A miraculous ingredient in all its forms, Easter is the time to celebrate the humble egg. Hattie Ellis salutes the best eggs, from dark-golden Burford Browns, to pale-blue Cotswold Legbars and the brown-speckled quail
The humble egg is the indispensable wizard of the kitchen, and Easter is the time to appreciate it. The Easter bunny may be busy dishing out the cloying chocolate variety, but these are certainly not the best eggs. Nothing can better a rich, golden yolk or a delicate, pastel shell. Hattie Ellis celebrates the best eggs in time for Easter.
For eggs that would make a memorable eggs and soliders breakfast, read best luxury eggs: a thoroughly good egg – from one ostrich egg that could make 100 meringues to the elusive and grand swan egg.
Easter helps us appreciate the egg. Loaded with springtime symbolism, it epitomises the emergence of new life. In the days when Lent fasting meant no eggs for 40 days and nights, Easter marked their welcome return to the table. Also, old-fashioned hens start laying more as the days get longer.
There’s nothing at all ordinary about an egg. It is the indispensable wizard of the kitchen, able to froth, bind, enrich and lift. Over the past decade, supermarkets have paid more attention to this miraculous ingredient and now sell the best eggs in every size and colour.
The trend for the best eggs began 20 years ago when a furniture-maker called Philip Lee-Woolf wanted to go into farming and noticed how the egg had become a boring object, packaged in grey cardboard. He turned to a traditional breed, popular with his grandmother, the Burford Brown. These lay eggs with a dark-brown shell and a rich, golden yolk. He also bred the Cotswold Legbar for its beautiful eggs, the shell as delicately blue as a pale April sky.
Lee-Woolf’s company, Clarence Court, was bought by a big firm, Stonegate, and these old-fashioned best eggs are now sold in supermarkets all over the country. Lee-Woolf himself now sells the hens. “It’s the cheapest pet you can keep because it pays for itself in its first year,” he says.
Clarence Court has added other types of egg to its range, from the small quail to the enormous ostrich, which is the equivalent of 24 hens’ eggs, and can be enjoyed by those who want to dip in a regiment of soldiers or asparagus spears.
One of the most successful of these new speciality products is the duck egg. Sales rose by nearly 15% last year. Its opalescent white shell and large yolk make a duck egg one of the best eggs, an object of beauty as well as of taste. It has long been favoured by farmhouse cooks for cake-making because the high protein helps a sponge to rise higher and the creamy yolks add a depth of flavour.
You now see duck egg tartlets and poached duck egg salads in restaurants, such as those of food champion Mark Hix. Hix gives details on how to cook eggs on the Clarence Court website.
BEST EGGS: THE MOST UNUSUAL EGGS
The most unusual egg of all is found mostly in gentlemen’s clubs and smart restaurants for a short season in April and May. Black-headed gulls’ eggs are carefully and sustainably taken by licensed collectors from marshes in places such as the West Solent.
Steve Downey of Chef Direct is a leading supplier of gulls’ eggs. They are not fishy, he says; the birds eat mostly insects. “It’s very hard to describe a taste,” he says of these best eggs. “Any chef will only ever use the word ‘unique’.”
The collectors protect the birds for some time before laying, keeping a rifle on the marshes to kill any foxes or other animals that might eat the eggs. Their attention also deters poachers (thieves rather than cooks). “The colonies wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the collectors,” says Downey.
The cancer charity Macmillan holds an annual Gulls’ Eggs City Luncheon in May, now in its 24th
year and a fixture in the City’s social calendar. When it started, the eggs cost 4p each; now as some of the best eggs they are about £4. Such is the success that a Manchester equivalent has been set up, the Brown Shipley Gulls’ Egg Luncheon.
BEST EGGS: CAREFUL COOKING
Whatever the type of egg you use, it always benefits from careful cooking. Even boiling an egg is not as straightforward as it sounds. Delia Smith caused a stir when she issued detailed instructions on this task in her book How to Cook. She believes that a soft-boiled egg should be put into simmering water, not boiling. But for the best texture, a hard-boiled egg is best started in cold water, heated to a simmer and then carefully timed.
The best eggs have to be freshly-laid for poaching but when it comes to meringues and cakes, in his new book Short and Sweet, baker Dan Lepard recommends cooking with eggs that are a week or more old. “Often the best ingredients have settled a little,” he says. Apparently, some chefs even leave egg whites out of the fridge, covered in cling film, in order to make better macaroons.
A medium hen’s egg is 53g-63g and a large one is 63g-73g. Either is fine but Lepard says a recipe will work if you use a bit more egg but won’t if you use less. If the cake dips in the middle, next time add an extra egg to give it more lift.
“A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg,” wrote the Victorian author Samuel Butler. In terms of its importance at the table, an egg comes before a chicken. So, here’s to cracking the very best eggs, be they hen, quail, duck, goose, speckled, or chocolate.
EGGS FOR EASTER
Get your Easter eggs with no chocolate.