T omorrow morning, millions of eggs will be eaten in Britain, and not just the chocolate variety. The avian prototype, a miracle of convenience and nutrition within its ingenious calcium-carbonate packaging, has bounced back in popularity. The posher supermarkets are now selling a dizzying range of eggs and famed chefs are offering a host of dishes in which eggs play a prominent role. Suddenly, we all want to get cracking. Last year, there was a 16 per cent increase in the price of eggs as they rose to the highest value since 1996.

T omorrow morning, millions of eggs will be eaten in Britain, and not just the chocolate variety. The avian prototype, a miracle of convenience and nutrition within its ingenious calcium-carbonate packaging, has bounced back in popularity. The posher supermarkets are now selling a dizzying range of eggs and famed chefs are offering a host of dishes in which eggs play a prominent role. Suddenly, we all want to get cracking. Last year, there was a 16 per cent increase in the price of eggs as they rose to the highest value since 1996.

Yet, not long ago the egg was the scorned pariah of the larder, regarded with deep suspicion after two devastating health scares. In 1988, the egg industry suffered a Humpty Dumpty-style crash when Edwina Currie made herself a household name by declaring: "Most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella." UK producers endured a further battering in the 1990s when nutritionists issued dire warnings about the dangerous effect of cholesterol in yolks.

But now Britain's army of egg-lovers can dip their toasty soldiers with a relatively clear conscience (though the conditions in which most birds are kept continue to be a disgrace). A Food Standards Agency survey shows salmonella levels are a third of what they were in 1996. "This is very reassuring and good news for the consumer," Dr Judith Hilton, the FSA's Head of Microbiological Research, says. "The possibility of any salmonella contamination is very low indeed." Many people believe the cholesterol risk from eating eggs has been exaggerated. Evidence at a recent Royal School of Medicine forum on food and health suggested dietary cholesterol is not a major cause of high cholesterol levels in our blood. Saturated fat is the real villain. In fact, eggs contain lechicin and the amino acid methionine, which work to unclog arteries. The American Heart Association recently changed its advice to allow one egg a day, though UK heart associations still recommend restricting our intake to between two and four eggs per week.

The cholesterol scare produced a gastronomic nadir in the form of the white-of-egg omelette. When Danny de Vito demanded this unfeasible dish in the 1995 film Get Shorty, the British audience laughed its socks off in disbelief, but it was no joke in Hollywood.

When dining out in Notting Hill, Dustin Hoffman ordered a white-of-egg omelette in Kensington Place restaurant. "It was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing and I had trouble," said the chef-patron, Rowley Leigh. "I whipped the egg whites into a meringue and tried to fry it. It was a disaster." The restaurant manager apologised for the delay to Hoffman, who asked to know the name of the chef and then strode into the kitchen saying: "Rowley, Rowley, what's the problem?"

When Leigh explained his difficulty, Hoffman perceived that existential angst was at the root of this culinary hiccup. "You don't like doing this, do you?" he inquired. The chef admitted: "It's not my idea of food." Hoffman told him: "That's OK. I ate yesterday." Leigh says he eventually managed to conjure up a white-of-egg omelette for the star (you have to use a non-stick pan), but he remains unpersuaded about the merits of the dish. "It's a waste of time really, nothing but moulded egg white. Quite horrible." Leigh displays unrestrained enthusiasm for less austere egg dishes. "Now I'm serving poached eggs with asparagus and bottaga (pressed tuna roe). Soon we'll be doing scrambled eggs with hop shoots, but it's a bit too late for my favourite egg dish of all, poached eggs with sea kale and black truffles. Actually, I love making omelettes. We're just about to start doing them with fairy-ring mushrooms: just toss in a little butter and put in the middle."

Mark Hix, The Independent's food writer and chef-director of Caprice Holdings, serves 140 portions of eggs benedict each week at the Caprice in London. At the Intercontinental Hotel on Park Lane, Le Soufflè restaurant specialises in the eponymous froth, while the Savoy continues to serve its long-standing favourite Omelette Arnold Bennett (it includes smoked haddock and parmesan) alongside a new variant inspired by the hotel's recent writer-in-residence Kathy Lette. Appropriately for the flame-haired temptress, the Kathy Ome-Lette is described as "very spicy".

In more modest ways, Middle Britain shares the chefs' passion for the egg. Undoubtedly, the biggest reason for its surge in popularity is the Atkins diet. As everyone knows, this user-friendly regime allows adherents a generous amount of protein and fat (a hen's egg contains 12 per cent of both), while exercising a strict ban on carbohydrates (no toast soldiers).

But the revival in the egg's fortune probably stems from the programmes on eggs in Delia Smith's 1998 How to Cook series. An extra 1.3 million eggs were sold in Britain each day during the BBC series, the poultry industry reckons; in total, 54 million addition eggs were sold.

