Jolly good eggs
Rose Prince visits Clarence Court’s happy hens
THE LANES OF DEVON in early summer become narrow tunnels, overgrown with grasses and wild flowers, virtually enclosed by trees in full leaf. ‘How on earth,’ I wonder, squeezing my car along the last mile to Chris and Julie James’s egg farm near the village of Hemyock, ‘do lorries get down here to fetch the eggs?’
‘They have their moments,’ says Chris when we meet in his yard, ‘especially if it snows.’ Yet collected they must be, since the eggs, destined for Clarence Court, are highly desirable, not just to cooks and chefs but – being especially photogenic – to their thousands of fans on social media.
The Jameses keep two breeds of egglaying hens, Mabel Pearman’s Burford Browns and Old Cotswold Legbar, whose respective deep brown and palest pastel-green or blue shells set them apart from conventional eggs. Another distinction is their yolks – a bright marigold yellow – and their pronounced herbal-mineral flavour. Curiously, Clarence Court is a brand whose success is proof that we really do eat (eggs) with our eyes, and moreover that the phenomenon is nothing new. Those beauteous, bold-yolked photos on Instagram are merely an epilogue to a long and historic fascination with the beauty of eggs and their colour, pattern and form.
Rightly or wrongly, eggs have been the bounty of collectors, prizes that have been sought, even hunted, all over the world. If they had not, there would be no Cotswold Legbars. Their ancestor the Araucana chicken was brought here
— 1 tsp cumin seeds — 2 tsp coriander seeds — 1 tsp dried oregano — 4 spring onions
— 1 garlic clove
— olive oil, for frying — 100g cavolo nero — juice of ½ lemon — 100g baby spinach — 50g frozen peas
— 4 eggs
— 1 tsp chilli flakes
Grind the cumin, coriander and oregano together briefly. Trim and roughly chop the spring onions, then peel and finely chop the garlic.
Add a good lug of oil to a large frying pan that has a lid, and fry the spring onion and garlic over a medium-low heat until softened and golden, then add the cumin, coriander and oregano.
Remove and discard the stalks from the cavolo nero and roughly slice the leaves. Add to the pan with the lemon juice, stirring while it wilts.
Add the spinach and peas, season with salt and black pepper, then stir and cook for a further 2-3 minutes, or until the spinach has wilted.
Crack the eggs into the pan and leave to cook for 2-3 minutes, then pop a lid on to steam the tops. Season the yolks with salt and pepper.
Sprinkle the chilli flakes over the eggs and serve straight away. from Chile in 1928 by the botanist Clarence Elliott. Two hens of the breed shared a boat to Britain with a pair of pygmy deer and a giant Galápagos tortoise, reported to have been ‘saved from the pot’ by Elliott, who gave the creature to London Zoo.
The fluffy, lavender-feathered Araucanas were crossbred with other chickens, heralding the sleeker Old Cotswold Legbar. These might have remained a curiosity of hobbyists had not the market for free-range eggs begun a long-awaited boom in the 1980s. In the decades before, the availability of free-range eggs was reduced to farm-gate and honesty-box sales. But the late ’80s salmonella scandal and the well-publicised horrors of battery henhousing prompted a wider interest in high-welfare systems like free range and organic.
Clarence Court was launched as a supplier of commercially farmed, freerange, speciality eggs – the company named as a nod to Elliott. With sales of Burford Browns and Old Cotswold Legbar eggs up nearly 50 per cent on last year, and 2018 being the 90th anniversary of Elliott’s voyage, Adrian Gott, a former employee who bought the business in 2016, is celebrating. ‘It’s a beautiful company,’ he says. ‘When I bought it I thought it had loads of potential. Consumers are now so much more educated about heritage and welfare and Clarence Court offers all of that.’ Gott, a keen cook who lives in Newmarket with former champion amateur jockey and Channel 4 Racing presenter Emma Spencer, keeps a few birds himself and often makes a favourite ‘Sunday-night supper’ of egg mayonnaise on toast, well devilled with Tabasco and chives.
