There are three eggs sitting on my desk between the dictionary and the telephone. Let me explain—
In the UK, regional stereotypes are the opposite of what Americans are used to. The Independent (a national newspaper), for example, says the country is “starkly divided between the rich South and the poor North”; the BBC reports that most of “the affluent south east” is relatively unaffected by the rise in unemployment. A London Evening Standard columnist asks why a Scottish politician can’t seem to get along with “educated southerners”; search Google for “uneducated northerner” and you’ll get plenty of hits—people from the south of England lobbing the insult and people from the north of England using the phrase for humor or sarcasm, the way those of us from the southeastern US might joke (but only among ourselves) about being hicks.
Like most stereotypes, the one about the affluent educated southerners here has a little truth hiding a larger picture. I live in Surrey, a county in that affluent educated region, the part otherwise known as “the stockbroker belt” or “the gin-and-tonic belt”. Look into a train carriage on the line from London to Guildford in the evening rush hour and you’ll find plenty of stockbrokers and investment bankers heading back to posh homes in Surrey; there’s even a special little Tube line in London that does nothing but shuttle people between a station called Bank, in the financial district, and Waterloo, the station from which the trains run to Surrey.
But that’s not all there is to Surrey. When we lived at the other end of the village, we bought eggs and firewood from a family that lived in a caravan (US: camper, in this case a fairly large one, but smaller than a trailer) on a plot of land, making what living they could with some sheep, chickens, ducks and geese. Their roadside sign says you can buy hay there—good for the horsey set, no doubt—and manure to fertilize your garden—possibly the output of the horsey set. And they’ve recently added charcoal for barbecue grills to their list, but they can only offer charcoal when it’s their turn to use a charcoal kiln they share with other farms, all part of a countrywide trend for farmers to diversify just to try to stay afloat. From the look of the place, it must be pretty hard going for them. Affluent, they are not: a few years ago they gave their daughter, as a 12th-birthday present, a trip to London. It’s only about 35 minutes by train, but train tickets cost money, so she’d never been there.
The girl’s mother was usually there to sell me eggs. The trip made a nice break from sitting in front of a computer screen for me; I’d park by some trees where I could usually see a chicken or two perched in the lower branches, and start by greeting the dogs—two collie-type working farm dogs so friendly they’d practically try to get in the car to come home with me. Then as often as not I’d have to walk through some of the free-range chickens, ranging freely right over the paved walkway to the egg shed, where I’d chat to the farmer while she counted out my eggs.
I was thinking about this because the other day, somebody on Facebook mentioned that English eggs have darker yolks than American eggs, from the conversation, it was clear some people assumed that darker yolks mean better tasting or healthier eggs. I used to think so, too, but the egg farmer said it doesn’t work that way.
According to her, purveyors of chicken feed publish color charts, so you can pick the shade you want the yolk to be and buy the feed that will make the yolks turn out that color. There’s no difference in nutrition and, according to the farmer, anyway, no difference in taste. (I’ve since read that salmon farmers do the same thing to pick a desirable shade of pink for their fish.)
Shell color, on the other hand, is mainly a feature of the breed. Most of the eggs sold in England have brown shells; it’s the white ones that are unusual here. There are even breeds of chickens that produce green or blue eggs, though I’ve never seen any. (So Dr. Seuss could truly have eaten green eggs and ham.)
Even with brown shells as standard, people still use eggshell to mean a shade of white. Or at least they use something close to the word eggshell: when I wanted white shutters for the bedroom windows, the salesman showed me samples of the colours he offered, each stamped with the name of the shade: Bright White, Soft White, Linen and—Eggs Hell. Eggs Hell?
It seems the samples had come from the manufacturer in China, where someone apparently had relied a bit too much on their spell-checker, and he was stuck using those samples until he could get them to stamp a new batch.
So I was ordering shutters in England, in a style called Vermont, to be made in China, for a company in Ireland, named Sante Fe Shutters. There’s globalization for you (or possibly, globalization coming home to roost). In such a world, it’s nice to buy local eggs, but I rarely see the egg farmer now that we’ve moved to the other end of the village. The milkman can bring eggs, the supermarket delivery van can bring eggs and either one is greener than driving someplace to buy things myself; I felt a bit guilty about abandoning ‘my’ farmer, but I was keeping my carbon footprint lower by using services that come to the house anyway.
Or so I thought. The local eggs don’t travel until I put them in my car; Lord knows where the other eggs I buy start out. So I went looking for the food miles associated with my eggs, and found a website where you can type in your postcode and the code from the egg you’re about to poach, and find out how far the egg travelled.
American readers may wonder what “the code from my egg” might be. Each egg sold in England carries a stamped string of codes and symbols (unless you buy it straight from the producer, on either your premises or theirs, and they have a flock of fewer than 50 birds). Most eggs have a little red lion, indicating the hens have been raised according to some health standard to minimize chance of salmonella and what-not.
But each egg also carries a digit to indicate whether it’s from organic, free-range, barn-raised, or caged hens, then a code for the country of origin, a 5-digit code identifying the farm it came from, and a best-before date.
I had two kinds of eggs in the kitchen—one from a box (US: carton) delivered by the milkman, one from the supermarket—so I got one of each and fed the codes into the Egg Tracker at http://www.organiclinker.com/egg-miles.cfm and—
It didn’t work. Either I’ve got counterfeit eggs, or there’s a bug in the software. So I went to another supermarket and bought more eggs (I think I’d better make quiche for supper) and that one was tractable for the Tracker: It came from 169 miles away, in Derbyshire. Definitely time to start buying from the local egg farmer again.
In the meantime, here I am, an affluent, educated (quiche-eating) southerner and resident of the posh stockbroker belt, looking like a hick with a handful of eggs on my desk.