The Early Bird | Food Writing
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Sometimes Crwys Road is harder to cross than it is to pronounce. Choking on those thick, sticky consonants as a non-Welsh speaker is difficult enough; attempting to walk down a road that has morphed into a wild, subaqueous scene reminiscent of a natural disaster is another challenge entirely.
For the uninitiated and comfortably terrestrial, a cold, wet and windy day in Cardiff renders even a simple walk to brunch an epic voyage, transforming Crwys Road into the Welsh capital’s (only marginally less legendary) answer to the Bermuda Triangle. Broken umbrellas, askew and abandoned, litter the pavement like the masts of sunken ships. Crisp packets, shopping receipts, and the occasional scarf fly through the air like bedraggled seabirds, whipped from the hands of amateur travellers with an unpracticed, underdeveloped grip. While I am yet to hear of anyone disappearing completely, few escape unscathed. To cross Crwys road during a storm is to cheat the laws of physics.
But I will not be blown off course, for on this most unpleasant of mornings I am emboldened by the promise of a hot breakfast and bottomless coffee refills. The shining beacon to which I am drawn? The Early Bird: a cosy, independent café located on the edge of Cardiff’s student area.
Apparently, you smell it before you see it; their freshly baked sourdough provides the foundation of almost every brunch option on the menu and the giant cinnamon buns have procured something of a mythical reputation amongst hungry students.
As I round the final corner, my destination heaves into view like a mirage. With wet socks and hair resembling a damp mop, that first sight of the fogged-up windows feels practically holy.
With my friend Kayley – my fellow traveller on this brunch-date-turned-arctic-expedition – now in tow, our first impression of The Early Bird is that we are tragically inadequate. Less early birds and more like really rather late birds, we find the tiny café packed with ruddy cheeked brunchers already tucking in to their gloriously instagrammable food.
Exposed bulbs, potted plants, and framed artwork adorn the walls, infusing the room with a homely and welcoming atmosphere, yet we cannot help but feel like we have committed an embarrassing impropriety. Are we too late for brunch? When should brunch be eaten anyway?
Drowned out by the buzz of coffee grinders, the whizz of smoothie blenders, and the chatter of those prompt pioneers clearly more adept to amphibious travel than us, our entrance goes unobserved. One brunch-goer, midway through a mountain of sweet-smelling French toast and poached fruit, shoots us a withering look that confirms our obvious temporal shortfall.
As we wait by the door, the rich, buttery aroma of the bakery counter wafts gently under our noses. Sticky blackberry jam doughnuts, fudgy chocolate brownies, and soft, flaky pastries tempt us like sirens, sweetly hypnotic in their appeal as our eyes swim greedily across the selection.
We are quickly snapped out of our treat induced trance when a waiter suggests that, if we really wanted to, we could sit in the garden. “We have blankets” he assures us sympathetically.
Like brunch-fuelled automatons programmed to follow any order that might increase our chances of being fed, we bypass the warmth of the café and make our way outside. Defiantly cocooned in our coats and sheltered from the rain by a rickety plastic roof, we finally begin to peruse the brunch menu.
While the list of options (each with a witty moniker) is relatively small, both sweet and savoury tastes are well catered for. Those with a penchant for cheese might select Don’t Worry Brie Happy, a fresh take on Welsh rarebit, while Americophile diners with a sweet tooth and loose trousers might choose the Dixieland Delight, a decadent plate of crispy Welsh bacon with maple syrup and whipped butter.
We opt for the Bella Donna, a dish which - fingers crossed - is named for its beauty and not because it’s going to poison us. Costing the equivalent of two pints each (a crucial and irrefutable exchange rate), we hope for a generous portion size. We are not disappointed. When the enormous plates are set down in front of us, we exchange a knowing glance: this has all been worth it.
At its core, this dish is posh beans on posh toast; The Early Bird have taken a meal all too often associated with novice cooks and dingy breakfast buffets and elevated it to epic proportions. Two thick slices of crusty sourdough toast, each one sopping in the fragrant, tomatoey sauce of the home-made, lightly spiced beans, sit grandly in the centre of the plate. Garnished with plump vine tomatoes bursting with juice, an aromatic hazelnut pesto, and a balsamic drizzle that coats your mouth and tingles on your tongue, the Bella Donna is a colourful, uplifting sight that warms the soul even before the first sumptuous bite.
What is more, surrounded by the appalling Welsh weather, the Bella Donna is exactly what we need - it is comforting, familiar, and quintessentially British. Hungrily chomping it down while my socks dry, I immediately feel at home.
But what is it about the hallowed union of beans and bread that makes me so intoxicatingly sentimental? Could it be the memories of liquor-soaked breakfasts with university housemates, when a colossal heap of beans on toast was the only acceptable cure for even the most skull-splitting of hangovers? Or does the familiarity run deeper than that, to slapdash post-exam dinners at home with my sister when, with typical teenage ineptitude, we would burn the beans to the bottom of the saucepan and scorch the toast as we swapped stories about our days?
For me at least, beans on toast represents more than just a quick-fix meal; it is a comforting constant amidst the ever-shifting tides of modern life. From the innocence of childhood food fights, when beans were propelled through the air like tiny spaceships, to more grown-up affairs, when Heinz and Hovis converged to provide the first breakfast in a new home, this unremarkable dish carries the extraordinary significance of a lifetime staple.
Now, in the surreal new normal ushered in by COVID-19, I cannot help but notice how the simplest things suddenly feel vital and magnetic: the tang of fresh orange juice at breakfast, a generous slice of cake savoured with a book, a virtual cook along with friends, home-cooked food on the table at dinner time. In this cultural moment typified by isolation and anxiety, memories and semblances of togetherness made sweeter by the food we share feel more nourishing than ever.
So while we wait for the lockdown to lift and for independent businesses like The Early Bird to hum back to life, I will continue to savour the charming simplicity of baked beans on toasted bread, dreaming headily of a better day when I can share good food with a friend once more.
When this is all over, I will be the earliest bird, pecking at those steamed up windows, cheeping insatiably for my Bella Donna brunch.
This piece was originally submitted as my entry to the Sunday Times AA Gill Award for Emerging Food Critics 2020.