Food writer and Cookbook Club host Angela Clutton explores the importance of quality and provenance when it comes to buying basics. This month: eggs
Image: John Holdship
Back when I was planning this series on the importance of making smart choices with our everyday basic produce, I really didn’t think that by the time this last instalment wheeled round with its focus on eggs, we’d be in the throes of an egg-related crisis. And yet here we are.
The current trouble lies with some of the processed eggs used in supermarket sandwich fillers, mayonnaises and the like, so that is where I am going to start too—with mayonnaise. Although I mean real mayonnaise—something so different from the processed variety that it surely shouldn’t bear the same name. I mean the silky smooth, richly flavoured and textured, pillowy, deep deliciousness of a mayonnaise made by simply whisking egg yolks with oil and some basic seasonings; so deeply satisfying to dollop onto all kinds of things and a doddle to make—try my recipe for a tarragon mayonnaise that partners with nicoise salad bundles.
Make your own mayo and you’re using real eggs whose provenance and quality you know something about because you are the one who made the choice about which to buy. But I wonder, what was that choice based upon?
The ethics of eggs
Egg scandals of old have made us all more aware of how hens are reared and kept. Hens in battery cages are—in the UK, at least—just a bad memory. Still available are eggs from caged hens which are better than battery, but barely. Barn eggs are better again but the reality is still that those hens spend most of their lives in the too-cramped indoors. Free range or organically reared hens are the words on the egg box which give consumers most reassurance on the lives the hens have led and the way they have been treated. Yet within even the words ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ are other factors that are also important for the ethics of how the eggs are produced and the ensuing effect on the quality—and flavour—of the eggs being sold.
An egg is at its best as soon as it is laid. From that moment on, its internal quality starts to decline. Many of our supermarket eggs are being sold 20 or so days after laying (EU legislation sets a max of 28 days—that’s the ‘best before’ date on the egg packaging). So, an egg on the supermarket shelf could be called free range or organic, but be nearly three weeks old. Not exactly farm fresh. I know you can’t all toddle down to your garden hens each morning to collect your own truly fresh eggs. Nor can I. But what we can do is buy from someone who is getting eggs on sale only a few days after they were laid. How will you know that? Ask.
Quality and flavour
You might also want to think and ask about the broader conditions of the farm the hens are on. Stressed hens, slow collection of eggs and rough handling of the eggs all affect quantity, quality and flavour. If an egg’s shell looks thin or maybe has fine cracks, these can be signs of hens and eggs that have not been treated as well as they might.
Colour of the yolk is less of an indicator of hen health or egg quality than we might imagine. Yes, a deeply coloured yolk of the kind that I love to see when I lop the top off my breakfast eggs can be a sign of free range hens being able to freely roam and discover organic, richly varied food that is high in nutrients. Or, a farmer can easily make the choice to add certain pigmented elements to hen feed and thus also produce eggs with a deep yellow or orange colour.
As has been this series’ recurrent theme, the stories behind our basic produce are more complicated than they might appear. The everyday staples that we rely upon to sustain ourselves and our families are, I think, so often the most important food choices we make. They rely on us taking the time to buy with respect and knowledge. Do that and we’ll all—producers and consumers alike—be fine.