How to cook an egg

2 poached eggs on sourdough – cooked by Madame

I wish – I really do wish that cooking eggs were that simple. Do it this way – do it another way – so many cookery books declare from on high, and you try it; book propped open next to the cooker, or in my case last week – laptop getting grease spattered while the whole attempt falls apart. In reality, eggs are quite difficult because there are so many rarely mentioned variables; how fresh they are; what temperature they’re at and so on. And then there’s the subjective issue of what exactly constitutes a properly cooked egg. Madame likes her boiled eggs well cooked with the yolks firm. I like mine with runny yolks and if they come out with snotty whites then that’s a price I’m prepared to pay, and even with a timer counting in seconds we regularly get it wrong.

Half of the problem with eggs is that the whites and the yolks set at different temperatures. Sous vide users have worked out a way to make perfect boiled eggs but my sous vide cooker gave up years ago and I never replaced it; I’m a cook not a biophysicist. As is always the case, the answer to questions about the way to cook an egg would need to be “well it depends”. I’m innately suspicious of terms like “perfect” and “authentic” which often hinge on entirely subjective criteria – I prefer to say “well I like it this way” and leave it to the questioner to figure out whether I’m a moron; [yes!].

Raw eggs are apparently a sovereign cure for hangovers – an idea I tried out just once when I swallowed a whole egg and immediately puked it back into the sink without even breaking the yolk. Of course the real problem with them is that they change state – ie from liquid to solid- extremely quickly, which is why your hollandaise will split if you take your eye off the ball for a second when it’s on the heat. Mayonnaise too will split at the drop of a hat; in fact the easiest egg emulsion to make is aioli which is almost bombproof or even better allioli in which the excessive garlic makes it impossible to get wrong. Greek chefs whisk an egg into bechamel which transforms it into an altogether lighter and more elegant sauce.

The fresher the eggs and the more natural the life of the hens, the better they’ll taste – except the very freshest eggs (laid this morning) are better left for a day before you cook them because they often won’t set. It’s a bit of a mystery how hens manage to make such beautiful things from slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails but they do; and however much we puff up the idea of saving the earth by eating insects, I’d rather break the process into two stages – that way we all get to enjoy ourselves.

Even getting the egg out of the shell is a matter of controversy. Some chefs show off by breaking them on the edge of the pan and shelling them one handed. Others tap the shell with a knife to get the process going (NB bits of shell are inclined to drop into the bowl and such is the viscosity of whites you’ll waste ten fruitless minutes chasing them with the tip of your knife. Finally there are those that prefer the sharp tap on a table – which works well until you get a thin shelled egg which bursts all over the floor. This hazard is much more prevalent in battery eggs. Organic and free range hens eat calcium containing dirt with their normal diet, and thoughtful owners give them grit too. Worms have an innovative process of digestion which is aided by grit – hence passing calcium to the lucky hens that eat them. One broken egg from a pack increases the price of the rest by 16%, and in times of inflation that’s not a price you want to pay.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should all get our eggs by Deliveroo from some ghastly factory run by Mac-Cock-a-Doodle. Eating less but better is always the way to go.

Eating together is an inherently communitarian and democratic act – never ever allow an expert to tell you what to cook and how to cook it. Experience, a good memory and a willingness to learn from your mistakes will make you a better cook than a dozen makeup artists, food stylists and dieticians will ever do.

Many hands make light work

Throwaway builders gloves wash up pretty well

I thought I’d kick off with this photo. Months ago I ordered online what I thought would be a pair of gardening gloves but which turned out to be ten throwaway pairs. They’re not the strongest and because we had so many, we lazily picked out a new pair whenever the ones we’d been wearing got too wet or muddy. However our frugal habits ensured that eventually we landed up with a box of very smelly/muddy gloves; so Madame hand washed them in the usual way, after she’d chucked out the ones with holes in, and we now have eight pairs of clean and dry gloves ready to face the spring rigours. Somehow it felt like a tiny victory.

And while we’re on the subject of downright meanness, she is also darning the Guernsey fisherman’s’ jumper that she bought for me second hand at least ten years ago and which, when it wore out, graduated to the allotment. The neck and cuffs have all but unravelled, leaving me trailing lengths of wool around and so Madame has knitted into them some surplus wool of a quite different colour which makes it look twice as cheerful. I told her I’d wear it with pride, and she said “It’ll make you look like a tramp”. I like things that are repurposed and recycled. Allotments sprout wooden pallets like a rash, and most of the time – after a short spell as a compost bin – they get passed on until they rot . The seat on the left is one of the more creative bits of repurposing I’ve seen on our site. I really like it.

