FEW people are better equipped to say "If I knew you were coming, I'd've baked a cake" than my friend Flo Braker, a gifted and nationally influential baker and writer. No baked goods awaited me, though, when I arrived at her house, in Palo Alto, for a visit last year. Instead she said, "Since you were coming, I bought six dozen eggs -- I thought we'd do an egg tasting!" The idea had never occurred to me, but eggs are of vital interest to any baker, so I tried to overcome my longing for a piece of her incomparable blueberry snack cake. Fresh off a long flight, I labeled eggs with an indelible marker, simmered, peeled, and sliced them, and took notes for a few hours.
The eggs varied enormously in flavor, but not for the reasons we first thought of. We couldn't chalk up the differences to proximity to the henhouse (some eggs came from nearby towns, some from Colorado) or shell color (all were white) or cooking time (all were the same size and hard-cooked for the same number of minutes, to allow the starkest comparison; frying or scrambling eggs introduces too many variables). Yet one had a distinct, and unwelcome, mineral flavor in the white, and one had a salty-tasting yolk. One had an unmistakable fishy flavor. Only one tasted exactly like an egg -- that essence of flavor you know when you taste it.
It's all too rare to encounter an egg that actually tastes like one. Luckily, I have a standard of perfection: the eggs my family used to buy at the farm across the street. After further research and more tasting, I've decided that this taste isn't only, or even principally, a matter of freshness. Many supermarket eggs are very fresh, because of high turnover, but are so lacking in flavor that absent the clues of texture -- the slippery white and the crumbly yolk -- you wouldn't know what you were eating.
My own conclusion is that feed is the chief influence on flavor, followed by the condition of the "layers," as the hens are known in the trade. Small-farm eggs taste better than the big-farm ones found at supermarkets. Free-range chickens, allowed to forage for food to supplement their feed, generally produce better-tasting eggs than hens confined to a henhouse, and "cage-free" hens, allowed to roam around a henhouse, produce far better eggs than hens cooped up in tiny, stress-inducing cages. (If you don't live near an enlightened egg farm, some producers will ship you fresh eggs.)
I COULD find little objective research to back up my findings -- or, indeed, on just what makes eggs taste the way they do. Flavor comes far down the list of what concerns breeders and sellers. Research outside the egg business centers on cholesterol, the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of eggs -- although not heart-disease researchers, or at least not anymore. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association published in April of last year concluded that "up to one egg per day is unlikely to have substantial overall impact on the risk of [coronary heart disease] or stroke among healthy men and women." In 1997 the chairman of the American Heart Association's nutrition committee said in an interview that eggs need not concern people with normal cholesterol levels; it's eating saturated fat that indisputably raises blood-cholesterol levels.
The egg industry has, naturally, welcomed this relaxation and the corresponding gradual rise in annual per capita consumption, from 233 in 1991 to 254 last year (still way below the 402 of 1945). This year alone at least two books dedicated to egg cookery have been published: by Marie Simmons, and by Gayle Pirie and John Clark. "Designer eggs" are appearing in supermarkets to help lure back fearful consumers; they variously contain less cholesterol and saturated fat and more vitamins and heart-beneficial omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids -- the kind found in abundance in most fish.
George Bass, the founder of the egg company Country Hen, says that eating two of his eggs a day actually lowers blood-cholesterol levels -- an attention-getting claim he bases on admittedly scanty "cheap Yankee" research consisting of very small studies. (Perfectly respectable studies have found, however, that eating two eggs a day did not raise cholesterol levels in young, healthy subjects.) Bass also says that he was the first to sell an egg especially high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, with four times the amount in ordinary eggs. I like his eggs, which are widely sold in the Northeast and even as far south as Virginia, and find them far better than generic supermarket eggs. So I recently paid him a visit.
Bass, a kindly man of sixty-nine with silver hair and patrician features, told me that he set out to build a better egg after years of adhering to the bad old ways on an industrial-scale egg farm he owned in the 1960s and 1970s in Bogotá, Colombia -- packing in thousands of hens to a barn, dosing them heavily with prophylactic antibiotics, and treating them with as many drugs as it took to cure them of the stress-induced respiratory diseases they inevitably contracted. He got the organic gospel when a worker on his ranch died after a mistaken pesticide application on his own garden.
In 1986, eleven years after selling his Bogotá farm and returning to New England, Bass bought a medium-sized egg farm in the central-Massachusetts town of Hubbardston. He ripped out the cages that allowed the three barns to house 15,000 hens (modern methods, he says, would allow the same barns to hold 60,000) and renovated them as high-ceilinged homes for 6,600 birds. He cut long lines of windows into the sides of the barns; they remain open half the year and allow in ample sunlight year-round. When I stepped into one barn I could see right away that these were plump and happy birds -- scratching the earth-covered floor, noisily socializing, and feeding at troughs on slatted platforms below which the floor is automatically mucked out twice a day. The barn was breezy and odorless.
"Do you want to hold a chicken?" Bass asked, as he petted one behind the ears. I took the bird by the legs and cradled it on my chest. I had already been sold on the wholesomeness of the birds and their eggs by their topaz color. Breeds that are brown of feather and earlobe (where the coloring predicts egg color) produce brown eggs, the only proper kind in New England. Nutritionists insist that there is no difference between brown and white eggs (or, for that matter, between brown, white, and the pretty pastel eggs from exotic hens whose colors Martha Stewart has trademarked for house paint), and I confess to being unable to distinguish between the two in blind tastings. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that brown is better, and the fact that brown hens are bigger and require more feed (brown eggs cost more) confirms my prejudice.
Bass casually scooped up some feed from the trough and popped it into his mouth, encouraging me to do the same. He mills and blends his own, using grains he buys from midwestern organic farms after visiting them and quizzing the farmers. His theory about the taste of eggs, he later wrote me, is that it "comes from a living, lively organic soil full of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, just to name a few." The feed was gold-green, rather than the corn color I had expected, and ground to a medium grit. Bass several times rebuffed my questions as to what the mixture included, insisting on proprietary secrecy. The first flavor I detected was salt; Bass admitted that the feed did contain it. The second was unexpected -- vaguely herbaceous, and reminiscent of marijuana. Bass denied adding any herbs to the feed (I didn't ask about illicit ones), but later revealed that he puts in marigolds for their lutein, which can help to fight macular degeneration. The mixture did not taste fishy, as I had suspected it would. Many poultry farms give fish meal to chickens, resulting in fishy-tasting chicken and eggs. Bass adds ground oyster shells and calcium to strengthen the eggshells and to help the birds, which have no teeth, to digest feed; Country Hen eggs have sturdy shells that make supermarket eggshells seem like paper by comparison. Micalike chips of oyster shell glistened in the dark, loamy stacks of the farm's carefully turned compost, which Bass plans to sell to urban gardeners for a pretty penny. Country Hen eggs, at $2.50 a half dozen, are a good deal more expensive than most supermarket eggs (you can find where they're sold at www.countryhen.com).