Best laid plans
Eggs. They are fundamental to my style of cooking and have been a much-loved human food source since the dawn of humankind. Today, the most common egg we eat is the chicken egg. So, what actually makes up an egg? The shell, the white and the yolk, all held together by a few membranes. The white of the egg – or the albumen – is 90 per cent water and 10 per cent protein. It acts as a protective layer for the yolk and a food source for embryonic chickens. The yolk – or the vitellus – is a mixture of protein, cholesterol, carbohydrates and fat.
A hen is born with all the ova she will ever produce, and as each one “ripens” it is released into the oviduct where eggs as we know them are formed. Once released it takes a journey lasting about 26 hours through the hen’s oviduct to form the egg with its hard shell. Some breeds, such as the Australorp, can lay an egg a day, while the more dainty breeds are lucky to lay more than 50 eggs a year. All of this is due to the genetics of each breed of chicken. I keep several breeds of hens, simply to get different coloured eggs. The eggs with different coloured shells are all the same on the inside, but it is the bird’s genetics that create the egg colour. I have an Australian version of the French Marans that lay dark brown eggs, tiny little Columbian Wyandotte bantams that lay white eggs, Araucanas that lay blue eggs and some Australorp–Araucana crosses that lay green eggs.
All eggs start out white. Those that are laid in shades other than white have pigments deposited on them as the eggs travel through the hen’s oviduct. My Araucanas deposit the pigment oocyanin into the egg as it travels along. This pigment permeates the forming shell and the resulting egg has a shell that is blue on the inside and the outside. My Marans hens deposit the pigment protoporphyrin very late in the process and thus only colour the outside of the shell, leaving the inside white. Often this colour can be scrubbed off a little in the cleaning. Crossing birds that lay blue eggs with ones that lay brown eggs gives a green egg where the brown is laid over the blue.
After all that effort on the hen’s behalf, it seems such a shame to just crack the shell and empty its contents into a bowl. Sometimes it is lovely to just stop and marvel at it before you proceed to whip up the next sponge or poach some eggs.
An omelette is as good a dish as any to make the most of fresh eggs. For each omelette I like to use three eggs, cream, salt and pepper, a generous amount of chopped spring herbs and a little handful of gruyere. A good, sturdy pan is essential.
Here are some curious but useful egg facts from the kitchen. If you have abundant whites, keep them in the fridge or the freezer and remember that one egg white is 30 millilitres. Custards start to thicken at 70ºC but will curdle above 80ºC. As an egg gets older, the yolk absorbs more and more water from the white, making it less round and much more difficult to poach perfectly. And, it is said that the modern egg carton was designed in British Columbia in 1911 by Joseph Coyle. What town did
Coyle hail from? None other than Smithers.
ANNIE SMITHERS is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.