Serial expat—and now repat—Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share—this time a rather entertaining chicken-and-egg story (but the coop came first).
“Right, that’s it, no more chickens,” muttered my husband darkly as he finished putting in the last stake supporting the electric fence which now circled a large part of our garden. “You’d think these eggs were gold plated.”
I had always wanted chickens and, returning to the English countryside after nearly twenty years of living abroad, I seized the opportunity, investing in a proper, farm-style coop. No silly Dutch barns or Irish caravans for me—this was to be serious stuff.
“What kind of chickens do you keep?” asked the friendly guy from the animal feed shop from whom I was buying a vast bag of hay and a substantial sack of layers meal (poultry feed).
“Er, well,” I muttered with embarrassment.“I don’t actually have any yet…but soon.”
“Well,” he smiled kindly, “you’d do worse than looking up Andy at Oak Farm, he’s got all sorts.”
The chickens arrived a week later. All went well, two more arrived and the eggs began to come….until…
The Girls…minus poor Abby (supplied).
Why did the chicken cross the road? (Don’t ask…)
One afternoon, I went out to check on my girls, to discover that one, Abby (a Wyandotte), was missing—and so too was Sophie, my gorgeous German Shepherd.
Nearly hysterical by now as I couldn’t possibly contemplate life without Sophie, I ran up and down the road in front of the house and down the lane calling and calling the dog. She always comes.
But this time it took fifteen minutes. When she at last emerged from the ditch behind the hedge—quiet but gleaming and bright eyed—I knew.
We never found traces of Abby and it was easy to convince ourselves that a fox had stolen the unfortunate bird, but, hours later, my husband caught Sophie, red in tooth and claw, with Keira, a light Sussex.
Dinner that night was chicken. “It’s not Keira, honestly.”
The atmosphere was bleak. Something had to be done and so the electric fence was organized. We now rest easy that Sophie won’t help herself to another expensive free-range chicken lunch. She clearly remembers her meal with relish—and I still occasionally catch her gazing wistfully at The Girls. But she now knows, and an electric shock serves to reinforce the lesson.
But the flavor? Just eggs-traordinary!
The eggs are worth all the trouble. Unless you have tasted an egg straight from nesting box to plate, you have not, I am sad to say, tasted egg.
A feast of poached eggs on toast at Joanna’s house (supplied).
In England it isn’t easy to buy battery eggs any more. Free range is the thing in all supermarkets; many only stock free range.
Should you decide to stand firm against spending extra for your eggs, you might feel it prudent to hide the box under some curly kale as you complete your perambulations around the aisles, such is the disapproval you might attract.
Hardly a nest egg…
Yes, I have eaten my share of free-range eggs and so feel myself qualified, albeit poorly, to make two observations:
1) A free-range egg from a supermarket is not the same as the eggs The Girls produce. I think it may have more to do with freshness than free-rangeness. Freshly laid, my girls produce eggs with thick whites, which do not spread when they are cracked. It is very easy to poach them perfectly since they hold together well. Of course, it goes without saying that the yolks are deeper in colour and of a more unctuous texture.
2) It’s simply not clear how free-range eggs can be produced for any profit, even at the prices supermarkets charge. I have—thank you, Sophie—nine chickens. I am lucky if I get four eggs a day. Four. I have to feed these girls both regular feed and little treats and put cider vinegar in their water for strong shells. Then I must buy them straw, which I like to change daily both for hygiene and for their comfort and dignity—they are ladies, please. Then there is the cost of the coop and galvanized feeders and water dispensers. Then, of course, the electric fence. My girls aren’t even close to paying me back in eggs. Not close.
I suppose if I was of a suspicious mind, I would question how free range does a chicken need to be for her eggs to be sold as such. Does she range wantonly over the garden trampling peonies and pecking at pyrocantha with shameless disregard, or she rather more constrained? If so, exactly how constrained? Does she live outdoors, indoors? I just don’t know. The frightening thing is that, like so many others standing in the egg section of Waitrose, I’m not alone in not knowing what, precisely, is meant by “free range”.
There is also the matter of the moulting season, during which hens lay few eggs in order to conserve all protein for the growth of a new winter feathers. As my friends said, “Moulting season? But there are always eggs in Waitrose.”
He makes a fair point. How does that work? I’ll tell you how it works in Hambridge: I get no eggs, but I carry on caring for the princesses.
Still, let’s not brood over it!
Happily, like my chooks, I don’t have to exhaust myself worrying about these things. I have The Girls, the eggs, the sheer joy of feeling connected to food production albeit in such a small way. It feels so wholeseome to watch my family enjoy our own eggs. It is so snobbishly gratifying, too, to know we are eating probably amongst the world’s most expensive hens’ eggs.
Where’s is the champagne, darling?
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Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! What do you make of Joanna’s eggs-perience? Of course if you’re American your thoughts will be turning to turkey at this point, but surely you, too, can spare a few moments to think of the humble chicken? Let us know in the comments…
Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
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