"Before anyone had even thought of hen-rehoming as a thing, my mother had become an inadvertent rehomer of escapees from the nearby broiler house"
Before anyone had even thought of hen-rehoming as a thing, my mother had become an inadvertent rehomer of escapees from the nearby broiler house. They had seized the opportunity during the mayhem that ensued on transfer day (from broiler house to abattoir), to flee into the nearby field where my mother kept a flock of hens and a couple of ducks. They arrived as pale, patchily feathered ghosts but within a month would be transformed into huge (presumably hormone-stuffed) white birds with blood red combs and large yellow feet They were twice the size of the resident hens and very bossy.
I was reminded of this recently when visiting friends in Oxfordshire who have just acquired a hen-house and hens to put in it. The minute I saw them I wanted some of my own. Could hens be rehomed on to a roof in central London? My friend thought they could and, surprisingly, The British Hen Welfare Trust agreed. “Our hens are very versatile,” founder Jane Howorth MBE told me. “They need a bit of space to move around, and the sun on their backs but since they’ve mostly been in a cage, they’re not expecting grass . . .”
The British Hen Welfare Trust (find them at www.bhwt.org.uk) has been much in demand during lockdown. They usually rehome 60,000 birds a year, but in the first week of lockdown, they had triple the normal number of enquiries. By the end of April, roughly 5,000 people had booked 27,000 hens. They now have 20,000 hens waiting to be dispersed to good homes. Ironically, Jane noted, the initial reason for the sudden interest in hen-rehoming had been a lack of eggs in the supermarkets. By now, successful rehomers probably have far too many—the average hen lays around five eggs a week, depending on breed, age etc, so if you’ve rehomed three laying hens, you’ve potentially got 60 eggs to get through each month.
These lockdown rehomers are not the only ones grappling with an egg mountain. Back in Oxfordshire, the friends reported a backlog of eggs stretching from July; on average they get over 100 eggs a month. What on earth can you do with them—even giving them away comes fraught with trouble as the recipients of your bounty now discover that you have merely given them an egg mountain of their own.
Obviously you can boil them for breakfast, make cakes out of them and use the oldest ones to shine up your dog’s coat. You can fry, coddle or scramble them, turn them into quiches or custard puddings and, if artistically inclined, mix them to make tempera, but the method that uses up the most eggs in one go is . . . an omelette.
This simple dish is one that has an illustrious history. It can be traced back to ancient Persia where it took the form of chopped herbs stirred into beaten eggs and fried until firm (kuku sabzi). The first recorded omelette in the UK appeared in 1611 when it was defined in Cotgrave’s Dictionary as “haumelotte—a pancake of eggs” but more than likely, thinks Alan Davidson in his Penguin Companion to Food, the omelette had been around from early medieval times since “the concept of frying beaten eggs in butter in a pan is as simple as it is brilliant.” In this context he adds, the French omelette—light, fluffy with a runny interior is a “diversion from the mainstream”. Although, of course, it’s generally the French version one thinks of whenever the occasion for an omelette arises. That’s certainly true in fiction, where omelettes are often shorthand for romantic intentions—all of Jilly Cooper’s characters can knock them up at the drop of a hat in order to lure back a man or net a girl, and in Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart’s wonderful romantic thriller set in post-war France, the heroine stops in mid-car-chase to consume the perfect omelette at a roadside café, thus allowing the right man to catch up with her.
An exception to this rule is Beatrix Potter who describes one of the most sinister omelettes in British fiction when the wicked gentleman fox, in the guise of making this dish, almost succeeds in persuading the gullible Jemima Puddle-Duck to provide her own stuffing. “Let us have a dinner party all to ourselves!” he suggests in tones that makes shivers run down your spine. “May I ask you to bring up some herbs from the farm garden to make a savoury omelette? Sage and thyme, mint and two onions, and some parsley . . .”
In real life an omelette is trickier to get right than you think. For one thing, the ingredients must be at their best: fresh eggs, good butter and a decent pan. Herbs are optional, but if you don’t want to leave them out go with Paul Bocuse’s recipe for Omelette aux Fines Herbes—two eggs per person, half an ounce of butter for every two eggs, one teaspoon each of chopped fresh parsley and chopped fresh chives.
But unless you’re cooking for a large family, Bocuse is not going to use up enough eggs to make a dent in the mountain, so you might be better off following Robert May’s 1660 omelette recipe: “Omelette. Break 6, 8, 10 eggs more or less, beat them together in a dish and put salt to them; then put some butter a melting in a frying pan and fry it [the egg mixture] more or less, according to your discretion, only on one side or bottom.”
Robert May, Queen Elizabeth I’s chef, had acquired this recipe during his time in France, where he had learned all kinds of culinary tricks—pies shaped like castles stuffed with live frogs and birds, blown up by gunpowder at the table which “make the ladies skip and shreek” was one—which he enthusiastically practised on his long-suffering monarch.
As odd-sounding as May’s gunpowder suppers, but perhaps more soothing, is Crempog Las, a Welsh variation on the omelette which, for those whose hens turned out to be less prolific layers, uses fewer eggs. This version is based on Jane Grigson’s recipe in Good Things (1971).
225g plain flour
Fines herbes: 3-4 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped chives (or spring onion stems)
1 tbsp chopped tarragon
1 tbsp chopped watercress
2-3 beaten eggs
enough milk to make a thick batter
salt and pepper
Mix all the ingredients together to make a thick pancake consistency. Heat a little butter in a hot pan and add a good spoonful of batter and cook as for ordinary pancakes. Repeat until you’ve used up all the batter. Eat buttered and hot. They are sometimes served with sausages and bacon. “Very good,” Grigson adds.