Work on the polytunnel has ground to a halt due to the sub zero temperatures. Today, factoring in the wind chill, it’s down to as low as -10C in some places ; more like -5C here. Yesterday we worked in a mizzle of frozen droplets for a couple of hours, making a start on the polytunnel doors, but by lunchtime we were ready to pack it in. The east winds blow unobstructed across the allotments, it’s by far the most destructive quarter on our site. We put up some precautionary fine mesh windbreaks last year, but reading Patrick Whitefield’s comprehensive “Earth Care Manual” a few weeks ago I noticed his diagrams of the impact of windbreaks and the way in which they need a degree of porosity to avoid swirling air currents. At the moment there are no vulnerable plants in the lee of the windbreaks, but it’s a cautionary tale and we may have to rethink the design when the weather improves. We also mixed up a barrow load of seed compost and brought a couple of bags home ready to start filling the propagators with germinating seedlings. Being completely new to polytunnel growing we’ll be feeling our way this first season as we try to take advantage of an earlier start for our tender plants, so we’re hoping to get a longer season for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines and even some earlier than ever early potatoes and broad beans.

Our tree plantings have been held back because what with covid and the terrible weather in the east of the country, the supplier has emailed to apologise for the delay but assures us that our trees will arrive in time. We certainly hope so. One cautionary tale regarding newly planted cordons – don’t do what we did and forget to loosen the ties. Several of our cordons have been damaged by soft ties that (we now know) have unforgiving wire centres. We’ve removed them all now and I’m pretty sure the bark will soon heal over but in future we’ll use kind and forgiving string which will rot and fall off most seasons. Every cloud – etc – and Madame discovered an overwintering apple tortrix moth chrysalis on one of them. Aren’t microscopes wonderful? and such a help in identifying assorted creepy crawlies. A little bit of research suggests that the best method of control for these kinds of pest is to encourage blue tits and other insectivores to nest nearby. We’ve already seen blackbirds feasting on the slugs that hole up on our wooden edged paths so it looks as if nest boxes and winter feeding could be an investment. We have decided not to make permanent raised beds in the polytunnel because they seem to provide a perfect lurking and breeding space for slugs and snails, so we’re going to build soft edged beds and give them a try. These would have the immediate advantage of allowing us time to watch the way we actually use the tunnel and change the path layout – if necessary – for one that serves us better. That’s the essence of permaculture in a way; spending a lot of time observing and learning what the ground is saying to us.

Back at the Potwell Inn we’ll be cleaning and sterilizing all our root trainers, pots and trays ready for the fray. There’s a real sense of excitement in the air here; all we need is some warmth and sunshine. These last weeks we’ve been reading everything on biointensive growing that we can get our hands on. There are some great books that explain how very small pieces of land can become highly productive. I mentioned Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer’s book “Miraculous Abundance” recently. Initially I wasn’t very enthralled by its rather breathless tone, but I stuck with it and it’s grown on me. For a start they’re ruthlessly honest about their failures as well as successes; but also they reference a number of writers we might never otherwise have known about. It’s not that we want to grow a vast surplus and become market gardeners – our aims are far more modest; simply to feed ourselves well and perhaps share the surplus for for free. We don’t expect to change the world or save the earth by what we achieve but on the other hand, if more and more people adopted a simpler, less impactful way of living and were able to provide at least some of their own food, there would be a great saving in food miles and better than that even, a change in culture. We’re not there yet, though. Yesterday evening we were talking about chickens and I suddenly remembered the taste – yes, in my mind I could actually taste the eggs we used to produce with our small flock of hens. Organic and free range with yolks that sat up golden from the grass and grubs they feasted on in our little orchard. I then spent several hours searching for a local supplier of eggs that might live up to the memory and I couldn’t find one. I could get them delivered from heaven know where but walking to a local shop and buying fine eggs from a local farm seemed vastly more difficult than I’d hoped. A bit more research revealed that the going rate is between £5 and £6 a dozen – at least twice the supermarket price.

Which brings me to my final point in this post. I was reading a review of the Hervé-Gruyer’s book written by Chris Smaje, author of “A small farm future” – it’s well worth reading his book. He raised a very serious point of criticism of the tendency of some writers on biointensive farming to exaggerate their productivity by failing to mention the “ghost acres” of land providing some of their inputs from off the farm; things like manure and bought-in compost for instance. I don’t think you could fairly make this criticism of the Hervé-Gruyers. But he also went on to ponder whether all this emphasis on local organic food production on small farms wouldn’t provide ideological cover for the well-to-do middle classes while doing nothing to raise food standards and reduce the effects of agribusiness in the ‘real world’. Well yes, I agree that the vast majority of people lack the money and/or the land and skills to move towards the vision as it’s often described. An truly ethical life comes with a high cost overhead and so obviously it’s easier to be comfortable and virtuous than to try it out on benefits. But that doesn’t mean that we should all stop what we’re trying to achieve because it’s not fair. That’s allowing the perfect to drive out the good. Every home grown cabbage makes a tiny dent in a supermarket’s profits; but the production of it engages the grower with the earth, with the prospect of disappointment, and with all the multitude of temptations and decisions that grown up farmers have to deal with every day. Sustainable and healthful food production depends on a market and that market cannot function outside of its ethical framework. Every tiny blow against the more is better philosophy is important; and that applies to consumers as much as it does to producers. We’ll never avert an ecological catastrophe by driving to the farmers market in our SUVs to buy organic asparagus, flown in from Peru.

So if anyone knows a source of great eggs near Bath I’d love to have the address. Meanwhile we’ll be preparing for our best ever season – probably.

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