Jolly good eggs

Rose Prince vis­its Clarence Court’s happy hens

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

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

Green shak­shuka

Serves 2

— 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

Serves 6

For the pas­try

— 250g plain flour, plus more

for dust­ing

— 80g cold un­salted but­ter, cut

into cubes

— 30g cold lard, cut into cubes — 40g Parme­san or ma­ture

ched­dar, finely grated

— a few sprigs of thyme,

leaves picked

— 2 egg yolks

For the fill­ing

— 230g as­para­gus

— 1 tbsp un­salted but­ter — 1 tbsp olive oil

— 2 leeks, trimmed

— 4 rash­ers streaky

smoked ba­con

— 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

Serves 6-8

— 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

el­der­flower cor­dial

— 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

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