Chicken and Eggs

Picking up chicks and learning to suck eggs

Virgil Evetts.

I’m never happy unless I’ve got a project on. Whether it’s distilling spirits, making salami, or maturing cheese, I just have to have a folly on the go.  I guess I’m just an anticipation sort of person.

My latest backyard venture has been one of the more ambitious [apart from an ill-advised and quickly-abandoned foray into saffron culture] to date. Chickens.  I’d always toyed with the idea, rather fancying myself in the Farmer Evetts role, but it never went anywhere because my best beloved was not onboard with whole yard-birds thing. Her head had been filled with alarmist tales about the choking stench of poultry, accompanying clouds of disease-ridden flies and marauding hens destroying gardens.  Despite my relentless needling [normally such a successful approach], she was not easily moved.

But in the end all it took was a few freshly laid eggs from a chicken keeping country cousin. Now you may think an egg is an egg is an egg, but scrambled and served on buttery toast these were the creamiest, yellow-est, eggy-est eggs ever to grace our table and my most compelling argument to date. They were of the kind of perfection that just leaves you smiling. Of course I had another reason to smile. I had won.

So I quickly set about designing and building a large pen for the birds [which is most unlike me; I can barely tell one end of a hammer from the other]. I had the good sense to call in a proper builder when it came to making the hen house.

I did much research into the best type of chicken for egg production, toyed with various preposterously-named [and in some case preposterous looking] rare breeds, and eventually settled on the Brown Shaver- the main commercial hybrid egg-bird used in New Zealand. Shavers lay up to 300 eggs per year!! That’s probably more than I’ve eaten in my entire life, but hey, I’m a sucker for big numbers, however impractical they may be.  A certain on-line auction site directed me to a salt- of-the-earth country sort who specialises in rearing Shavers for wannabe townie chicken-whisperers like me.  

Fast-forward a few weeks and we are care-givers to three happy, friendly and so far odourless bird-girls who have quickly clucked their way into the hearts of the whole family. Ophelia, Becky and Sophie excitedly greet us whenever we venture out into the garden, and get most put out if we don’t reciprocate. They have also formed a curious bond with our cat Lucy who sits lovingly beaming at them for hours at a time. They quietly chatter away to her with a similarly unlikely affection.

Being young birds [a tender 21 weeks], the girls are still a week or so off laying, but seeing as I’m all-a-flutter with excited anticipation, I thought I would share some of my favourite ways with eggs this week.

Those of you who pay close attention to my column [God help you] may recall I have previously mentioned my best beloved’s alleged egg allergy. By pure coincidence this sensitivity evaporated around the time she tasted aforementioned eggy-est of eggs. Funny that.

 Tortilla- Spanish omelette

Just to make it very clear I’m not talking about Mexican wraps nor those flabby plant-strewn things so often passed off as ‘Spanish’ omelettes in New Zealand. In Spain, tortilla typically means a type of omelette, not so very far [in appearance] from frittata, but good. Very good.

Made with eggs, thinly sliced potato, roasted peppers, a little onion and plenty of seasoning [a sprinkle of smoked paprika doesn’t go amiss here either], it  makes the very best summer  lunch or dinner. Just like revenge, tortilla is dish best served cold, but unlike revenge it’s further improved with the addition of crusty sourdough, great dollops of fresh aioli and plenty of wine.  Actually I suppose wine could go quite nicely with revenge too. As with quiche, tortilla should be fairly thin- none of this high as Huka falls nonsense one sees about the place.

Fresh pasta

The better the eggs the better the pasta.  It’s just that simple, people. Fresh pasta gets its silky elasticity and dandelion hue from only the very best free range eggs. The steamy fragrance from a colander full of just-drained homemade pasta is the stuff of true contentment.

Carbonara

Mega-famous and much abused, carbonara is really just a humble dish from the grimy coal country of Northern Italy. Typically it’s served on fresh pasta and made with nothing more than eggs, cream, parmigiano, pancetta and a refreshingly laissez-faire attitude towards heart disease. Needless to say, I love it madly. Alla carbonara means ‘in the style of the coal miner’. Nobody’s quite sure if this is a reference to the soot speckled appearance of the well-peppered sauce, or because the dish originated among the coal mining villages of North-West Italy. Who cares? It tastes good.

Scrambled Eggs

Don’t start on at me. I know that you know how to make scrambled eggs. Who doesn’t? But they deserve mention here because a well-executed plate of this buttery, barely-set bliss is hands-down the truest expression of the egg, and when made with home-laid eggs is an overwhelming argument for keeping your own hens.

Zabaglione

Say after me:  zar-by-own-eh. Sabayon basically. Sometimes part of the great, if over-done, tiramisu but drop-dead gorgeous on its own too, and it owes much of that glamour to a few good eggs. In a double boiler whisk together 6+ egg yolks with a teaspoon each of sugar and marsala per yolk until thick, golden and frothy. Serve chilled with some perfect summer fruit and a sliver or two of the very best chocolate.

