The foodiest of foodie Brits will be hoping for something a little more functional than a globe of gourmet chocolate by way of an Easter egg this year. Many are looking forward to a box of real eggs, which are as sensory a flavour experience as even the finest chocolate. Not to mention a treat for the eyes as well as the tastebuds, with their rich amber yolks, pearly whites and delicate shells that recall the pastel treats our parents painstakingly painted for egg hunts.
We are not talking just any old eggs, mind you, but hen's eggs with provenance. Named for the farm from where your local keeper of rare breed chickens dispatches them to the village shop, if you're a lucky country-dweller, or for the posh farm brands which now supply supermarkets. One of the best advances in British food is that every city dweller can now enjoy a beautiful fresh farm egg with a rich, old-fashioned taste for breakfast.
Also catching on fast are those seasonal beauties that herald a late spring – and look gorgeous enough on the kitchen counter to double as ephemeral home accessories. These include pheasant eggs, whose sophisticated olive-green and brown shells could have been hand-speckled by Farrow & Ball, palest blue bantam eggs, and quail eggs, whose coats of marbled coffee and cream are the most delicate aquamarine on the inside, like the duck eggs for which that particular shade of blue was named.
Meanwhile, novelty-seekers are searching out rare turkey and gull eggs (the latter have a gorgeous mottled sea-green shell), and goose eggs big enough to produce a family omelette at a single crack.
Not to mention gigantic ostrich eggs, whose only virtue, according to serious cooks, seems to be that they are a talking point. But it's harder to find better taste – or value – than the egg from a properly raised chicken, a superfood at an unbeatable price compared to other protein sources.
"I would far rather have a hen's egg than any other kind," says Rowley Leigh, who was among the first to experiment with ostrich eggs when they first came on the market. "Now the asparagus season is upon us, it's pretty hard to beat a lovely fresh soft-boiled hen's egg with asparagus soldiers – the two ingredients are made for each other."
And we are all slowly coming back to the notion put into our heads half a century ago by the British Egg Marketing Board, who urged us to go to work on an egg.
Falsely discredited by Edwina Currie as being harbourers of salmonella, they were, equally wrongly, thought to be dangerous to eat in quantity because of their cholesterol content. It's been proven that the dietary cholesterol in eggs does not have a significant effect on blood cholesterol and the British Heart Foundation and Food Standards Agency have now lifted their limits on recommended consumption.
A study published last year in the Nutrition & Food Science journal revealed that eggs are among the most nutrient-dense foods money can buy and we should be aiming for one a day.
As well as their high protein content, eggs are a rich source of vitamin A, D, B, iron and folic acid and also contain anti-oxidants which can help prevent degenerative blindness. No wonder Brits, who eat two or three a week on average, have pushed consumption up to 11 billion eggs per year.
Clarence Court, which has enjoyed astonishing success since it first decided to sell upmarket eggs from rare-breed birds more than 20 years ago, is partly responsible for a new surge in egg consumption (up more than 5 per cent in the last quarter of 2010 alone). The brand enjoyed a sales increase of 15 per cent last year in Selfridges, where the Independent columnist and chef Mark Hix, who operates a champagne bar in the store, is a massive fan: "I only use Clarence Court eggs because of their rare breeds and real flavours – they have the deepest amber yolks," he says.
What on earth can make a branded egg special enough to get chefs waxing lyrical (Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein are also declared fans)? "Clarence Court hens are athletic birds which walk up to a mile a day," explains head farmer, Richard Kempsey. "They utilise their time and energy to the full, which results in the rich yellow yolks and gourmet flavour."
Fed on cereal, these posh birds from Cornwall lay only 180 eggs a year compared to 280 for the average free-range hen, which pushes the price up. But their eggs are now found in supermarkets as well as top people's food stores (they are the sole suppliers to Fortnum & Mason), and the Clarence Court range includes palest blue Old Cotswolds Legbars as well as Mabel Pearman's Burford Browns, with shells of a burnished bronze.
Both kinds can be had for £1.99 a half-dozen, a relatively small increase on the price of a common or garden free-range egg, which in itself is incomparable in flavour and body to those with pale, floppy yolks, intensively produced in barns or battery-farmed that, with luck, will soon be outlawed altogether.
But even the best branded egg is not unbeatable. It's possible Sussex has something over Cornwall, as Leigh swears by his supply from "Roger the egg man" in East Hoathly, while I find it impossible to imagine a better specimen than those from my own local supplier, Edwina Le May of Ladymeads Farm in Cousley Wood. They come in odd shapes and sizes, cost an eye-watering £3.10 for six, and you never know if and when you will find any at the shop, as the hens lay sporadically and shipments fly out of the door within a day of arrival.
But they are the most gorgeous mix of colours – white, deep brown and aquamarine in the same box – and they don't have an annoying British Lion or a Clarence Court crown stamped on them to spoil the display. Plus, possibly because they are also organic, they taste heavenly, and as Max Clark of Leiths Cooking School, also an aficionado of fine eggs, says: "It's better to have less of a beautiful egg whose rich yolk shows it has had a good diet than more of an inferior farmed one.
"The finest are a feast for the senses, and you can practically get the name of the hen who laid them from the best producers..."
How to cook them
Rowley Leigh is currently poaching them, rolling them in Parmesan breadcrumbs and serving with white asparagus at Le Café Anglais.
Jeremy Lee, of the Blueprint Cafe, uses soft-boiled eggs to garnish a beetroot salad with an eye-wateringly spicy mustard and horseradish dressing and says: "The fact that eggs work beautifully with spicy flavours is often overlooked."
Allan Pickett, of Plateau, Canary Wharf, uses duck yolks as the basis for sauce maltaise, a version of hollandaise flavoured with blood orange instead of the more usual lemon. It's a perfect partner for asparagus and also appears with turbot at Plateau.
A rich velouté of Jerusalem artichokes (this season it's combined with wild mushrooms) ladled over a soft-poached duck egg is one of the signature dishes which has won Tim Johnson a Michelin star at Apicius in Cranbrook, Kent.
Yoshinori Ishii, of Umu, uses the tiny egg yolks to bind sashimi-grade tuna with pear, shallots, radish, cashews and pine nuts into a sublime tartare.
Antonin Bonnet, of The Greenhouse, marries seagull eggs with asparagus and fresh salmon roe, calling the assembly: "A perfect balance between land and sea."
Exotic eggs – which to buy
While the jury is out on ostrich eggs, most chefs agree on the virtues of duck eggs. Max Clark particularly likes them for baking: "They have a higher ratio of albumen, so make a lighter cake." She says their intense flavour makes them perfect for soft-boiling, too, but they need careful cooking: "The trick is not to cook them for more than three-and-a-half minutes, or you will get a rubbery white." Clark also gives a qualified nod to goose eggs: "Each is big enough to make a family omelette and their oily flavour will appeal to meat-lovers when they are boiled."
She recommends tiny, fairy-like quail eggs as a good introduction to the superfood for children, who will be entranced by their novelty value. "But they are also a sophisticated addition to a posh dinner party, poached to garnish a dish of asparagus."
Shirley Aubrey, fresh-food buyer for Fortnum & Mason, recommends splashing out on a £6.50 gull egg during their short May season: "They are a highly prized delicacy with a distinctive, rich and creamy texture."
But she admits special equipment is needed for those who want to experiment with ostrich eggs, for which Fortnums charges £30 apiece: "You need a roasting spike or domestic drill to open them." She recommends rhea eggs, the same price though only half the size, for baked dishes such as custards because of their exceptionally large yolks.