I have a theory. Like the best theories, it is simple and concise and able to spark much debate as to its veracity and plausibility. Perhaps it is little more than the ramblings of a self-confessed gastronome attempting to add a modicum of legitimacy to a burgeoning obsession but I shall, nevertheless, share it with you now as a stimulus to further discussion.
I am willing to hear counter arguments and even consider the possibility that it might be nothing more than utter bunkum, but I have a feeling that a great many of you will agree.
It runs thus: the very best way to begin the process of understanding a new country or culture is not through examining their social structure, rituals, rites of passage or sexual practices. It is by looking at the food that they eat.
I firmly believe that by consuming three meals you can gain a more immediate and precise understanding of wherever you are than by reading any number of guidebooks. Only by sampling the local foods and flavours can you start to scratch the cultural surface and begin to delve deeper into the social miasma that a mere few mouthfuls ago felt so alien.
As a result whenever I find myself somewhere new, it is not the art galleries, museums, guided tours or buildings I am interested in – it is the local food. In the spirit of adventure I try not to be constrained by pre-conceptions or my own short-sighted cultural relativity. Granted there are some things that I would only eat if faced with the possibility of a long, slow and painful death from starvation, but they are few and far between (and for an entirely different post altogether). Now is the time to discover the food of my ancestral land – and what better place to begin than at breakfast.
Breakfast is the cornerstone of cuisine. It sets the day in motion and creates a springboard for whatever follows (usually lunch). It is usually a hurried affair, a far cry from the glory days of breakfast when an aristocratic diner could idle over tea and toast and eggs and bacon all served by the staff from silver platters. A freshly ironed copy of The London Times provided an excuse to avoid conversation aside from a muted commentary on the affairs of the day.
Sadly, I don’t live in an episode of Jeeves and Wooster so have to make do with toast and a large espresso with a glass of juice as a concession to health. But on holiday it is possible to linger over the first meal of the day a little longer, as if you are living in a world of perpetual Sundays (how I wish that were the case).
For some reason that remains elusive to me at this moment, I’d become convinced that the Swedes enjoyed a breakfast consisting mainly of coffee and pastries and so on our first morning – which also happened to be my girlfriends birthday – I confidently marched into a café ready to show off my knowledge of Swedish breakfast practices.
My request for two coffees was met with an approving nod from the chap behind the counter. So far so Scandinavian. My supplementary request for three pastries of his choice was met with a look of mild confusion and a glance at his watch before he shrugged his shoulders and removed a selection of tasty but totally unbreakfast-like items from the huge display. We were presented with a slab of chocolate cake, a glazed raspberry tart and a warm cinnamon roll. The first two were unexpected and came with a frightening amount of whipped cream. The third was more what I had in mind but I was willing to be proved wrong and we merrily tucked into this selection of Swedish breakfast treats.
The cinnamon roll was perfect with strong black coffee (the Swedes are the second biggest coffee consumers in the world, only the Finns neck more of the stuff), warming and steadying . I thought it would be an ideal hangover breakfast, like an edible hug. The others, although tasty, were just wrong at half nine in the morning and left me feeling a little sluggish while my poor digestive system struggled to deal with the cream.
I analysed this breakfast in conjunction with my theory. What did this tell me about the country I was in? Swedes are greedy, have a sweet tooth, aren’t particularly health conscious and most probably skirting a fine line between obesity and morbid obesity. Something was clearly amiss because not one of these conclusions appeared to be true.
I relayed this story to my Swedish mother. ‘Why on earth did you have cake for breakfast?’ she said.
‘Because that’s what they do over there. Isn’t it?’ I replied meekly
‘No, what gave you that idea? If people have cake at all, they wait until about three o’clock. Maybe late morning on a Sunday. And even then it is usually retired women who only do it as an excuse to gossip. Breakfast is usually yoghurt with cereal and fruit.’
This explained a lot. My disappointment at being wrong was offset by my delight that my theory still held water. And that we’d got to eat cake for breakfast, something I recommend everyone try at least once.