You can't beat an egg, each one's fragile-yet-firm shell packed with culinary potential, writes Fergus Henderson.
Eggs are extreme: fragile on one hand and strong on the other.
It's said Brunelleschi demonstrated the structural integrity of his
dome in Florence with an egg - eggs being surprisingly sturdy when
squeezed lengthwise. Their sway can also be seen in contemporary
design. Arne Jacobsen's egg chair for one, and in vinous circles
there's a fashion for egg-shaped vats which forward-thinking
winemakers suggest shapes the evolution of the wine.
In cooking, of course, the extremes of the egg are at their most distinctive, thanks to its chemistry. There are the snotty slow-cooked eggs that are the darlings of contemporary cuisine right through to the very well-fried examples that my fellow Londoner Sarah Lucas pinned to her bosom in her famous Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs. The boiled egg shifts seamlessly from the humble (with Marmite soldiers) to the sublime (with a healthy spoonful of caviar).
Generally the best results - if you plan to eat your eggs rather than wear them - come from taking the softer approach. Be gentle with your egg and hopefully it will be gentle to you. Scrambling, for example, should be a slow process, done on low heat with a good knob of butter in the pan. Crack your eggs into the melting butter and gently stir, breaking the yolks. Don't season with salt until the end - it will throw the scrambling out of kilter - and don't lose your nerve and turn the heat up to try to rush things; just stir them occasionally.
When they're cooked to a satisfactory state, you can't do much better than serving your scrambled eggs on buttered toast, but let's go a step further into the world of savouries. Traditionally, savouries were offered at the end of the meal - not a sweet, though, and accompanied by a glass of Port. My favourite savoury is Scotch woodcock. For ours at St John we make an anchovy gunge which is then spread on toast and topped with scrambled eggs. Some prefer the anchovies whole and the eggs poached. This neatly leads us into the world of the poached egg, a very useful culinary bubble on top of smoked haddock and steamed green asparagus and corned beef hash that magically creates its own sauce.
Chefs seem to find it hard to serve and celebrate the good old chicken's egg and they go in search of larger and larger eggs. Duck and goose egg? Too much egg - just say no. Faced with a goose egg, I can suddenly understand those who complain about things being too eggy.
Gull's eggs, on the other hand, are truly worthy of lust. Delicious, rare and speckled baby blue, they are a thing of beauty. They have an almost see-through white and a glowing sun of yolk. They've got a minute season here in the UK: blink and you'll miss it. The licence to pick the eggs is handed down from father to son. I recommend eating as many as possible when they're around.
My preferred method is to simply boil them for seven or eight minutes and serve them with celery salt. We make our celery salt by mixing equal quantities of grated celeriac with salt and leaving them in the fridge for a couple of days to get to know each other. We then lay the mixture out on a baking tray and cook it in a low oven for two or three hours to dry out thoroughly (you want to check it regularly to avoid singeing) and then crush the mix with a pestle and mortar or a Magimix. It keeps well in an airtight container, and enlivens quail's and hen's eggs just as well as it does gull's. Just peel, dip and eat.
Before I leave you, a warning: if you pop into Sweetings, the famed London fish restaurant, during gull's egg season, they have a habit of putting a basket of them in front of you to help yourself from. They don't come cheap, however, and before you know it you suddenly realise you have to remortgage your house. Likewise, at lunch at Wiltons, another well-known restaurant, the words slip irresistibly from the silky tongue of the waiter: "Would sir like a couple of gull's eggs and a glass of Champagne before lunch?" At this point, you have to sell your children as well. Heigh-ho! Such is life, and it doesn't get much better than this.
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