Famously, Delia briskly instructed the nation on the topic of how to boil eggs. "Even the simplest of cooking tasks demands a degree of care and attention." She insisted we "memorise a few very important rules". Don't boil eggs straight from the fridge; always use a timer, use simmering water; make a pinprick in the rounded end of the shell, etc. What took Delia two pages, Mrs Beeton manages in a sentence: "Have ready a saucepan of boiling water, put the eggs gently in it with a spoon ..."

On average, each person in Britain eats 174 eggs per year, 143 in shell and 31 processed. Readers might suppose the vast majority of hen's eggs consumed in this country are free range. They would be wrong. Some 69 per cent of eggs produced in this country still come from laying cages. Some 25 per cent come from free range hens, with 6 per cent barn eggs. Nearly all the processed eggs we eat in ready-made cakes, yorkshire puds, quiches and ice-cream have been laid in cages.

An European Commission directive, to be debated in Parliament after Easter, would bring in legislation by 2012 to give laying birds twice the space provided in many countries, including the United States. There is also a possibility that cages will be phased out entirely in the UK. But the British Egg Council is resisting this move. It insists that the directive "could cost the UK egg industry £431m in capital costs and £109m in running costs each year ... If producers are forced to consider more extensive egg production [meaning less intensive] methods such as free-range, the market will not be able to support them". Again, our cheap food policy seems to run counter to our desire for animal welfare.

On the bright side, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, who both stopped selling eggs from caged hens years ago, established a lucrative business in free range and organic eggs. (Organic eggs come from hens kept in flocks of fewer than 500 birds, which are not debeaked and have ready access to the outdoors.)

Waitrose, whose own-label free-range eggs come from the Columbian Blacktail breed, increased egg sales by 10 per cent in the past year. The company also sells the distinctively coloured eggs - blue, turquoise and olive - of Old Cotswold Legbar hens, originally from Patagonia.

I tried them, at £1.45 for six. They tasted good and looked great, but allowed little room for toasty soldier manoeuvres (they barely peeped over the top of my egg-cup). If you are prepared to shell out, a remarkable range of eggs is available, including eggs from corn-fed and rare-breed hens, along with speckled, double-yolk and bantam eggs. We are not limited to hen's eggs. At dinner parties, it seems de rigueur to serve quail's eggs as a hors d'oeuvre, though the finicky business of removing the shells can make this a protracted course. Rowley Leigh serves soft-boiled duck eggs with leeks and aubergine caviar, and Mark Hix serves them fried with foie gras, black pudding or wild mushrooms.

The Brasserie St Quentin in Knightsbridge serves pheasant's eggs in the season, which runs from April to June. The restaurant says this toff's treat is "similar to a pullet's egg and is no way gamey; there is a higher proportion of yolk to albumen than in a chicken's egg". There is also a "significantly lower level of cholesterol", doubtless a prime concern to the plum-faced residents of SW1 as they tuck into the St Quentin's speciality of "pheasants' eggs with lardons, balsamic vinegar and summer truffles".

London's clubland heroes will also be relishing the prospect of the gull's egg season. Due to start in a week, it now lasts little more than a fortnight. "The old boys at the Garrick used to eat them by the ton," Raymond Patterson, former chef at the club, says. "They have the highest vitamin content of any egg." He will be serving them at his own restaurant, Patterson's, with a traditional accompaniment of celery salt and salad.

Bob Sheridan, managing director of the Mayfair butcher Allen's, confirms the enduring appeal of this cliff-ledge treat, now harvested under licence. "We sell hundreds of the buggers to the old school at £1.50 each, but the season is getting shorter as they get scarcer."

For those with an insatiable ovoid appetite, there is only one oeuf de choix. Costing a shade under £20 apiece, ostrich eggs are available from Selfridges and Harrods. Since my wife and I chomped our way through one of these 3lb monsters a little while ago, I strongly recommend you gather a peckish party at the time of consumption.

Combining heftiness and fragility, the ostrich egg has an alien quality, as if a baby tyrannosaur might peck its way out at any moment. Selfridges sell 50 a week. "Lots of people buy them as a gag," I was told. "They say to their partner, 'Would you like a boiled egg for breakfast?' and produce one of these." It takes an hour and three-quarters to boil an ostrich egg so we decided to take the omelette route. I set to work with my Black & Decker.

The ocean of albumen laced with pale-yellow yolk - the equivalent of 27 hen eggs - that reluctantly glooped from the hole presented a daunting prospect, but the resulting omelette was light and delicious. So was the second. Somehow, the third was slightly less appetising, so we switched tack, ending our meal with two massive mounds of scrambled ostrich. I was unable to eat another egg of any description for months.

Even now, my appetite for eggs is not back to its former power, though I can, under pressure, be induced to consume those of the sturgeon.

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