A Good Egg

Story & photos by Montana Jones—originally published in Edible Toronto magazine.

What could be simpler than the ubiquitous egg? Whether boiled, scrambled, poached or fried, we dearly love our delicate dozen ovals. Some will venture into duck, goose, quail, pheasant, emu, ostrich and even turkey territory, but the domestic chicken egg wins feathers down in popularity.

We’ve been eating eggs since the first rooster crowed at the dawn of time. In 2009, with a worldwide laying flock of approximately 6.4 billion hens, global production was estimated at some 62 million metric tons of eggs. That’s a fair bit of cracking.

But the simple facts beneath the shell aren’t all sunny-side up, let alone straight up. If you’re confused by the many different terms on egg cartons, you are not alone.

The “cage-free” label helps consumers feel better, but the chicken that laid them may not be so chirpy. “Free-range” doesn’t necessarily denote hens that saw the light of day, and “organic” may not mean your breakfast was born free at all.

In the quest for the best, healthiest food, consumers must do their homework. Buying food locally is not always a guarantee. Confinement agriculture and non-therapeutic use of antibiotics might still play a part in production, so it’s key to ensure the eggs you buy are indeed from farmers whose methods you support. The bottom line is, the bawk stops with you, the consumer. To find a trusted source, educate yourself on the differences, and ask lots of questions.

One can’t really expect the insipid pale yellow centre and limp rubbery white of a cheerless supermarket egg to rise to any occasion in your mouth. Think where it’s been. That aftertaste is the sad resentment of a feathered prisoner. Now go and find a real egg – a good egg – laid by a real hen living the good life, which for a chicken just means scratching in a pasture, eating lots of bugs, having dust baths in the sun, and clucking about with the flock. That bird’s gift to you will taste of freedom and contentment. The egg of your dreams is gentle, easy and creamy when scrambled. It’s buttery smooth, light on your tongue, and has the surprising flavour of presence.

I’m often asked why my fresh farm eggs taste of bright morning bliss while the free-range, certified-organic eggs purchased at the supermarket do not. Surely such labels mean they are prime choice? Maybe. Maybe not.

Cage-laid or non-labelled eggs:

The majority of eggs available fall under this classification. A carton will rarely state the sad fact, but odds are that no label of origin means that the eggs come from the 95 percent of laying hens that live in cramped quarters, unable to flap their wings, turn around, or forage for food. Baby chicks destined for the production line are debeaked to discourage the birds from injuring their co-habitants when they’re grown up, and are crowded five or six at a time into the wire world where they will spend their entire lives. (Ironically, it’s these very conditions that make the stressed hens peck at each other in the first place.)

This horrid practice involves pressing the chicks’ faces up to a hot blade that sears off the tip and the top half of their tender beaks. Some die after the procedure. The mutilation leaves most birds with exposed mouths and tongues, but the challenge of eating with a deformed mouth is offset by a pelleted ration that’s constantly within reach. Many egg producers claim that keeping birds confined indoors, out of daylight, never setting foot on ground or grass, and “safe” from disease, is in the chickens’ best interests. These eggs taste like the vacant regret of a poor choice.

Consumers are starting to see the not-so-pretty facts behind much of our mass corporate food production, which may be why the Eggs Farmers of Ontario recently produced their warm and fuzzy “Pride in Every Egg” commercial. In it, viewers hear a happy banjo-pluckin’ ditty about hard workin’ proud farmers while the morning sun shines on a smiling family, green fields and rambling rural scenes. They don’t show the harsh reality of actual chickens in actual egg barns, and some critics feel the advertisement is deliberate, misleading greenwashing in response to the growing trend to buying locally sourced, naturally raised food directly from small farmers.

Organic eggs:

Layers of these eggs are restricted to feed that is certified free of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, GMOs, and animal by-products. No antibiotics or synthetic chemicals are administered. Certified-organic eggs may or may not necessarily come from truly pastured chickens, but the hens will always be cage-free and free range. Organic Products Regulations (which came into effect in Canada in 2009) and Standards Council of Canada certification requirements stipulate that hens must have access to open air pens and “pasture,” however the permissible stocking density allows up to 800 hens per acre. The birds have the opportunity for exposure to a more natural environment, fresh air and exercise, but some might never step outdoors due to volume. And the exposure might not affect the flavour factor, since the sheer numbers of diners vs. bugs could prevent the hens from as varied an insect and grass diet as a pastured chickens on a small-scale organic farm might have.

