Brian Viner: A Country Life

A different shade of egg
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The Independent Online

While perusing the shelves of a newsagent's in Leominster the other day, looking in vain for The Spectator, I came across the April 2004 and indeed inaugural edition of Practical Poultry magazine. The Pecktator, if you like. This is the magazine I have been waiting for, if not all my life, then certainly for the last 12 months.

We had been wondering whether to buy some ducks - Practical Poultry has a feature addressing that very subject. It even has a wordsearch, comprising such all-important words as "beak" and "rooster", to entertain the children. At least, I hope it's intended for children. And, of course, an agony column: "Dear Practical Poultry, one of my birds seems to have a problem with one eye. It looks a bit cloudy and is also a bit watery. Is there anything I can do to clear the problem up?"

Fascinating stuff. Not so very long ago I would have offered extremely generous odds against my ever forking out for a magazine called Practical Poultry, but that was then and this is now. I read with particular interest a feature on Marans, because we have two of them (as well as four Warrens, two Buff Rocks and a Gold Sebright).

Apparently, Marans originated in La Rochelle, which could explain why ours have spent this morning tucking enthusiastically into some leftover potatoes dauphinoise. They arrived in the UK about 40 years ago, thanks to the poultry-fancier Lord Greenway, who spotted them at an agricultural show in Paris and imported 1,000 fertilised eggs. But his lordship also favoured a bit of genetic modification, somehow ensuring that the first crop of British Marans had no feathers on their legs, unlike their French cousins.

In the process, the dark-brown egg colour was reduced, so that Marans on this side of the Channel produce medium-brown eggs, the colour of beech, whereas the French eggs are mahogany. Sorry if I'm boring you. Here in Herefordshire, there is scarcely anything less boring than the colour of eggs. We even have one friend who keeps six different breeds of hen entirely because their eggs span a range of shades from dark-brown to bluey-white, and look "beautiful" in her pantry. Imagine being confronted by a Farrer & Ball colour chart every time you go to make an omelette. The paint comparison is not altogether frivolous, either; Marans lay glossy eggs; Welsummers' are matt.

As for what determines their colour, Practical Poultry informs us that birds with white earlobes always lay white eggs. I read that bit out to my wife Jane the other day. "Where are their earlobes?" she said, "I don't think I've ever noticed a hen's earlobe." I tutted the righteous tut of a man who is now aware of these things. "On the side of their heads," I said, knowledgably.

A sparkling welcome

On Sunday we dropped in for elevenses at Broadfield Court, the nearby vineyard run by Alex James, a former actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and her husband Mark. Alex also operates a quite wonderful coffee shop, and as you might expect from an ex-actress, fills it with a warm exuberance all too rarely encountered in Herefordshire coffee shops.

I know one, in Leominster, my son's request for scrambled egg and grilled tomatoes was refused by the chef on the basis that he only does scrambled egg and grilled tomatoes with bacon and mushrooms. "Can't he just leave off the bacon and mushrooms?" we asked the waitress. She relayed this audacious request back to the chef. "Tell them if that's what they want they can go somewhere else," came his reply.

Alex, by contrast, has hit on the novel approach that customers like to be made welcome, albeit sometimes to their slight bemusement. When we arrived on Sunday the only other customers were a couple of male cyclists, poring over a map. A rather introverted pair, they happened to let slip that they were on their way from Land's End to John O'Groats. The record by bike is a staggering 42 hours, they explained, but they were taking it a little more sedately, and aiming for 10 days. Which still seemed pretty impressive to me.

Whatever, the fact that they had interrupted their epic journey to visit her coffee shop naturally filled Alex with joy, and she gave them a bottle of her sparkling white wine to crack open when they reach John O'Groats, which they promised they would, although it occurred to me that as they were travelling extremely light, and as she'd just tripled the weight of one backpack, they might have wobbled off towards that night's lodgings, in Ludlow, having to reassess their 10-day target.

Culture club

The brochure for the Ludlow Festival, taking place from 19 June 19 to 11 July, has just arrived. It is full of excitement and eclecticism - from Twelfth Night to a Bob Geldof concert to Trevor McDonald in conversation with Anthony Howard to the Henri Oguike Dance Company. Last year, for a variety of feeble reasons, we didn't go, even though Ludlow is merely a 25-minute drive away. And yet ever since we moved here from London, we have said, to anyone who questions the decision to move away from the capital's arts scene, "We do have the Ludlow Festival, you know." Which we do. And this year we intend to make the most of it. Although I have just spotted a clash, alas, between Trevor McDonald and the Henri Oguike Dance Company.