Gelato

Another egg based marvel of Latin kitchen chemistry.  The basis of real gelato is a sturdy egg and cream-based custard with whatever embellishments tickle your fancy. Call me a bore, but I think it doesn’t get much better than homemade vanilla gelato; saffron-yellow from free range eggs, with a pleasing, palate-coating texture and just the faintest eggy note under that heady vanilla fragrance.

Truffle -baked eggs

Eggs and truffles have a weird primal thing going on. It’s very, very sexy and I don’t mean figuratively. This simple little concoction illustrates that point in full-frontal blushing detail.  With a few strips of streaky bacon and a small battalion of toast soldiers it makes a dandy wee repast. Break an egg into a ramekin, top with cream, splash generously with truffle oil, season well and bake until set.  If you happen to have a fresh truffle or two lying about the place [who doesn’t?], so much the better.

Now all I need is for my small feathered friends to get their downy little tails into gear and start popping out the goods. In the mean time I could do with some further inspiration on the eggs front. Nine hundred eggs per year is an ambitious challenge to any cook.

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10 thoughts on “Chicken and Eggs

  1. They probably are free range, but she clearly dosnt give them access to grass and green food which is what colours up the yolks. The usual reason for this is greed. If you keep the birds on a diet of pure laying pellets they lay very heaviliy but the egg quality is poor.
    If you give them a mixed diet of green stuff, pellets and grain they lay less but the eggs taste great. Find a new supplier!

  2. Not being able to raise chickens on my small section, I love the opportunity to buy free range eggs whenever I can. I recently started to buy them at the local farmers market – except these ones have always been pale yellow. After 3 or 4 times of buying from the same stall, and the yolks always being pale yellow I mentioned this to the stall holder.

    She proceeded to tell me they were genuine free-range and that she could always put food colouring in the food her chickens ate so the yolks would be bright orange if that’s what I wanted! Unbelievably rude, I thought!

  3. They LOVE lawn clippings. They more straw, garden rubbish and grass they have in their pen the better. It keeps them entertained with scratching, they eat it and it helps to reduce odour. Good luck with your hens!

  4. Hi..loved reading your chook experience! – we’re looking at getting 3 chooks soon, can you put grass clippings down on their floor? clippings from the lawn mower won’t make them sick?

  5. Thank you, Helen, this is the first newsletter I have ust received. My mouth waters!!!
    I listen to you each weekend and cannot get into the garden until 10.30 after the Radio Live sessions. By that time it is time for coffee and so the morning goes.

    Thank you so much, it is delightful to have this fresh info regularly.

  6. I’m sorry Virgil, a nest-fresh egg is best poached. Our girls are bantams, and getting on in age, so production comes to a halt in winter. With baited breath we await the arrival of spring when the egg supply gears up for another season.

  7. I can now happily report that all 3 girls laying an egg per day! It’s really very exciting and they seem to so proud. I certainly am.

    In reference to a couple of points made on the forum thread about chooks, I’ve draped bird-net over the pen, but they don’t seem remotely interested in flying. I found Sophie on the hen house roof last week and she seem completely shocked to be there and greatly relieved to be lifted down. The girls do rush the door when I enter the pen, but its only greed and they quickly drop down waiting to be picked up or stroked.
    In regards to smell, I’m straw-yarding the girls, which means that the entire run is liberally strewn with straw, grass clippings and weeds with regular top-ups. The birds constantly scratch and turn this over meaning any droppings are quickly buried. Apparently this only needs to be cleared out a few times per year. A month and bit later and they are still utterly odourless, even inside the pen. I placed a fly trap in the pen, but don’t actually think it’s necessary.

  8. P.S. to the above. Occasionally there is nothing nicer than a classic 3 egg omelette: fines herbes; cheese; mushroom. On Sunday nights in winter we have been known to have boiled eggs with toast soldiers! And souffles – yum; salmon or cheese. Any of these will be twice as good as normal with your new laid eggs. The first time I made Claudia Roden’s orange cake I used new laid free range eggs with yolks that were stunningly orange. The cake was a wonderful colour. I’ve never quite matched it since.

  9. Lovely! Would have liked a photograph (but didn’t need one – such is the power of your description) of Lucy, lovingly smiling at the birds.

  10. How exciting! You’ve time it well, hopefully they will lay through the winter for you. Older hens stop laying during the winter months.

    Our three year old (rare and mixed breed) hens take an egg laying break from March until August. They spend their ‘holiday’ shedding feathers and growing new ones. Luckily we have a free range farm down the road that sells eggs at the gate for $5 a dozen in the winter. It’s hard to go back to supermarket eggs once you grow your own!

    When we have eggs coming out of our ears, what we don’t give away or use fresh, we turn into pickled eggs. You can also use them to make meringues, mayo and custard.