Antibiotic-free:

This label means that the hen was not given antibiotics. Newly hatched chicks are routinely given continuous antibiotics despite the absence of illness. Even small farmers intent on raising their birds “naturally” may inadvertently give their healthy chicks Amprolium-laced feed if they’re not careful to specify “non-medicated” from their feed store. So be certain your producer uses none from day one.

Hormone-free:

The hormone-free label is little more than a marketing tactic, since hormone use in poultry production was banned in Canada in the 1960s.

Omega-3 eggs:

Hens that are fed a ration containing 10 to 20 percent flaxseed meal will produce eggs with higher polyunsaturated fat and Omega-3 fatty acid levels than other eggs. Some people’s palates detect a fishy aroma and flavour.

Free-range eggs:

At one time, “free range” described small farm flocks allowed to wander freely through meadows in search of seeds and bugs. The definition dramatically changed when the term was hijacked by the commercial egg industry. “Free-range” and “free-run” are the two most commonly misconstrued labels since they imply the hens are running about on grass, but it’s not such a picnic. Free-range birds must, by definition, have access to the outdoors, though what that means can greatly vary since there is no legal definition of the term. Canada does not regulate criteria such as environmental quality, size of the outdoor area, number of birds, or space per bird. Typically, free-range hens are still subjected to debeaking, have only 1 to 2 square feet of floor space per bird, and may or may not have access to nests or perches. Taste is the same as free-run and cage-laid eggs.

Free-run or Cage-free eggs:

“Free run” may sound like good poultry fun, but it’s still not a natural life. Birds cannot go outdoors, but are able to move around within the building, socialize, dust-bathe, and may or may not be provided with perches. They are still generally debeaked and live in crowded conditions with artificial light. Canada does not regulate this production method, either, but it is a kinder choice than caged, although no better in flavour.

Pastured eggs:

This good egg is the best. Whether raised for meat or eggs, pastured chickens require more time and money since birds burn calories wandering; but in that time they are growing their flavour, which is unmatched. More small-scale farmers are utilizing moveable pens (or “chicken tractors”), which means the hens enjoy a fresh patch of ground to scratch in every day. This method protects the birds from predators, and a mobile shelter makes it easy to collect their daily oval offerings. Pastured hens should not be debeaked.

If you’ve always eaten factory-farmed eggs from grain-fed hens, you might not realize that a real egg is not supposed to sport a pale yellow yolk. The grass eaten by pastured poultry contains chlorophyll which, along with the hens’ heavy ingestion of insects and grubs, produces orange egg yolks and incredible flavour. Be sure the pastured eggs you buy are not from hens raised on bare ground that has long since been scratched away to dirt, because the desired flavour and colour will be missing. In winter I offer my girls second-cut alfalfa hay and wheat or other sprouted grass so they keep laying those golden eggs.

According to a study published in 2010 in The Cambridge Journals, the eggs from pastured hens contain about two-and-a-half times more total omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E than those of their less fortunate factory cousins. They also have 38 percent higher concentrations of vitamin A. A 2007 Mother Earth News study reports that pastured hens contain 25 percent less saturated fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 65 percent more vitamin A, up to three times the amount of vitamin E, and seven times more beta carotene than non-pastured eggs. Need I say more?

To find a good egg requires dedication and research. Your best bet for sourcing pastured organic eggs is to buy them directly from a farm where you can see how the flock is raised. The next option might be a farmers’ market, but most of the eggs sold there are not the elusive treasures you seek. Farmers are not legally allowed to sell their eggs from anywhere but the farm gate unless the eggs have been graded for quality; an unrealistic situation for most small-scale farmers given that grading stations are few and far between.

Theoretically, if eggs are labelled “Not for human consumption,” one could score some at a farmers’ market with a secret password whispered to a furtive farmer in a trench coat. Until regulations are changed, however, if that farmer who works so hard to raise the best possible food for you dares to offer ungraded fresh eggs for sale in a public place, he or she can be arrested and charged.

This being said, there are a few small producers of local, organically grown pastured eggs who do have on-farm grading facilities Their “small flock” eggs are available at select farmers’ markets and from independent grocery stores. Just remember to do your research and ask lots of questions about the hens’ feed and whether they have total access to fresh pasture.

As more consumers demand a better standard for their food choices, more retail stores and restaurants will refuse to carry products from animals raised in confinement with unnecessary medication. Producers will be required to evolve, and will adopt more natural livestock management systems in healthier environments, which also produces tastier food.

Deciphering cartons in the egg aisle wouldn’t be an issue at all if country and urban dwellers alike could all raise a few backyard chickens for their own eggs. Until this becomes legal, your best eggs will be from hens naturally pastured outdoors under blue skies, on grass and bugs, and supplemented with organic or unsprayed grains.

