We have stories about extravagant dinner parties, the hole-in-the-wall place, the elaborate meal served at 11pm, after hours of sweat and blood, or the meal our grandmother cooked in her kitchen far off from the city we now live in. But then there is breakfast. My father is one of those people who would rather enjoy a meal at his favorite restaurant than go on a hike or spend the night in a fancy hotel. Nothing makes him happier than delicious, good, simple food. And yet, I’ve never seen his eyes light up as they do when he tells me about breakfast with his grandmother, Mémé.
He grew up in Janzé, a small village twenty kilometers from Rennes, the capital in the northwest region of Brittany. His parents were busy with their cider company and my father often spent his weekends or holidays with his maternal grandmother, Mémé. She owned a minuscule storefront where she sold galettes, savory buckwheat crepes, by the dozen, just as one would sell bread. Mémé lived on a farm with her husband until the 1960s, before she bought a small store in Rennes, and moved to the city. She became a marchande de galettes, selling her hot, thin galettes to hundreds of customers. Some customers were so hungry that they ran next door to the café, borrowed a plate and an egg, and ate the galette on the street with a cooked egg cracked on top.
The store was sixty square feet, just enough room for Mémé and her two heavy crêpières à gaz, the cast-iron round hot plates used to cook the galettes. The busiest day of the week was Friday, as people ate galettes instead of meat. Mémé woke up at three in the morning to prepare the batter. She sold around two thousand galettes on Fridays, for thirty cents a piece. On the opening day she made the equivalent of three hundred Euros, more money than she had ever touched. It was difficult work because of the constant heat and the fumes of burnt gas. But she loved connecting with people. While she worked, my father played in the narrow hallway behind the store.
Mémé rented a room above the store, a simple space with Turkish toilets outdoors. There was no bathroom, just a sink with hot water. When my father stayed with Mémé he slept with her, while his grandpa set-up a bed in the kitchen. As soon as he awoke, he would hit the floor a few times with the broomstick. Downstairs, Mémé then prepared a large bowl of hot, milky chocolate with fresh toasted bread. Between two customers she would run upstairs and bring him the bowl and tartines on a large plate, so her grandson could eat in bed.
I know when my father is nostalgic, because I’ll find him in his small Parisian kitchen stirring chocolate into hot milk and slicing a fresh baguette. He’ll taste the hot chocolate with a wooden spoon, and recount this story once more.
I see too many people skip breakfast, or make do with a coffee and half a bowl of cereal. Without this first meal, after fourteen or so hours of fasting and a few of sleep, I feel ill equipped to leave my apartment. There is the coffee or tea, but then there is the food, that special morning dish that revives my sleepy body. I never feel quite awake without breakfast, whether it is a slice of thick toast with butter and jam, farmers cheese and compote, the bowl of cereal when there’s really little time and I feel like a moist meal, or the hot porridge with honey and cream in the winter, the French toast or the Dutch baby or the crepes on a long weekend morning, well, food is the natural consequence of my alarm ringing. The breakfast meal beckons me out of bed.
A friend of mine back in high school once said, “There’s nothing that makes me happier in the morning when I wake up than thinking about breakfast.” Another friend is grumpy throughout the morning unless he opens his day with a bowl of soupy rice and egg. My father always packs himself half a baguette with coarsely salted butter for breakfast, or picks up a croissant on his way to work, along with a strong espresso coffee. And my mother, the one image that comes to mind is our kitchen in the foggy early morning, out in the suburbs of Paris, when I still lived at home: there she is, sitting on a high stool by the stove, listening to the radio, and spreading almond butter on bread, spooning millet into a bowl, and drinking her twice-brewed tea.
And yet, if someone were to ask me what my favorite breakfast was growing up, I wouldn’t say it was anything sweet or buttery like French toast, or crisp and easy like cereal with milk. I’d reply, spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese.
Every morning until I was twelve, when we lived in Australia, my mother would prepare a hot lunch that she then packed in a Japanese container. My food stayed warm until noon. The leftovers of my lunch were often served for breakfast. Mostly breakfast consisted of rice and vegetables, and maybe a tiny slice of something containing protein. But then there were those special days when lunch was spaghetti with her home-made tomato sauce, rich with olive oil, sweet with thinly diced carrots, and thick with hand-peeled tomato chunks. She would sprinkle Comté or Gruyere cheese on the steaming noodles and I’d devour the small bowl until my lips were stained dark orange from the sauce.
