I remember where I was: sitting at a round, wooden table opposite my mum’s friend Pat, and flanked by her three kids in a kitchen somewhere in the Devon countryside. She’d borrowed this place I seem to remember on a break from London and I don’t know where she got the eggs, but they came in an unmarked box. They were brown and small and there was a pile of wonky toast, which we slathered in butter. There was also Marmite.
But the thing I remember most was that first scoop of egg on my spoon. Up until that moment, my mum’s insistence on runny eggs had incensed my brother and I; we wanted them as hard as ping-pong balls, rubbery if possible. Absolutely nothing must be moving within. But this was different – there was a faint sweetness on the tongue that salt only seemed to intensify. The texture was soft and yielding with the merest bite to it. To my mind the yolk was (still is) unthinkable without the white. They belong together and here it proved most true. Toast was almost redundant; the white tenderly curled itself around each spoonful of plump, yellow yolk. Everyone was quiet for a time – there was only the sound of muffled cutlery, the crunch of crust and crackly shell.
So began my life-long attachment to the boiled egg, though nothing has ever come close to that moment of transcendence. Maybe it’s because it’s so easy to be distracted nowadays. The act of standing over a pan of gently bubbling water for precise minutes requires a presence of mind, a slower heartbeat perhaps. An over-boiled egg is rarely uneatable – even with grey yolk and a sulphurous ring of shame – but a runny egg, the white still translucent, the yolk thin and watery, is not simply a disappointment but a waste. Perhaps we have become too removed from what Henry James called the “bloom of punctuality.” We no longer have any concept of the laying season, where we must wait for the hen – everything is available so nothing really matters.
Soft-boiled egg and soldiers
Get room temperature eggs and a small pan of water (so the eggs don’t go careering all over the place). Bring the water up to a simmer and gently lower the eggs into the pan using a spoon. Let them cook for exactly 1 minute. Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover and leave for 6 minutes. If you want a slightly firmer set, go to 7 minutes. Serve with soldiers. I would say that a little heap of sea salt and a grind of black pepper is essential.
As eggs are invariably stored in the fridge, you can bring them to room temperature by sitting them in a bowl of hot tap water for 10 minutes. Interestingly, our habit of refrigerating eggs is not necessarily good for them – they don’t like extremes of temperature (who does?) and prefer a cool environment to a cold one. The bottom of the fridge is the safest place or an unsunny countertop.
A strip of toast – the ‘soldier’ of the title – dunked into an egg is a great stand-in for a spoon, and it’s fun watching the yolk cascade down the sides. Butter is poetry in itself, but a soft-boiled egg can take all sorts of aggressive interlopers. Aside from Marmite soldiers, anchovies flattened on toast adds salty drama, as does a smear of pesto. If you want to forego bread altogether, asparagus tips are fresh and spring-like. Here you want a runnier yolk, so cook the eggs for 6 minutes only. Shards of crisp bacon dipped into egg are lovely; both are salty sweet, but bacon brings the toast-like ballast you may have been missing. Finally, a little spear of parmesan is nice to go rooting around with; the combination of crumbly, salty creaminess has a natural affinity with eggs in any form.
I know it probably goes without saying that the words ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ mean nothing in the context of egg buying. I can’t remember the last time I bought some ‘stale and unnatural’ eggs. And just because hens are ‘free to roam’ doesn’t mean they will; their natural tendency is to stay close to the nesting area. The most we can hope for, at least in California, is to seek out the Certified Humane and Certified (by the USDA) Organic labels, where there is third-party verification that no pesticides or herbicides have been used, hens are able to spend their days outside, grazing in small flocks, scratching around and generally being themselves. Incidentally, the best way of telling if an egg really is ‘fresh’ is to put one in a bowl of cold water; if it rests on the bottom in a horizontal position, the egg is very fresh. If it tilts or becomes vertical it’s less so.