Once you’ve tried that sunny burst of fresh flavour from a pastured egg, breakfast is doubly rewarding. Choosing a pastured egg doesn’t just offer you that taste of fresh air and sunshine. It’s a guarantee that a happy hen enjoyed some, too,

Commercial eggs may have been stored for weeks before they reach your plate. To test for freshness, immerse an uncooked egg in water in a glass bowl. A fresh egg will lie flat on its side because the air sac inside is still so small. The older the egg, the more air enters the porous shell and the air sac expands, which makes the egg tilt upwards, or stand up, if it’s quite old. And if it floats? Run, don’t walk. It’s rotten. When you break it open, an older egg will spread its runny, raw clear albumen (egg white) flat over a plate. With a good egg, both the yolk and the white sit up high and firm.

 

63976_EdibToro_I003

Montana Jones with her dark Brahma rooster

 

Harvest bounty, hunter moon

It was a very fitting full hunter moon this past Thanksgiving. A generous sun offered the perfect weekend to harvest the remaining bounty in the farm garden—we ‘hunted’ for the remaining tomatoes that hadn’t been burnt by recent frosts, hunted for Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, shelled and sorted a rainbow cache of heirloom beans. Continue reading

Heritage Harvest Feast


Story by Montana Jones, photos by Albert Botha—this article was originally published in Watershed Magazine

The long light of Thanksgiving spills fresh  orange across the day under autumn’s lustrous sky. The garden is spent, the larder is full, and focus shifts to savouring the farm’s fall bounty. A chorus of applauding leaves rustle their appreciation as award-winning Chef Jamie Kennedy strolls up the lane of Wholearth Farmstudio. It’s a long way from the city’s top restaurants, but in crisp whites and apron, he looks as comfortable sauntering here as his Gilead Café in Toronto.

On one side, dark-faced heritage Shropshire sheep peer back at him through cedar rail fences; on the other, a group of chortling amber pigs busy themselves rooting up a particularly interesting clod in their pasture. Preparing good, real food with veneration, and sharing it with friends and family is a deep sweet satisfaction on this Hastings farm. That simple inclination grew into the Wholearth Heritage Harvest Feast, a field-to-table gathering uniting chefs, guests and farmers. Visitors walk with heritage sheep and poultry in the field, see vegetables in the garden, then taste the exquisite flavours outdoors on a plate.

They are here to celebrate cuisine where it begins; to appreciate dinner on the same soil where the menu was grown, prepared by chefs who care as passionately about food as the farmers who raised it.

Jamie heads to a grassy rise beside the farmhouse, where he’s been lovingly roasting a heritage Tamworth pig since the wee hours. He joins local chefs Brad Watt (Rare Grill), Lisa Dixon (Black Honey) and Evan Podd (38 Degrees and Old Bridge Inn), who also believe that familiarity with the farm is a perfect way to understand the notion of local, seasonal food. Brad is bent over his pork belly, adjusting the grill in anticipation of painting on a glaze of wild elderberry, while Evan caramelizes onions for his apple cider-braised Jersey Giant chicken. It’s a rare chicken, one of several heritage breeds at Wholearth, that have the delicious distinction of being on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, as do the Tamworth pigs and Bourbon Red turkeys raised here. Heritage breeds have a unique depth of flavour and succulence that can’t be found in supermarket meats. Likewise, heirloom vegetables are exceptional in appearance and taste. It’s a fine fall day on the land, among animals and good people appreciating the rhythm and reward of growing earth’s gifts…the kind of day your heart feels like the sun in your chest.

*To reserve your place at the farm field table visit the Wholearth Heritage Harvest Feast website.

Wholearth Heritage Harvest Feast menu:

  • Hubbard squash soup with fried parsnips, lavender and French tarragon
  • Apple cider-braised Jersey Giant chicken with caramelized onions
  • Roasted red pepper, rosemary and goat cheese scalloped potatoes
  • Roasted autumn root vegetables with beets, fennel, rutabaga and carrots
  • Mammoth red rock cabbage
  • grilled heritage Shropshire lamb
  • Heritage Tamworth pork belly with wild elderberry and maple glaze
  • Coffee maple baked beans
  • spit-roasted Heritage Tamworth pork with squash, apple, onion stuffing and apple cider gravy
  • pumpkin and acorn squash bread pudding with honey caramel glaze
  • goat cheese truffle with maple crunch
  • wild rice and goat milk pudding

The Evolution of Shortbread

Story by Montana Jones/photos by Gary Mulcahey—originally published in Watershed Magazine

My winter country kitchen wafts buttery notes as shortbread bakes golden in the oven. Rising vanilla hints and brown sugar scents fill the farmhouse, from a crystallized ginger version made to sate my Scottish soul.

