question in the 11+ exam involving the phrase “wafer thin”, which I had never encountered in my whole life as it is rarely used in the language of a child other than when referring to ham, which I had not yet eaten, or the Monty Python sketch, which I had not yet watched because I was only 10 years old.
Consequently, the only thing different about a weekend breakfast from a school-day breakfast was that it might feature the occasional beigel, some smoked salmon on a slice of leftover Friday night challah, or that you’re still having your regular weekday breakfast but whilst wearing pyjamas instead of school uniform.
On that chilly Sunday morning, sleepily hurried into tracksuits and warm jackets, my brother and I nervously buckled up on the back seat. Misty windows wiped with pasty cold fingers, air pollinated with the scent of New Company Car, all adding to the sense of adventure and mystery. And hunger.
We sped off through the dark roads of Epping Forest, where ancient trees arch over the cars, growing together like they’re holding hands to form a secret tunnel through which you safely emerge from Suburbia and out into the wilds of South West Essex.
The pleasing scrunch of tyres turning over gravel as we ease our way into the carpark announced the end of our mystery tour; Hobbs Cross Farm. Fields full of rusting decommissioned tractors for climbing and playing on, gangs of barnyard animals tottering around a hay-scattered yard, and a chimney puffing actual real life smoke from out of a story-book farmhouse building.
Excitedly, we climbed out of the car and pushed open a huge squeaking metal gate.
When I was much younger, I distinctly remember feeling confused and upset the moment I realised “chicken” was the same as “a chicken”. But rather than turning me off meat for good, being led around this small working farm, waving at sheep, tentatively handing little paper bags of pellet feed to hungry goats and birds whilst I worked up an appetite before feasting on the remains of the family’s hard work helped a lot of things about food make sense to me.
This is what farms do!
This is where food comes from!
Meat doesn’t come from ‘The Shops’, it comes from misty fields, muddy boots and early starts.
After noseying around fields, barns and shelters, we are shown into the farmhouse, converted into a small restaurant with a huge, brick-built serving area opening right up into the kitchen. We pick a table by the open fire; the first working fireplace I had ever sat beside – or even seen. Piles of delicious, farm-fresh, hot salty slices of bacon (and eggs, and sausages, and every perfectly-cooked home-grown Full English Breakfast ingredient you could ever hope to see on such a plate apart from chips, because chips have no place in a Full English Breakfast), were flipped onto huge blue and white Delft-style platters by a floppy-haired, ruddy-cheeked giant in an apron; pig pens and hay loft in view from his kitchen window.
Our ‘naughty’ was not about scoffing greasy grub. It was naughty because of bacon. We don’t eat bacon. We’ve never had bacon at home.
I cut a little piece of thick, fatty meat from a rasher, and used it to pop the bright, bulging yolk of my fried egg. For reasons I’ll go into another time, I didn’t really eat much hot food at all until this point in my childhood, but the sunny gloop of an egg yolk has always been a more perfect and reliable condiment to me than any red or brown bottled sauce. Coated in an oozy yellow film, I excitedly tried my first taste of bacon. The memory of that chewy, salty oaky flavour has stayed with me my whole life, every other time I have eaten it. A cheap, common, easy-to-find meat that to me still tastes like a rare, precious, naughty adventure. Every single time.
This was the culinary awakening of my youth, hidden from grandparents and school chums. A small, delicious secret rebellion.