The continental breakfast

"Nothing illustrates the British disdain for Europe like the concept of Continental Breakfast." The History Woman's Blog


Inspiration for today - this photograph from my desktop diary - French Country Diary - which I have to say has been quite a disappointment. Not terribly good photographs and mostly of over the top kind of interiors. I think it's aimed at a different kind of audience - people with large mansions on the French Riviera who call in expensive interior designers to furnish their palaces. Alas it was all packaged in cellophane when I bought it so couldn't really see what I was getting.


However, it is a rather nice breakfast - and besides bringing back memories it also got me to thinking about a couple of other things associated with the concept of 'the continental breakfast'.


The writer of the quote at the top of the page meant something a little different I think to what strikes me about the 'continental' in our breakfast and British disdain. Disdain may actually be a bit strong, but separateness is certainly key. You see Britain - and I gather also - Scandinavia and the Baltic States - do not consider themselves as really European. They talk of 'the continent' meaning mainland Europe. They are not part of 'the continent'.


To digress for a moment on the defection of a continent. According to Wikipedia:


"In geology, a continent is defined as "one of Earth's major landmasses, including both dry land and continental shelves". The geological continents correspond to six large areas of continental crust that are found on the tectonic plates, but exclude small continental fragments such as Madagascar that are generally referred to as microcontinents. Continental crust is only known to exist on Earth."


Which is interesting but not what we usually mean by a continent - which is:


"up to seven geographical regions are commonly regarded as continents. Ordered from largest in area to smallest, these seven regions are: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia."


All very arbitrary of course, since Europe and Asia are all one land mass, as are the Americas. The break in the greater American landmass is pretty obvious but not Europe/Asia. The division is purely arbitrary.


But I digress. On the conventional division into continents islands are generally lumped with the nearest land mass - hence Britain as part of Europe. and yet not quite - ditto for Scandinavia, though not islands, and they are sort of separate and apparently even Sicily has signposts to 'il continente' in its ports.


You see Britain has not been part of continental Europe since the seas withdrew from the English Channel. Also a curious name, which implies ownership. The French just call it, rather more poetically, La Manche - the sleeve, because of its shape. I'm not sure whether even central and certainly Eastern Europe counts as Europe either in British eyes. But I quibble about what is actually 'the continent' in British eyes. Whatever 'the continent' is to a British citizen, it's certainly not Britain, which perhaps is why Britain as part of the European Union was always doomed to failure. I mean they never gave up their currency. And yet, of course, as I said recently, it's only in the past few hundred years that Britain and France at least have not been the same country. It's all very sad, that at a time when the world should be uniting as one to fight the very future of the entire planet, it seems to be fragmenting into ever smaller parts. Ireland may be one country before too long, and then Scotland. How will the Welsh feel about that?


But back to the continental breakfast. The thing you get offered in hotels and b&bs. It's actually, I think, rather like the Ploughman's lunch, an invention of the catering industry. But one that dates back to 19th century England - 1896 in fact and a publication called The Sanitarian. Several websites cited this, but not one wondered why it would be in this particular magazine that it first appeared. The magazine was, as the name implies, mostly concerned with health and hygiene and nothing to do with the catering industry. Tantalisingly none of those websites said why. So I looked it up and here it is as a Google book, and therein I found the actual reference which is actually from Harper's Weekly - The Sanitarian is merely repeating it. So it's not a British invention but an American one. The article is part of a section of the magazine called Contemporary Literature which reproduces articles from here there and everywhere - see below:


When you read what the American breakfast was back then, then perhaps you can see why the article is included in the magazine. It is after all concerned with health but there also seems to be an implication that a continental breakfast is just a fashion thing. In fact it's conclusion was that:


"Hungry men have declined in numbers and influence, and European travel has had a depleting effect upon this fine old institution - breakfast ... the 'Continental Breakfast' should be banished from a hemisphere where the Monroe doctrine and the pie should reign supreme."


So the Americans are in fact complaining, and they still have this reputation even today, for complaining about European manners and customs. However, I'm sure the British would be with them on this one. And absolutely no concern about health to be seen here.


Today the implication of the internet literature is that a continental breakfast is a cheaper option for hotels - nobody has to cook stuff, or even wait on tables, because today it is usually provided as a buffet.


"A continental breakfast is defined as “a light breakfast in a hotel, restaurant, that often includes baked goods, jam, fruit, and coffee.” What do these items all share in common? They’re all shelf-stable items in portion sizes that are ideal for large groups of people." The Ultimate Guide


Long ago I wrote about the hotel buffet. Now in danger it seems because of COVID. You can't have everyone just helping themselves to stuff with their bare unwashed uncovered hands these days. Well that maybe was then. Probably we are back to normal now. Many hotels - well the big ones anyway - provide cooked options as well of course - for an extra charge generally - but waiting staff are still not needed.


For bed and breakfasts it's probably one of the things that is most important to them. They are often lavish, and if not over the top lavish, then perfect anyway. Below are three from our travels, one of which had several tables loaded with the most delectable home-made pastries, fresh fruit, cheeses, and so on.

But here is another thing about the 'continental breakfast' It's not what the continentals themselves actually eat for breakfast. In all of the three French homes in which I stayed in my youth never once did I have what most people think of as a continental breakfast. The French mostly eat a mini soup bowl of hot chocolate or milky coffee with baguette which is dipped into the hot chocolate. Sometimes there are those rather horrible little packets of square toast - tartines - and, if you are lucky, jam. I do not remember the jam. However, I do remember that by the time I was in my twenties and working as an au pair there I would have one of those large cups/small bowls full of black coffee, which my hostess thought was weird and rather funny. No croissants. They, like other pastries are a Sunday treat. Please note the size of those bowls.

I have never stayed in an Italian household, so I looked it up, and it seems that they too go small. Here it's cappuccino and a pastry. Which I guess is what the lovely hotel - Albergo Portoghesi - in Rome where we have stayed twice, served on their beautiful rooftop. Although, again, we had black coffee not cappuccino. Cappuccino is a breakfast drink in Italy. Or, I gather, the busy workers just grab an espresso in a bar, standing up, on the way to work.


The Germans? Help me out here Jenny. Google would have me believe that this is a much larger meal featuring cold meats and cheeses as well as all of the rest.


I could go on through all of the other European countries but I won't. And I do wonder whether all of those traditional breakfasts are falling by the wayside and being replaced by a version of the continental breakfast. That's certainly what we have at home. Coffee with toast, crumpet or croissant with jam - and in David's case - honey and marmalade. Plus orange juice. Even the British may have given up on bacon and eggs. I don't know. Again, help me out Jenny. Do you still have bacon and eggs, etc. with milky tea?


When we travel in Europe breakfast is often a major treat every day, whether we have made it ourselves, or are staying in a bed and breakfast or hotel which provides it. We have been doing it for a long time. So important is it that one of those long ago breakfasts somewhere in Provence features on the Home page. I was relatively young back then - maybe around 50. It felt old but it was actually young, and I could still eat anything without getting fat. No more.









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