My first birthday in France I got a treat: breakfast was hot chocolate with slices of toasted bread, spread thickly with butter. I could see the grains of salt on my bread. I dipped my toast in the hot chocolate and watched pools of oil from the butter form on the surface. My mother had put aside her strong beliefs of no sugar and no dairy and prepared this breakfast for me. The bowl of hot chocolate, cooked on the stove with whole milk and organic cocoa powder, was less sweet than my great-grandmother’s in Brittany, but it was creamy and dark. It was like a dessert, I knew this would not happen on a daily basis, it was my celebratory cake.
When I studied abroad in Japan at age fifteen I stayed with a host family an hour from Tokyo. My host sister and I had to wake up early, at five in the morning, in order to be dressed and fed in time to leave for school. I never missed a breakfast. I still remember my first morning, when I walked through the empty house (I was jetlagged, the family had gone off somewhere for a few hours), stumbled upon the monastery attached to the house, and then came across the kitchen where a full meal awaited me: a bowl of rice, seaweed salad with sesame seeds, fish, brothy soup with vegetables. At night I fell asleep with the impatience of waking up in the morning for another salty breakfast.
So here I’ve compiled a collection of my favorite weekday breakfasts, the meals that keep me full until lunchtime, that prevent my belly from grumbling in a cold office or during a writing workshop:
Bowl of hot chocolate with toast:
*I like to make my hot chocolate with whole milk and good quality chocolate such as valrhona. The best way is to heat milk in a pan (measure the proportions with the bowl or mug) and once it’s hot, I add chocolate powder to taste. Hot chocolate is like coffee, some like their chocolate milky and sweet; others like theirs strong and dark. If you’re using unsweetened chocolate add sugar to taste.
*Toast two slices of bread and spread thickly with butter. I’ve found that the Sea Salt Crystal Vermont Cultured butter, although a little pricey, is well worth the cost and is a nice substitute for French butter when in the US.
*Dip the toasted and buttered bread in your hot chocolate and savor the sweet and salty taste of this delicious, rich breakfast.
Toast with farmer’s cheese or ricotta and jam:
*I love a thick slice of Roberta’s city white bread, with its slightly charred crust and soft inside. I like to top it with a heavy layer of fresh ricotta or farmer’s cheese and then a spoonful of jam or compote. My favorites are rhubarb compote and apricot jam. Two slices of this bread will keep you full for a few hours.
Oats, cream and apple compote:
*If you have the time, cook your rolled oats in a saucepan with water, milk, or even rice milk if you want a sweeter finish (a trick my Chilean babysitter taught me). Then add a dollop of cream or plain Greek yogurt. To make the apple compote simply peel and slice up a few apples and cook them covered over low heat with a spoonful of water. If you leave them to cook for a good half hour to an hour they’ll reduce and caramelize. No sugar is needed. Stir in with the cream and oats.
Rice, pickles, and egg
You can cook your white rice following these instructions:
I recommend white Thai rice.
2 cups of rice
3 cups of water
(For 1 cup of rice you can halve the amount of water to 1.5 cups)
*Wash the rice until the water is clear. Add the measured water in a pot (preferably a thick pot) and let it soak for 30 minutes. Put the pot with rice and water on the stove with high flame and when it starts to boil, reduce the flame to simmer and cover completely. Cook for 15 minutes. Stop the gas when ready and let the rice stand for another 15 minutes before opening the lid of the pot. Don’t uncover the pot before. Serve immediately while it is steaming hot.
*Meanwhile, quick pickle radishes and cucumbers. You can do this with salt (generously salt and let sit in a bowl for a half hour and squeeze out liquid before serving) or with umeboshi (plum) vinegar, which will color the vegetables lightly pink.
*Crack an egg onto a hot, oiled pan and cook until the white is firm and the yolk still runny. Serve instantly atop a bowl of rice with the pickled cucumbers and radishes. I like to add gomashio or salted sesame seeds. Mix everything together and gobble up while still warm.