Simply eggstraordinarily delicious

Eggs at Easter don't have to be chocolate. Simon Hopkinson enjoys the real, free-range thing

In an ideal world, tomorrow you and I would be eating eggs that were laid, at the most, three days beforehand: as fresh a chucky-egg as possible from a private range of loved chuckies.

The ultimate egg should, in fact, have been gathered that morning, and should be speckled and brown and warm. Then it should either be carefully lowered into boiling water for four minutes exactly, or carefully poached (with a little vinegar in the water, but no salt, as this can break up the egg's structure) and served on hot, buttered toast. The white is almost creamy, mousse-like and jellied, the yolk a gorgeous orange lava of runniness that, when spooned from a boiled egg, cannot help but run over the severed shell and down the side of the egg-cup in one great dribble.

My grandfather used to have a pernickety routine for his boiled eggs. I watched intently as he poured small quantities of salt and pepper (ready- ground white, of course) on to the side of his plate, in proportions of, respectively, three to two, mixed slowly and carefully until fully amalgamated.

Then, and only then, would he begin meticulously to peel back the shell - from the flat end, never the pointy end - with a small butter knife, until almost half the egg had become denuded of shell and was white, bouncy and bosomy. Once his spoon - which had been briefly poked into the little hill of seasoning - entered the egg, the yolk used to burst through and go everywhere. Why did he remove the natural fortifications?

Of all food products, I think the simple egg is having a pretty bad time of it. Many of you have perhaps started to think that a (supposed) fresh and free-range egg is meant to have a dull-looking, mottled yolk that lies flat and sad when fried in a pan, surrounded by its white, whose albuminous structure has broken down to such an extent that it is almost the consistency of water. And when you wish to poach an egg that is ancient, it is even worse. The white shoots off into the water and hardly sets; a sort of wet, insubstantial cloud.

Sadly, a good, fresh, free-range egg is now such an alien thing to behold that when you encounter this rarity it is quite a shock. The golden-orange yolk sits proud and high as it plops - yes plops, not slithers - out of the cracked shell, with its supporting white, firm and jellied, glistening and shiny, turning gently opaque as it cooks.

Unless you are lucky enough to have a bit of hen-scratchy land at the bottom of the garden, I would suggest searching out fresh eggs at a good health- food shop or old-fashioned butcher. My butcher (Olympia Butchers, Blythe Road, London W14) sells good hen's eggs (with quite natural smears of adhered chicken crap) and wonderful duck eggs, too.

I do not think there is any egg dish that I do not like. There are, however, treatments of eggs that do not appeal to me. For instance, frizzy edges to an egg that has been fried; rock-hard yolk in an egg that has beenboiled and, even worse, a greeny-grey ring around that yolk. I believe there are two or three schools of thought as to why this occurs: old eggs, eggs cooked for too long, and not cooling eggs thoroughly, under plenty of cold running water, immediately they have been boiled for the appropriate time (I usually do this for about five minutes). In fact, I want the yolks of boiled eggs in a salad nioise to be runny; this, in a most delicious way, helps to dress the salad as you eat it.

Peeling a soft(ish)-boiled egg is not difficult, it just needs a little care and patience. In a similar vein, a still-warm soft-boiled egg cut open atop a few spears of briefly boiled asparagus is food for the gods - for greedy gods if the asparagus spears are then generously anointed with melted butter.

But I have five all-time favourite egg recipes. These are: piperade - a Basque dish from southern France involving scrambled eggs, peppers, garlic, ham (or bacon), tomatoes and onions; oeufs en meurette - eggs poached in red wine, with a rich red wine sauce, button onions, mushrooms (sometimes), bacon and served on garlic-rubbed croutes; salade frise aux lardons - curly endive and a poached egg, that is dressed with hot bacon fat and olive oil, vinegar that has been swirled around the bacon pan, lardons (the bacon), croutons and lots of chopped parsley; eggs florentine - an old favourite of many (I am unsure as to why the spinach in the recipe has an affinity with Florence); and Lacy's oeufs en cocotte, a dear little dish for which two eggs are steamed in small ramekins until just cooked, a little meat glaze is poured over each and a spoonful of sauce barnaise is then floated on top.

When I first ate this last dish 20 years ago, it was called "oeufs en cocotte chez nous" and was served at a wonderful restaurant, Lacy's, just off Tottenham Court Road in London. The place was owned by Bill Lacy and his wife, Margaret Costa, whose recipe book, The Four Seasons Cookery Book, is one of the finest ever written. I have said it before, but must say it again: will someone please republish it?

Here is the eggs florentine, followed by a recipe using scrambled eggs, chives and caviare, served on a buttered and toasted muffin; perfect for Easter Sunday brunch (Princess d'Isenbourg et Cie, 0181-960 3600, has good quality caviare and will deliver).

Eggs Florentine

Serves 4

Ingredients: 50g (2oz) butter

450g (1lb) fresh spinach,

thoroughly washed and dried

salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg

4 eggs

vinegar

50g (2oz) parmesan, freshly grated

For the sauce: 200ml (7fl oz) milk

2 cloves

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 bayleaf

salt and pepper

40g (11/2oz) butter

25g (loz) plain flour

75ml (3fl oz) double cream

Preparation: Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas 7.

To make the sauce, heat together the milk, cloves, onion, bayleaf and seasoning. Remove from the heat, cover and leave to infuse for 30 minutes or longer. Now melt the 40g (11/2oz) butter in a heavy-based saucepan, and stir in the flour to make a roux. Strain the milk into the roux and whisk thoroughly. Bring to a simmer over a low heat for a good 10 minutes. Strain again and adjust the seasoning, then stir in the cream and keep warm.

Melt the 50g (2oz) butter in a large shallow pan until just turning nut-brown. Put in the spinach, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and stir-fry until limp and just cooked. Drain in a colander, pressing gently to extract excess moisture. Keep warm.

Poach the eggs in water, with a little vinegar added. Leave them a little undercooked. Meanwhile, divide the spinach between 4 shallow, individual dishes (those ones with "ears" are perfect), leaving a hollow in the middle for the eggs. Put an egg in each dish, pour over some of the sauce and bake in the oven for 4-5 minutes. Finish off under a hot grill so the sauce blisters somewhat, and then sprinkle each serving with parmesan. Serve straight away.

Scrambled eggs with caviare and chives on buttered muffins

Serves 4

Ingredients: 40g (11/2oz)

butter

6-8tbs double cream

6 large, fresh eggs

little salt and much pepper

1/2 bunch chives, snipped

2 muffins, split horizontally, toasted and buttered

caviare

Preparation: Melt the butter in a non-stick pan. Beat the cream and eggs lightly together with the seasoning. Add to the pan and cook gently over a low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula. Keep the eggs as smooth as possible; they are ready when you do not quite think they are. Eggs carry on cooking in their own heat, so while you butter the hot muffins, the eggs should be perfectly cooked. Stir in the chives, pile the scrambled eggs neatly, in mounds, on to the muffins and top each with as much caviare as you dare; a tablespoon each?

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