Chris and Julie James have been producing eggs exclusively for Clarence Court since 2015 and are one of 46 farms across the country, some of which also provide duck, bantam, quail and goose eggs, plus seasonal curiosity varieties from pheasants, ostriches, rheas and emus. Each has its own character; some, like duck and goose, being richer with a higher yolk content, are useful in baking. Small ones – pheasant, bantam and quail – star in canapés. Very large eggs – from rheas, emus and of course those from ostriches, which can weigh up to 2kg – make light and fluffy, catering-size omelettes.
A short walk from the couple’s farmhouse are two large mobile henhouses, each set in a field of grassy pasture, part planted with fruit trees. One henhouse accommodates 1,800 birds, a mix of Old Cotswold Legbars and Burford Browns. During the day the doors of the house are open so the hens can venture out to forage. Inside the insulated house there is an upper storey with nesting boxes, high wooden perches – hens like to roost on them at night – automatic water drinkers, fans to move the air inside the building and drums filled with stone ‘grit.’
‘Hens like to sort themselves into a community with – quite literally – a pecking order, led by a dominant bird’
Asparagus, leek and bacon tart
For the pastry
— 250g plain flour, plus more
— 80g cold unsalted butter, cut
— 30g cold lard, cut into cubes — 40g Parmesan or mature
cheddar, finely grated
— a few sprigs of thyme,
— 2 egg yolks
For the filling
— 230g asparagus
— 1 tbsp unsalted butter — 1 tbsp olive oil
— 2 leeks, trimmed
— 4 rashers streaky
— 200ml double cream — 200ml crème fraîche
— 2 large eggs, plus 1 yolk — 2 tsp wholegrain mustard — 50g soft goat’s cheese
Sift the flour with a pinch of salt into a large bowl. Add the butter and lard, rubbing it in with your fingertips to a rough breadcrumb-like texture. Stir in the cheese, thyme leaves and a good pinch of freshly ground black pepper.
In a small bowl whisk the egg yolks with 1-2 tablespoons of cold water. Add to the flour mixture and mix in with a dinner knife to form larger pieces of smooth dough that will eventually come together as one piece. Add a little more water if it’s really dry, but try not to add too much. Loosely shape into a rectangle, wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180C/ gas mark 4.
Very lightly dust a clean work surface and a rolling pin with a little flour. Remove the cling film from the pastry and carefully roll it out to the thickness of a pound coin, large enough to line a 12 x 35cm rectangular loose-bottomed tart tin, or similar, or a 23cm loosebottomed round tin.
Roll the pastry loosely up around the rolling pin and drape it over the tin. Carefully press the pastry into the tin and up the sides. Trim off the overhang and use it to patch up any holes.
Prick the base with a fork and place the tin back in the fridge or freezer to chill for 20-30 minutes.
Meanwhile, put a pan of water on to boil and fill a large bowl half-full with cold water and ice. Trim the asparagus, add to the pan of boiling water and cook for one minute. Quickly drain, plunge into the cold water and place to one side. This will help the asparagus retain its colour and stop it from drying out too much when baked.
Place a large frying pan on a medium heat. Add the butter and oil to the pan and allow to melt slowly. Slice and wash the leeks and add to the pan. Slowly cook on a low heat until soft, golden and sweet (around 15 minutes). Spoon on to a plate to cool.
Wipe out the pan and place back on the heat. Slice the bacon and add to the pan, fry for a few minutes until crisp and add to the leek plate to cool.
Remove the pastry case from the fridge/freezer and place on a baking tray. Line the case with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans or rice. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the beans and paper. Return the case to the oven and bake for a further five minutes until lightly golden. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 160C/gas mark 3.
In a large mixing bowl whisk together the double cream, crème fraîche, eggs, yolk and mustard to make a smooth ‘custard’, then crumble in the cheese and season well. Spoon the leeks and bacon into the tart case then carefully pour the custard mixture over the top. Remove the asparagus from the water and pat dry. Arrange the spears over the tart and push them down a little to be halfway submerged.
