Pontificating about porridge, musing over muesli, and most of all, fussing over a full English – no meal is such a minefield of unwritten conventions and finicky preferences as the first one of the day. While the games are on, Britain will be under the spotlight through its food as much as anything else. But do the words ‘hotel breakfast’ conjure up visions of a delicious expression of this country’s great breakfasting heritage, or something quite unspeakable? Powdered scrambled eggs? There, it had to be said.
Hattie Ellis, a food writer, describes hotel breakfasts as “the ultimate in catering.” She says, “people just don’t care,” and describes the way the meal is doled out as units of foodstuffs – “a beige carpet of processed wheat and sugar”, plonked down by hapless, inexperienced staff, and which could be rolled out anywhere.
Her recently published book, What to Eat?, devotes a chapter to breakfast conundrums. As part of her research, Hattie naturally breakfasted with ‘Malcolm Eggs’, editor of the London Review of Breakfasts, a cult blog. She found he was inspired to blog about breakfasts after one day ordering an £8.50 ‘full’ English, that arrived with underdone eggs and no bacon (!) – and decided that breakfasts are under-reviewed and, in this case at least, ripe for complacency by chefs.
“We also know that breakfasts can be a bit of an ethical minefield,” says Duncan O’Brien of the Ethical Eats project, which provides support and advice to London eateries that care about sustainability. “Bacon and sausages are two of the hotspots we have identified – don’t be surprised if what you find in your full English is actually half Danish, and produced to pretty low welfare standards.”
Combine indifference from chefs, a tendency to scrimp on the quality of ingredients, and paying guests that might be too tired to go out and shop around, and you have a recipe for a unfulfilling breakfast indeed. But there is a flipside, points out Miles Quest, of the British Hospitality Association. “I think breakfast is one of the greatest opportunities a hotel has to promote its food because of its captive audience. They don't have to spend any money promoting what is a valuable sales opportunity.”
“There are relatively low-cost and simple changes that anyone serving breakfast can make,” agrees Duncan. “Going free-range on the eggs, and switching to Fairtrade tea and coffee are two examples.”
And there’s so much more to breakfast in this country than bacon and eggs. “The culture of breakfast is very strong in Britain. It’s marmalade, porridge, native honeys, smoked kippers…” says Hattie. And she’d like to see loose leaf tea, and real bread firmly back on the breakfast menu. Asked to think of a hotel that’s championing traditional and ethical produce and unsurprisingly she says: “St John Hotel is brilliant at Britishness.”
The new hotel, in Leicester Square, was always going to be about food of course, having been born of the Clerkenwell restaurant famous for its exquisite offal. Although that only gets a small nod on the hotel’s breakfast menu: blood sausage and beans. Anyhow the hotel has more of a reputation for its bacon sandwich, and the bacon is prepared in house, from rare breed pork – mostly Middle White and Gloucester Old Spot.
And there are others leading the charge in offering a good food breakfast and putting a lot of thought into the systems around it. The 400-room Lancaster, on Hyde Park, received the top gong at the Considerate Hoteliers Awards in June. Some of the initiatives that helped gain the accolade were the hotel’s productive rooftop beehives, its work on food waste reduction and zero landfill status and measures to conserve water and energy.
Other efforts worth mentioning are Richmond hotel the Bingham’s commitment to buying food from independent and organic producers. All its hot drinks are organic as well as Fairtrade. The Cavendish Hotel and the Bistrot Brunot Loubet restaurant at the Zetter hotel have also been commended by the likes of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) for their green approach to food.
John Firrell, of the Considerate Hoteliers Association, echoes calls to look beyond eggs and resurrect breakfast as something inspiring. “The full English has a part to play and many will claim it sets you up for the day,” he says, “but let’s hear it for the chef who sees breakfast as an opportunity to exhibit imagination, cooking prowess and excitement.”
Someone who seems to be answering that call is Anthony Ferguson, a San Franciscan chocolatier with a Willy-Wonkaesque chocolate lab based in a boutique hotel, Avo, in Dalston. What’s this got to do with breakfast? Every Sunday Anthony serves pancake-centred brunches that dance between savoury and sweet in the way that Americans can do so well: pumpkin pancakes smothered with cinnamon butter and honey, crowned with halloumi, corn cakes with cocoa-laced black beans, sour cream and bacon.
To top it all, everything on the regular brunch menu is organic – the bacon, eggs and fresh produce come from the all-organic Stoke Newington farmers’ market. The whole unusual setup is the result of some happy coincidences. “The hotel found me on Twitter, and they were originally looking for someone to make the in-room chocolates. I was making my chocolates at home, and making a real mess,” recalls Anthony. He needed a kitchen and the hotel didn’t have a chef or restaurant. He undertakes chocolate experiments for his brand, Niko B Chocolates, in the shop window: “We get a lot of curious looks. And it takes people by surprise to find a hotel here.”
A chocolate breakfast is about as far from the ubiquitous hotel buffet as you can get, but buffets serve their purpose and there are always ways to improve them. Mark Linehan of the SRA points out: “They can result in a lot of food waste if not planned well. We recommend observing customers’ eating patterns, seeing if there’s anything consistently left uneaten, and trying slightly smaller plates – people will sometimes pile food on a plate until it looks full, so smaller plates may help with waste.”
Hotels seem split between those who can see the value of leaving a good impression by the last meal a guest will eat in a hotel before checkout, and those who see breakfast as a tedious thing that just has to be dealt with. Mark from the SRA says that the best way to encourage the latter group to lift their game is to “provide examples of hotels which are able to offer a cost-effective sustainable breakfast menu – to show others that it can be done.”
It’s time to roll out the red carpet, not the beige one.
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