Eating in: He's cracked it

A good fresh egg, full of flavour and colour, is far more exciting than any of its hollow and chocolatey imitations. Michael Bateman celebrates the return of the real thing
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The Independent Culture
WHEN Marks & Spencer introduced "grown for flavour" tomatoes a few years ago, there was much merriment among food writers. What else were tomatoes being grown for? Making use of genetic modification, they were being grown for resistance to disease, a redder skin to give the illusion of ripeness, and hardier skins for a longer shelf life. Certainly not for flavour.

But the consumer has some influence, and the Marks & Spencer initiative was seen to be profitable. Others followed suit. Now the tomato industry devotes itself with passion to getting flavour into tomatoes by introducing new varieties and more effective growing methods.

It's an old, old story in the food world. The consumer has had to tackle one category of food abuse after another. We saw off tasteless white sliced bread, keg beer conditioned with acidic carbon dioxide and bland, soapy cheese. We now have a decent choice of breads, real beers and a pageant of great British cheeses.

Is it not the turn of the egg? Why does your average supermarket egg never seem to have an inviting fresh taste?

These days real eggs don't arouse the sense of expectation that even children's chocolate Easter eggs do. The best eggs that I get to eat are those from assorted local farmers in Norfolk. They have small flocks which forage in the yards, feeding on farm-shop scraps (cabbage, carrots) and a supplement of maize. One of their eggs, eaten on the day it is laid, is a truly gourmet feast.

My eating patterns have to be rearranged for some seven days after I purchase these eggs, to accommodate the luxury of breakfasts of boiled eggs (days one to three) and poached eggs (days four to seven), and other meals of omelettes, souffles, quiches and caramel custards - of which crema Catalana (see recipe, right) is the prime Spanish example.

These eggs have real flavour. And, thankfully, real eggs seem to be on their way back. This Easter, the egg industry has decided to market the eggs produced by its Lion Brand farmers (who supply 70 per cent of eggs) for the first time in 17 years.

This has come about, says the British Egg Information Service, because of a heightened awareness of eggs triggered by Delia Smith's latest television series, How to Cook, in which she showed the nation how to boil an egg. The BEIS estimates that over the six weeks that the series ran, sales of eggs rose by 50 million. An impressive statistic - until you realise that comes down to only one more egg each during that period.

However, it's clear that confidence in the egg is returning, all of 10 years after Edwina Currie's damning revelation that it was a potential source of salmonella poisoning. The good news on hygiene is that common sense has finally overcome resistance within the industry. By September, all Lion Brand eggs will be guaranteed salmonella-free. Lion Brand's new code of practice requires famers to vaccinate all their chickens against salmonella. It is a solution so blindingly simple that you wonder how it could have taken 10 years to implement. Was it really a question of money, when it costs about 20p to vaccinate a bird?

The BEIS has also addressed welfare and safety concerns, banning the use of meat products and bonemeal in feeds. But will this give us tastier eggs?

Not really. This can only be achieved by providing the birds with good housing conditions and good feed, according to Wiltshire egg farmer Martin Pitt, whose eggs are "laid for flavour". They may cost 30p more a dozen, but that seems a small price to pay for perfection.

His free-range birds have three times more room than the required minimum. Because they don't peck each other, they don't need to have their beaks cut off (a widespread practice in the industry), and are able to root for insects and so on.

Pitt doesn't buy in proprietary feeds, but prepares his own, a home-grown mix of wheat and barley, with maize for colour (the deep orange-yolked eggs used in Italian egg pasta usually owe their colour to artificial colourants in the birds' feed).

It also includes oyster shells, to provide calcium to toughen up the egg shells, and seaweed, an idea he picked up in Japan, where they eat what he considers to be the world's tastiest eggs.

I bought a few dozen of Pitt's eggs from Tom's in Westbourne Grove, London W11 (0171 221 8818), and they were a revelation. Sturdy, with a solid white clinging to the rich yolk. Any egg dish would taste better using them.

On an impulse, I adapted my favourite kedgeree recipe to accommodate a poached Pitt egg instead of mixing beaten egg into the rice, or serving it with chopped hard-boiled egg according to the old Indian Raj custom.

If you happen to have the ingredients to hand - some leftover cooked rice and a piece of smoked haddock - it takes only 10 minutes to make.

Place the haddock in a small pan, cover with milk and gently simmer for five minutes. Lift out the fish, removing skin and bones. Poach the egg in the milk. Reserve.

Make a curry sauce with a ladleful of the milk, a teaspoon or two of curry paste, thickened with a scant teaspoon of cornflour dissolved in an equal quantity of water. Add the haddock and warm through. Check seasoning.

Meanwhile, stir-fry the rice in a wok with a little sunflower oil. When hot, pour the haddock and the sauce over it and top with the poached egg. Delicious.

Martin Pitt Free Range Eggs Limited (01672 512 035). Pitt's eggs are only available in London and the south of England


Serves 8

6 egg yolks

200g/7ozs sugar

750ml/114 pints plus 120ml/4fl oz milk

zest of 1 lemon

5cm/2in cinnamon stick

3 tablespoons of cornflour

Beat the egg yolks and 150g (514oz) of the sugar in a bowl. Put 750ml (114 pints) of the milk in a saucepan with the lemon zest and cinnamon stick. Bring to the boil. Remove from heat and strain the mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly.

Dissolve the cornflour in the remaining milk and stir it into the custard mixture. Pour this into the pan and cook on a low heat, stirring constantly, just until it starts to bubble.

Remove from the heat and pour into a shallow pudding bowl or into individual dishes. Leave to cool.

Before serving, sprinkle the top of the puddings with the remaining sugar. Place beneath a hot grill. The sugar should turn brown and bubbly. (In Spain a heated iron implement called a salamander, pictured, is used to burn the sugar)