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Food: The golden egg

Eggs are not what they used to be, but wave a truffle in front of one and bake with cream and you have a dish to die for. Photograph by Jason Lowe
Do you know that the finest eggs I can buy in my manor originate in Italy? I mean, for heaven's sake! What is the world coming to? I thought Martin Pitt's eggs were good - and they are - but these Italian jobs take the biscotti. What a sad state of affairs that when you want to eat a decent chucky egg it is an uovo Italiano, and six will set you back pounds 1.50. Why should it be that three of the simplest things in life, silence, a filter-tipped cigarette and a decent egg, are now so very rare and expensive?

It has been noted by some that the marigold colour of the yolks of these excellent eggs is, perhaps, a little too astonishing. But weren't the egg yolks one remembers as a child of a similar Kia-Ora hue? This was not, of course, an issue 30-odd years ago. I cannot imagine my mother approaching our local farmer to say: "Hmmm, Vincent, your yolks are all pale primrose instead of your usual deep orange colour. And the whites go wishy-washy when you fry them. We don't mind chicken shit all over them, but I do expect a decent egg for my children's brekky."

Apart from the fact that Mum was rarely moved to make haughty outbursts (except the time someone stole her parking space outside Kendal Milne, Manchester, during the January sales), she used to go wobbly when the subject of Vincent came up - especially when there was talk of him selling some land at the back of our house to a keen builder. But as far as eggs were concerned, whether they were from Vincent, from Mr and Mrs Pearson at the Post Office or even from the village Co-op, an egg was just an egg. A good egg. I even remember when eggs were gingerly placed into a brown paper bag instead of a pocketed carton. Rather that memory of the odd damaged shell than the polystyrene six-pack of stale, tasteless and watery "free-range" eggs of today.

My greengrocer (Michanicou brothers, 2 Clarendon Road, London W11, 0171- 727 5191) receives a twice-weekly delivery of Italian eggs - although the supply can be spasmodic from time to time. So when I see them sandwiched between the pousse d'epinards and the parsley, I buy a dozen. Apart from anything else, even a week later these eggs will be fresher than most you will find in aisle seven - somewhere between the Spontex and the Sunblest.

Now is the winter of our truffle, albeit it is waning - though the final crops are often the pick of the Perigord black. The Alba white spore is hibernating, but, God willing and weather permitting, it might deliver a more generous harvest later this year. The 1998 offering was sadly below par, resulting in stratospheric prices of around pounds 1,800 per kilo!

There are worried murmurs that the black truffle, too, may suffer a disappointing yield. At around pounds 900 a kilo in Paris recently - admittedly at one of the more illustrious provenders, La Maison de la Truffe in the Madeleine - a small one set me back 50 notes. However, it generously "truffled" a dozen organic Italian eggs, and there were more than enough shavings to cover six servings of very yellow, very tasty, scrambled eggs. That is pounds 9 per plate, including the eggs, and a quid for French butter and brioche toast. I still don't think this an extortionate amount, considering the magnificent treat it is to eat these rarities once or twice a year. I wonder, for instance, how much six ham-and-pineapple pizzas will set you back, plus service, at your local Pizza Hut?

You see, when you deposit a truffle among a clutch of eggs, seal the container and leave them to get to know each other for a few days, the alchemy of this pungent marriage is surely one practised in heaven. Even a mint imperial-sized truffle will do the job, though you may only manage a dusting, rather than a shaving, of the thing itself. But the eggs will have captured its soul, imparted through their fragile shells by fragrant osmosis.

When I used to cook oeufs en cocottes (eggs baked in small pots) in Pembrokeshire in the early Seventies they were, perhaps, thought of as "interesting" by an often wary clientele - not quite foreign, but certainly continental. Eggs fried, boiled, scrambled or poached were seen as about it (the favoured method for the latter being in a dedicated egg poacher). Now, this is held by some to be a ridiculous invention. But why, pray, is it deemed terribly inadequate to steam a few eggs - for that is what is going on here? I don't have one, but I like the added taste of the vinegar I put in the water when I poach in the conventional manner. Cooking an egg in a buttered, small porcelain dish, resting in a bain marie, surely amounts to the same thing. As long as it tastes good, and you are happy with your chucky egg, who the hell cares?

Without wanting to be infuriatingly contrary, these days I prefer to cook my oeufs in shallow, eared, porcelain dishes. The reason being that it is far easier to see how the eggs are coming along as they cook, in a wider vessel, than those that are buried in a deep little dish, submerged by a covering of warm cream - the essential lubricant for all egg dished cooked in this manner.

Cooking oeufs en cocottes

The simplest form of all is to break one or two eggs into a well-buttered eared dish, season them and spoon over a couple of tablespoons of cream. Bake for between seven and 10 minutes in the oven, at 350F/180C/ gas mark 4. Poke the thing with a tentative finger, just to be sure the white has set sufficiently beneath. You should be able to see when the yolk is perfect, sporting its strangely lilac-blue, opaque skin - an immediate indication to those of you who are familiar with the frying and basting of a very fresh, orange-yolked egg.

That is the elementary baked egg, so here are some embellishments:

Oeuf en cocotte aux truffles

Perfume some eggs with a fresh black truffle, in a sealed container and keep in a cool place for a minimum of two days. Rub the dish with a cut clove of garlic and smear with butter. Break one or two eggs into the dish, season and spoon over one tablespoon of cream. Slip three or four slices of truffle into the cream and set a sliver of butter on the surface of the egg. Bake.

Baked egg with spinach

Take a handful of small, young spinach leaves (the larger ones tend to be a bit butch here), season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and briefly fry in a small amount of butter until tender. Arrange into the dish leaving a well in the centre. Break an egg into the well, lightly season it and spoon over one tablespoon of cream. Set a sliver of butter on the surface and bake as before.

Baked eggs with tarragon

It is best to do this one for a minimum of two people. So, for two, first lightly butter the dishes and then put a tablespoon of tarragon vinegar in a small (preferably stainless- steel) pan and boil until all but evaporated. Add a small knob of butter, several fresh tarragon leaves, six tablespoons of cream and a little seasoning. Bring to a simmer, stirring, and then remove from the heat when slightly thickened. Spoon a little of this mixture into the dishes, break in one or two eggs and then cover them with the rest of the hot cream and bake.

Oeufs en cocotte Pascal

I have slightly adapted this truly delicious egg dish, which originates in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking. It is one of the only recipes I like where grain mustard is the preferred condiment, as usually I'm a bit of a smoothie when it comes to the Dijon. Once again, for two people or more.

Butter the dishes. Chop enough parsley, tarragon and chives (fines herbes) to give you about one heaped tablespoon. Melt a small knob of butter in a small pan and add a scrap of garlic. Over a thread of heat, allow it to flavour the butter for a minute or two and then remove it. Add five tablespoons of double cream, together with the herbs and a scant tablespoon of mustard. Whisk until smooth, bring to a simmer and remove from the heat. Spoon a little of the mixture into the dishes, break in one or two eggs and spoon the remainder over the top. At this point, you may like to dust the surface with a fine shower of freshly grated Parmesan (not in the original recipe, but jolly nice if you fancy it). Bake, as before