Return the tart to the oven for 25-30 minutes until golden and set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little. Serve warm or cold.
Summer cup ice cream with strawberry-lemon ripple
— 500ml whole milk — 20g fresh sprigs of basil — 20g fresh sprigs of mint — 1 lemon
— 150g caster sugar — 250g egg yolks (from 4 large hen’s eggs or 3 large duck eggs) — 400ml double cream
For the ripple
— 400g strawberries, quartered — 200g caster sugar
— 2 tbsp Pimm’s or
— 4 tbsp lemon curd
Have a large bowl of ice ready to halt the custardcooking process.
Place the milk in a really clean, medium-sized saucepan. Pick the basil and mint leaves and place them to one side. Gently bruise the basil and mint stalks and add them to the milk. Place the pan over a low heat.
Using a peeler, remove two wide strips of lemon zest and add these to the milk. Gently heat the milk for a few minutes until just steaming, then remove the pan from the heat and discard the lemon peel.
Meanwhile whizz the basil and mint leaves with the sugar in a food processor to a fine sand-like texture.
Place the egg yolks in a mixing bowl and whisk well. Set aside 40g of the herb sugar and add the rest to the eggs. Whisk well until light and fluffy.
Remove the herb stalks from the pan of milk and return it to a low heat. When it is steaming again – but not boiling – slowly whisk the milk into the yolks. Quickly clean the pan and pour the custard into it, then set over a low heat. Stir continuously until it lightly coats the back of the spoon. Pour the custard into a bowl and whisk over the bowl of ice to cool it quickly.
Lightly whip the cream to very soft peaks. Fold this into the custard and churn in an ice-cream machine until ready to freeze (this takes about an hour).
Meanwhile, hull and quarter the strawberries. Place them in a medium-sized saucepan with the 200g sugar and the Pimm’s or elderflower cordial. Set over a medium heat and cook the fruit until slightly thickened and jammy. Pour into a bowl and leave to cool.
When the ice cream is churned, gently stir in some of the strawberries to make a ripple, and fold in dots of lemon curd. Transfer to a freezer-proof container and freeze until set.
Serve the ice cream with the remaining strawberries on top and a sprinkle of the remaining basil and mint sugar.
‘Hens eat grit to help mash their food and for the calcium that hardens their eggs’ shells,’ says Chris, who has been an egg farmer for 27 years. At ground level inside there is a scratching area, a place for hens to exercise their natural behaviours, raking the litter with their feet, taking dust baths. Chris points to plastic bottles and bags, hanging by ropes from the ceiling. ‘We give them toys to keep them amused and stop them pecking each other,’ he says. ‘These breeds are placid but they are naturally inquisitive so it is important to keep them occupied.’
This system is in stark contrast to the notorious caged egg farms, where up to 30 hens share a wire enclosure with no access to the outside or real daylight, just a low perch for roosting. ‘Hens like to sort themselves into a community with – quite literally – a pecking order, led by a dominant bird. With the cage method, you take away that family and their adventurous nature,’ Chris adds. The price difference between caged eggs and free-range is down to numbers – caged hens lay more eggs. ‘Our hens lay perhaps half the amount of a caged hen, but have much longer and happier lives – I call them “slow eggs”,’ says Gott.
A mix of grains travels automatically into the henhouse feeding troughs. Along with breed and welfare, diet also distinguishes these eggs from others. When it comes to yolk colour, it’s all about xanthophyll, a rich yellow pigment that radiates in eggs from hens fed a high proportion of lutein-rich feed, chiefly maize – and these eggs have it in glowing abundance. The human response to bright yellow is well chronicled, symbolic as it is of energy and joy. If this is what greets you taking the top off a boiled egg in the morning, it could have a profound effect on the rest of the day – an essential visual feast. clarencecourt.co.uk
‘These breeds are placid but they are naturally inquisitive so it is important to keep them occupied’
Above Chris James, whose hens produce eggs exclusively for Clarence Court; Leghorn White, Burford Brown and quail eggs; the farm’s hens wander free during the day