I have always been a great lover of animals and have quite a collection of pets; we have two dogs and two cats at the moment. But I've had an urge to keep chickens in my garden for a long time, partly because of all the wonderful eggs they would produce but also just to have more animals around. It took me a long time to persuade my husband that they would be a good idea; it needed eight years of gentle nagging for me to get my own way. Of course, once we got them he loved them, as did our two young children.
We live in Bristol and keep three chickens, Petal, Pearl and Tilly, in the backyard. They're two years old at the moment and each lays an egg a day. I'm told they'll live for six to eight years but apparently they only lay well for the first half of their lives. Very occasionally, one of them might have a rest day, but their productivity was the main motivation for writing my new book, A Good Egg: A Year of Recipes from an Urban Hen-Keeper, because I have 21 eggs a week to use up. You've got to keep cooking with them and making sure they don't go to waste. They just keep on coming, day in, day out.
The eggs they produce are really fantastic. They taste wonderful and very fresh. I've also noticed that if I feed them green stuff such as cabbages, then it really makes their yolks extremely yellow and vibrant, and very rich. It's nice to know exactly where your food has come from.
We've got a typical city garden that is long and thin and we made them a run that's fully enclosed. They need that kind of set-up because, as in most cities, we do get quite a lot of urban foxes in Bristol. The run is 1.5m wide by 10m long and goes all the way down one side of the garden. Then on one end of the run is a little house that's raised on a wooden ladder so they can come and go as they please.
I let them out into the rest of the garden for two or three hours every day but I can't let them out all the time because of foxes, and because they're relatively destructive. If you grow other vegetables and plants then they tend to dig them up a bit. But it makes the chickens very happy to roam around the garden so I like to let them. I don't think you need a huge garden, although there are recommended limits for them to classify as free range. Obviously the more space you can give them, the happier they are.
Although the chickens themselves are about £12, the set-up can be quite expensive; it was several hundred pounds for the run. Basically it's not a cheap way to get your eggs but it's definitely worth it. It's really nice to have them in the garden and it teaches the kids a bit about where their food comes from.
If you're thinking of getting chickens you must get a guide book; there's a good one called Free-Range Chicken Gardens that will tell you how to make the garden chicken-friendly and also help you pick out plants that they won't damage.
All in all they're quite low-maintenance. Once a week I change all their bedding in their sleeping hut, hose it out and spray it with some cleaning stuff to make sure that the parasites don't build up. I've got it down to a fine art now and it only takes about 15 minutes. They have chicken feed out at all times that they can help themselves to and then in the afternoon I chuck them in a handful of corn. That's their little treat, their chicken chocolate. Then I tend to feed them other bits and bobs from the kitchen like boiled-down vegetable peelings and oats. Other than that they do quite a bit of foraging around the garden for slugs and snails and little insects.
They do make a bit of noise but I find the clucking quite soothing. The neighbours have certainly never complained. Sometimes when I'm digging they follow me around the garden and they will come and peck me on my feet. One pecked me on the bum the other day but it doesn't hurt. I just like having them around.
I've had to adapt the garden for them because they do attack certain plants and I now do most of my vegetable gardening in a separate bit. There I grow vegetables such as peas, beans and lettuce. I'm learning as I go along as to what they go after. I grow a lot of fruit – peaches, apricots, plums, damsons, redcurrants, blackcurrants, greengages – which is successful because the chickens don't get at them. Then I have a tiny greenhouse in the corner of the garden and have chillies, cucumbers and tomatoes in there. I try and plant much more stuff than I need so I know I can throw some to the chickens as their reward for giving us their lovely eggs.
I use the eggs in all manner of things – I don't think people appreciate just how versatile eggs are. They go across the breadth of all sorts of cooking: baking, desserts, as well as savoury things such as pies, pastas and sauces. My recipes include quite a few spicy dishes as well. I love food from all over the world so I make a Malaysian egg curry and a Tunisian chakchouka, for example. And then there are the classic eggy things such as omelettes, quiches and mousses. There are all manner of things you can cook; those eggs just keep on coming so they need to be used up any which way they can.
Interview by Gillian Orr
'A Good Egg: A Year of Recipes from an Urban Hen-Keeper' by Genevieve Taylor (Eden Project Books, £15)
Baked eggs with wild mushrooms and cream
30g unsalted butter
2 generous handfuls of mushrooms, a mixture of wild and cultivated, torn into bite-size pieces
A couple of sprigs of thyme leaves
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons dry sherry
200ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A little flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Melt the butter in a small frying pan over a low heat and add the mushrooms and thyme. Sweat very gently for about 10 minutes until the mushrooms are soft, tender and aromatic.
Add the garlic and fry for a further minute or two before pouring in the sherry. Increase the heat and let it evaporate for a couple of minutes. Pour in the cream and season with salt and black pepper. Simmer for a further 1-2 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken, then divide between two baking dishes.
Use the back of a spoon to make a hollow in the centre of each dish and crack an egg into it. Season the top of the egg with a touch more salt and pepper.
Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes until the white has set and the yolk is cooked to your liking. Serve straight out of the oven, sprinkled with the flat-leaf parsley, while the dishes are still bubbling.
Queen of puddings
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
60g caster sugar
3 egg yolks
100g fresh breadcrumbs
Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
4 tablespoons raspberry jam
For the meringue topping:
3 egg whites
100g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees/gas mark 3. Warm the milk with the vanilla extract until just below boiling point. While the milk is warming, whisk together the caster sugar and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl. Pour over the milk, stirring continuously as you do so.
Stir through the breadcrumbs and lemon zest, then spoon the mixture into ramekins, filling about three-quarters of the way to the top. Put the ramekins on a baking tray and slide into the oven. Cook for 10 minutes – they should be just about set with a slight custardy wobble. Remove from the oven and increase the temperature to 180 degrees/gas 4.
Spoon the jam into a small bowl and stir briskly to thin it a little, then spoon over each of the puddings, smoothing into an even layer. To make the meringue topping, whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they are stiff. Add about a third of the sugar and whisk again until they are stiff.
Add about a third of the sugar and whisk again until smooth and glossy, followed by the remaining sugar in thirds, whisking well between each addition. Spoon or pipe the meringue in generous swirls on top of the jam. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes until the top is crisp and lightly browned. Serve immediately.