Among the Breakfast of Kings and Breakfast of Champions comes a new contender – the Breakfast of Giants – the Ulster Fry. In Northern Ireland we front load our calories with a fried breakfast which is one third bread, one third meat and the other third up to preference, particularly if your preference is more bread.
As soon as you disembark the plane in Belfast the tourism board, Discover NI, bombards you with posters telling you to ‘Embrace a Giant Spirit’. Have you heard about Finn McCool the Irish warrior who went to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner? Come along to the Giant’s Causeway where it all happened. Do you like giant yellow cranes? Well, we have two and they’re named Samson and Goliath. Like Ice hockey? Then our team – The Belfast Giants – (who are definitely all local guys – wink) are sure to impress you. Scrap all that I say, begin with an Ulster Fry.
I’m not alone in this. Derry Girls recently filmed at my favourite fry spot in Belfast, Blinkers café and in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’, main character Buddy and his uncle tackle two fry related issues with suitably blind favouritism. Buddy’s uncle observes that Northern Ireland has the highest ‘chlomestermol’ levels in the world, then adds, ‘it’s great that we’re world champions at something’. Alas it is true! The fry is not a health food and still often excludes vegetarians and vegans although I see that tide changing. More importantly, he states to his nephew, ‘there’s an art to an Ulster Fry son’ and it is that which I will focus on.
The fry’s definitive composition is a hot topic. It’s not dissimilar to a Full English, although in my humble opinion the English Breakfast is the slovenly cousin of the Ulster Fry. Sausages, bacon, and eggs are non-negotiable. So far so English Breakfast. Baked beans usually make an appearance as do mushrooms, tomatoes, and black pudding. The standout elements are two breads, potato, and soda bread. To clarify, potato bread is a dense square bread that is fried. It is not a potato pancake or a hash brown. Soda bread is not baked as a loaf, is often called a ‘farl’, and usually comes in a half circle or quarter shape. The breads make the dish.
When I left the comfort of Northern Ireland, and its carbohydrates, for England in 2018, I had no idea what awaited me. My breads became impossible to locate. I tried cooking from scratch, but the ingredients weren’t forthcoming. How about substitutes? Again, I was quickly thwarted. Google informed me that I could substitute buttermilk by combining milk, vinegar, and lemon. It wasn’t great.
My Ulster Fry superiority complex didn’t help me in England either. One housemate objected to my colloquial language. ‘It’s a fry up not a “fry”’ was his regular jab. Another housemate broke my heart when she proclaimed the ‘best bread’ from the fry was an unnecessary pancake and not one of my beloved Irish breads. For all its merits the fry doesn’t seem to have travelled much beyond Northern Ireland. When visiting Minnesota, I tried a breakfast called ‘The Ulster’. Could this be my beloved Ulster Fry transposed to another country? No, it was bacon and a mountain of fried potatoes and onions.
At university the Ulster Fry became my comfort food; the first thing that I had upon arriving home and the last thing I ate before I left. Branagh’s nostalgia-fest of a film nods to that too. Anthony McGurk, owner of Blinkers (which opened in 1969 roughly when Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ is set) recently told me how ‘people come [to the café] and say that their grandparents brought them here [for a fry] when they were kids, and now they’re grandparents themselves and they bring their grandkids.’ It's a cross-generational cultural dish, best avoided in excess, but the perfect bready taste of home.
Visit Northern Ireland and embrace a giant breakfast.