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27 July 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 11:45am

Cracking the code of the breakfast buffet

How to tackle the holiday's most indulgent meal.

By Felicity Cloake

It’s holiday season, and I’m stuck at home, bombarded by other people’s holiday snaps. Every time I see someone else boasting about their amazing, dirt-cheap Airbnb find, I have to comfort myself by imagining them scrabbling around in search
of a kettle. Self-catering is all very well – but not at breakfast time.

Though a silver pot of Darjeeling’s finest is a very pleasing way to start the day, it’s only the prelude to the best bit about waking up in a large, international hotel: the breakfast buffet. However many chafing dishes you’ve opened in your time, it’s hard not to feel a certain thrill as you approach the feast.

There are some constants, such as orange juice and mediocre pastries, that you’ll find from Tijuana to Taiwan, but otherwise these self-service smorgasbords are a magical mystery tour of local tastes – and the kitchen’s leftovers from the night before. The latter are, I believe, why the chef-turned-professional traveller Anthony Bourdain regards the breakfast buffet as “lethal” – but I prefer to view it as more of an edible Russian roulette.

As with all buffets, it pays to start with a reconnoitre before committing to anything – real pros will sometimes deploy a tasting plate at this stage, but they might well be guilty of taking breakfast too seriously. Either way, generally the first thing you’ll come to is the juice station. Ignore it unless you’re at a health spa and in need of all the meagre calories you can scavenge; the fruit salad next to it will look better on social media when you, too, are showing off online. Move on just as swiftly past the yoghurt and cereal; if it’s not Cap’n Crunch’s Sprinkled Donut Crunch, you can always get it at home.

The great treasure, as far as I’m concerned, is to be found at the heart of the buffet. Bypass, for the moment at least, the slabs of watery scrambled egg, and the bacon strips the colour of a richly burnished Donald Trump, in favour of the local thing. There’s always a local thing, usually hidden in the very last dish, or tucked away at the side . . . unless you’re holidaying in the UK, in which case scrambled eggs and bacon is the local thing.

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If, when you find it, that particular local thing seems completely unsuited to breakfast consumption, you’re on to a winner. Sometimes it’s so utterly unlike anything you’ve ever eaten before that you’ll have to take cues from local people. I once followed a Japanese businessman round a buffet at a hotel in Tokyo, copying his choices exactly, and ended up with a plate of slimy, smelly soya beans in an advanced state of fermentation, some rice, half a dried mackerel and a pickled plum.

Of course, one of the other joys of the breakfast buffet is that there’s no shame in making a mistake; if you go big on that mouldy Mexican corn, only to discover you’re not a fan of its fungussy flavour, you can always discreetly drape a napkin over it and head back for some huevos rancheros instead.

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Which brings me to the uncomfortable spectre at any buffet feast: the food waste. The comedian Adam Buxton, who has devoted an entire podcast to the ethics of the hotel buffet, weakly tries to justify stealing (“stockpiling”) from it on these grounds, but, lacking the brass neck to sneak as much as an apple into my bag, I’m more of the Louis Theroux “We can’t steal this food, but as long as we’re here we can keep eating” school of thought. The short-term discomfort caused by one too many open-faced herring sandwiches at breakfast is more than allayed by thinking about the cost of lunch in your average Scandinavian town.

So, if you find yourself face to face with a breakfast buffet this summer, please – have a century egg on toast for me. l