By Francesco Bianchini
If only my life could be an endless breakfast, indefinitely preserving the taste of the appetizing anticipation of the day to come! Perhaps it is from the prolonged fasting that precedes it that excites the taste buds, and makes the flavors more pronounced – or is there mere wonder in a repeated resurrection? Who knows, but it seems to me that in the morning, with a steaming cup of coffee sitting in front of me; the computer is open and connected to the world, I have the power to right the wrongs of the previous day. Not taking anything away from the hearty maturity of lunch or the twilight grace of dinner, breakfast is when tastes and aromas inject fuel into the day – and I see mine unfold before me like a blank page to be filled; the moment when each gesture smacks of ritual; a precious time we can dedicate to ourselves and to those we hold dear.
Top o’ the morning to ya! (And the rest of the day to you!)
Even if we revere it differently, in every culture, in every latitude, coffee brings everyone – well, almost everyone – together. For me, the delight is the smell of freshly boiled water in my cup with a heaped teaspoon of Nescafé. That’s the short version. The long version would involve a round-the-world trip in eighty breakfasts – maybe not exactly eighty, but I can evoke some with nostalgia, recalling exaggerated and high-calorie break-fasts, to minimalist and dietary ones: brunch in a New York diner is the best way to prepare for the culture shock the city has in store. For a newcomer like I was, no experience was gradual: the iconic 1920s skyscraper overlooking Central Park that was my refuge over some years; my transition from the subtropical mugginess of a Fourth of July to the freezing environment of subways and stores; the constant din along Manhattan’s thoroughfares.
On the morning following my first trip to New York, despite the time change and unbearable heat, all my senses were on alert as I was shepherded to breakfast in one of those ubiquitous establishments – the ones with reflective steel facades and worn leatherette seats, individual jukeboxes waiting for quarters in every booth. I left the ordering to my American companion although coffee and iced water were served instantly and replenished throughout our stay. New York coffee – ‘regulah’ meaning with milk and sugar – was piping hot and tasted vaguely of rubber tires. Then came a mess of fried eggs, potatoes sautéed in ham fat, and slices of bacon so browned that they curled and splintered in my mouth. There were toasted muffins with butter and jam, and – last but not least – a huge Bloody Mary, peppery, potent, and garnished with celery. After such a breakfast I could devour the city; to walk its length and breadth; smell every nook and cranny; to love it as one loves a lover who never ceases to leave you speechless. Oh, I do miss those lazy hours spent in the muffled hustle and bustle of an American diner; coffee that never ends, and every day still to be lived.
Traditional Irish breakfasts soothe any anxious horror vacui. When I walked into the dining room of the country house where I’d spent the night, I was preceded by the rich distinct smell of morning cookery. I found the buffet table set against a window overlooking the garden, groaning with food. In hindsight moderation would have been a better policy, but at the moment I couldn’t help myself: I wanted to try everything that was on magnificent display. In addition to coffee – creamy and tasting of hazelnut – there was Eggs Benedict, succulent braised kidneys; miniature sausages flavored with juniper and grilled to perfection; smoked herring with iridescent skin; a pie of excellent Irish salmon, and toasted rye bread to be slathered with butter and a bitter-orange marmalade from Seville. As I gobbled everything, dignified white peacocks strolled indifferently beyond the window, beautifully silhouetted against the soft green grass.
The caravan of taxi cabs stopped in the middle of the desert, not yet an hour from Aqaba. One rickety old Mercedes at the head of the convoy had broken down. While the drivers confabulated over its raised hood, the passengers – eleven in all and in my care – grew impatient at yet another unexpected problem. The taxi idea had been mine; it seemed the best solution to transport the group I was chaperoning in Jordan back to Amman, and to restore a somewhat disarrayed schedule that had left everyone unhappy. The sun was just rising, inching in the shadow of the rocky hills beside the road across the asphalt, but it had not yet warmed the cold air of that March morning. No encouraging signals came from the stricken car; on the contrary, judging by their tone, it seemed as if the four drivers might take jabs at one another. At this point, an army van driving in the opposite direction pulled up. They could fix the car, allowing it to travel the 200 miles of desert to Amman, but it would take a few hours. In the meantime, they would provide refreshments at their camp. Everyone knows that offering hospitality to travelers in the desert is imperative, and the army tents had the air of a Bedouin bivouac. The air stank of camel piss and whatever was burning in the bottom of barrels, but all was prodigiously calm in the ochre light reflected by the stony hillocks of the Wadi Rum plain. Inside the drapes of black wool, watched over with amused curiosity by a circlet of gray mustaches slung under keffiyehs, we drank karkadè tea and muddy coffee from scratched kitchen glasses, accompanied by flatbreads warmed on the grill and served with honey and yoghurt as thick as cheese; there were olives and skewers of very thin lamb.
Dawn’s early light on the Wadi Rum plain
My favorite breakfast? A café largo con leche y tostadas in Spain! In the high sierras of Andalusia, where tasty tomatoes are available all year round, every roadside cafe serves its robust coffee and slices of toasted bread smeared with ripe tomatoes, salt, and extra virgin olive oil – this Iberian variety is bitter and spicy. All the caresses of morning’s peace, and the tastes of a good life in a few bold flavors.
Tostadas a la andalusa