The chicken and the eggDecember 8, 2009
During this last week I have been bestowed with one of the greatest honours of my life. Booker Prize, you ask? Bip-bow. Pulitzer? Shmulitzer. Miles Franklin? Huh – that old rag!?
Nope – this week, I had a chicken named after me.
That’s right, read it and weep, non-chicken-namesakers.
My friend Mistress Alice of the Mountains, aged eight and a half, and her brother Paddy, four and a half, are the proud new carers of two lovely chooks from the increasingly famous and brilliantly conceived Rentachook, where you rent chooks and coop for six weeks on a try-before-you-buy basis, so you can see if chicken-human cohabitation suits you both.
And I am told that on the journey home to the mountains with the chooks in the back of the car, Paddy and Alice pondered on the names for their new friends. By the time they reached home, Paddy’s chook was named Shirley, and Alice had chosen Charlotte. Both fine chook monikers, I’m sure you’ll agree (although Monica would have been nice too?), and I am assured by Mistress Alice’s parents that Chicken Charlotte genuinely is named for me and not some schoolfriend competitor for Miss A’s affections. Strange but true.
I am more chuffed than I can say. And here she is, above. Has there ever been a more beautiful specimen of chook womanhood??
Now, Charlotte’s and Shirley’s arrival is all very timely because I have in the past few weeks begun to obsess about eggs. Partly it was sparked when I happened to come across Julia Child making an omelette on Youtube and it was so inspiringly fast and simple and delicious-looking that I began eating them for lunch every chance I could get.
But there are other reasons for my eggsessive interest in chooks and eggs.
A short while ago (and again this week!) we’ve been given eggs by some friends who live way over the north side of the city, Soph & Roscoe, who have a sizable yard, and chooks (also from Rentachook). The first time, the eggs were a surprise present; the second time I begged for them so they were delivered to Senor at cricket (knew there must be some point to his playing that game!). You can see here how gorgeous they are – brown and smooth and just perfect. And the innards are delectable.
Anyway this got me thinking about all these backyard chooks and how happy their lives must be compared with almost any farmed animal. Because while I always buy free-range eggs (for the chooks’ sake rather than ours), just the most cursory bit of reading shows that the labelling on eggs and poultry is incredibly confusing at best, misleading at worst.
The Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece on this very subject a little while back, with this disturbing intro:
An analysis of egg industry data has confirmed what most consumers have suspected: it is doubtful enough free-range layer hens in the country exist to produce the number of eggs labelled free-range.
The article went on to helpfully – if distressingly – describe what the terms ‘barn’, ‘cage’ (ughh) and ‘free-range’ actually mean, which I found quite revelatory. For a start, there are two certification bodies for ‘free-range’ eggs, and one is more stringent than the other:
- Birds continuously housed in cages in a shed, with a minimum floor space of 550 sq cm per bird.
- Beak-trimming permitted.
- Birds continuously housed indoors but free to roam within the shed, which may have several levels.
- Stocking capacity not to exceed 14 birds a square metre.
- Beak-trimming permitted.
FREE RANGE (Egg Corporation and Primary Industries standing committee)
- Housed in sheds with access to an outdoor range.
- Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed 14 birds a square metre.
- Maximum 1500 birds a hectare.
- Beak-trimming permitted.
FREE RANGE (Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia)
- Unrestricted access to free-range run during daylight hours.
- Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed seven birds a sq m.
- Maximum 750 birds a hectare.
- Beak-trimming prohibited, as deemed unnecessary if above housing conditions are adhered to.
Okay, so now it’s clear that at the very least we have to look out for FREPA-accredited free-range eggs, not the other ones. But then you start reading about chicken meat, and what is allowed under the law to be done to chooks, and it’s even worse.
All of this made me think that what I really want is a regular supply of eggs from someone’s backyard chooks, where you absolutely know they’re being well treated and not crowded or otherwise suffering horrible indignities.
So, my quest is on for a regular Sydney inner-west backyard egg supplier. Know anyone? Half a dozen a week would be ample for us – although now I’ve discovered how sublime the freshest eggs are to eat and cook with, our intake could easily increase.
Soph & Roscoe are too far away for me to impose on regularly – and they don’t really have loads to spare anyway – and it turns out that while Shirley is popping ’em out nineteen to the dozen (well, three at least), old Charlotte sadly seems, like her namesake and Julia Gillard, to be deliberately barren! She’s not popped one yet, apparently! Her family is trying to assuage my shame by saying that Charlotte ‘has a lovely nature’ and other similar nambypamby baloney, but I think she’s just being stubborn. The other more flattering possibility is that she’s too young. Let’s opt for the latter.
I must leave you with this picture, of the beautiful gift brought to me from Shirley’s mountains bounty – a single, tiny and delicately perfect egg, laid that morning.
So thank you, Alice and Paddy, for this most precious egg – and the honour.
And let’s hope Charlotte comes up with the goods some time very soon!