The chickens have started to lay consistently. Chocolate brown, gloriously speckled eggs from the Barnevelders. White eggs from the Plymouth Rock. Tan coloured orbs from the Rhode Island Reds: big eggs considering this is the Rhodies’ first season on the lay.
Consumers, apparently, prefer brown eggs, despite the fact that I can tell no difference between my eggs once shelled. They also complain, pretty much constantly, that eggs are hard to poach. Old eggs are very hard to poach, when the white becomes more runny. Mine, when you crack them onto a plate, have a firm white and a pert yolk that sits up high. Commercial eggs, even free-range eggs, tend not to have that same thick albumen or the same vibrant coloured yolk.
Currently, the self imposed conditions for free range eggs allow a farmer to have a maximum of 1500 birds on a hectare. (There are no legally enforceable rules to define what is and isn’t called 'free-range". Organic and members of the Free Range Egg Farmers Association have lower densities than the general commercial industry free-range standard.) The Australian Egg Corporation want that lifted from 1500 to 20,000 birds per hectare, according to news reports. That’s a big change.
I don’t know how to raise a commercial flock for eggs or meat. I only do what I do, and that means my chickens are killed when they start to crow (which means, you may have noticed, that they’re not chickens, but roosters) – usually about 16 weeks.
This is about seven weeks longer than organic chicken requirements, and more than double (closer to triple) the age of a factory farmed bird. I allow my birds to scratch for grass (green-pick it’s called in the industry), which adds flavour not only to the meat, but, in some ways more importantly for day to day eating, to the eggs. It’s not commercially viable to run chickens like I do. That’s why my eggs have so much flavour they astonish me every time. That’s why my coq au vin is richer in colour and taste than that made with any bird you can buy.
A woman at the market stall the other day was telling me she used to test eggs in New Zealand for the equivalent of the Egg Board. Runny whites, the reason so many people find it hard to poach commercial eggs, were an occasional problem. Because the eggs being tested were extremely fresh, she reckons a runny white reflected on the health of the birds, and the producers were notified straight away and expected to fix the problem. Often, she says, a runny white is a sign of anaemia, but in all cases, it pointed to birds that weren’t as healthy as they could be.
The authorities have recently brought in more stringent rules and an expensive audit procedure for egg producers in NSW, a move that will send small and especially organic producers out of the industry. It seems that real food, produced by real people, is more of a threat to the population than intensive farming and routine use of antibiotics (a CHOICE study of commercial birds from the 2002 found that more than 10 per cent of chicken meat contained antibiotic resistant bacteria).
If you want great eggs, you won’t be able to afford the ethically produced ones, or be sure how those in supermarkets are actually reared. If you’re interested in where your food is coming from, and want food with flavour, the time may be right to get your own chooks.
I don’t really understand the thin egg white phenomenon. It’s bugged me for years. The problem with runny whites could well be to do with the lack of refrigeration for eggs in supermarkets and stores. Degradation of the white happens from the time the egg is laid. To me it seems as if regulators are happier with cage laid eggs from stressed chickens than they would be with real eggs from free roaming hens. Eggs that are then left sitting for a long time out of the fridge.
Photograph by Janine Bailey