Shortbread has long been a rich exquisite tradition of Christmas comfort, blending butter, sugar and flour to melt delicate festive bliss over merry tongues. That ‘special’ family recipe passed-down through generations will carry on, but annual holiday boasting about making the best shortbread, ever, may be up for review.

Just ask Mark Pollard. His shortbread is definitely not Grandma’s. The local foodsmith has crossed the mainstream cookie line by creating “savoury cocktail shortbread” that is arousing both taste buds and interest worldwide.

Wandering into the country kitchen of the Sprucewood Handmade Cookie Company is an aromatic tease—cheddar, rosemary and Thai bouquets mingle with the dark chocolate, apricot and maple scents of their dessert shortbread line. This is no ordinary cookie.

Classic shortbread actually began in medieval times as a savoury biscuit made by the poor, consisting of oats, butter and sometimes caraway seeds. In the 19th century the wealthy added sugar and replaced the oats with wheat flour to create today’s familiar sweet shortbread. Seems what was olde is new again—Pollard has crafted savoury new characters for the good ol’ classic cookie from Scotland, and the world is wanting more.

In the six short years since the business launched, there’s a burgeoning demand for Sprucewood’s boxed treasures. This little cookie gets around. The popular local morsels fly to Bon Marche in Paris, Harrods of London, France, Belgium, Switzerland and another 400 accounts across Canada. Their Original Cocktail Cheddar signature cookie was featured in the LCBO’s Food and Drink Magazine’s premiere entertaining issue, and holds a distinct honour as one of 10 Canadian products showcased in the Ontario pavilion at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.

The shortbread is currently sought by an increasing number of fine food and upscale gourmet outlets, as well as an expanding market in home décor, gifts, delis and cheese shops. Ontario wineries in the Niagara and Prince Edward County regions, and at Northumberland’s own Oak Heights Winery, are keen on the savoury bites as an accompaniment to their product tastings.

The bakery is nestled inside the renovated, once cavernous old Masonic Lodge in the charming village of Warkworth, just behind Mrs. McGarrigle’s Fine Foods. “The Big Cheese” and his staff of nine are cheerfully trundling out 40,000 all natural cookies a day, with each one rolled, cut, baked on parchment, packaged by hand and topped with a label that reads “Hand baked traditionally without attitude.”

“Food is really catching on. People aren’t buying chachkas any more—gifts like an eighty-dollar pewter platter. Now a little bag of handmade cookies made in Warkworth?  Got to have one of those…so gifts is a whole new area for us.  It’s a very competitive market, we’re a small company, and it’s hard to stay on the shelf without paying slotting fees and marketing dollars to stores. I just won’t do it.  The product has to stay on the shelf on its own merits…we’re kind of old fashioned that way.”

Sprucewood uses local ingredients like Maple Dale cheddar cheese, Stirling Creamery butter and Red Fife wheat before landing on appreciative global palettes. This little local cookie is already responsible for nine new jobs in the village and eleven new positions across Canada, “with sales reps who are really passionate about food.”  Soon they’ll be dotted across the country Newfoundland to Victoria.

Mark has had several previous lives and careers, including stints in the corporate finance sector, sales, marketing, as a teen career counsellor and meat franchise owner.  His love of food led him to study at Toronto’s George Brown, to train in Switzerland; to own the Oasis Bar and Grill in Cobourg and to launch a catering business after hours. It has also led him to an unprecedented success with his savoury cocktail shortbread. Herma’s Fine Food was the first to carry his shortbread, packed in a little brown bag. When they continued to sell out week after week, it was time to take the cookie seriously.

“Sprucewood is the name of the property where I first made the cookies. I lived in this great old farmhouse north of Bowmanville up in the Kendal Hills and there were these towering fabulous spruce trees. I sat at the breakfast table one morning wondering what I would call the business.  Our squiggle logo is the same tree I scratched on a napkin then.”

“When I was 2 my parents bought a farm property north of Cobourg, I was raised there, and I always knew I’d come back to Northumberland, I gravitated back here.  Now we’re here in the heart of it, surrounded by rolling hills. It is truly God’s country. I’m in Toronto 2 or 3 days a week seeing accounts, talking to our reps, sourcing packaging and ideas, but I can’t wait to get back here.”

Christmas is the busiest time of year for Sprucewood, when 60% of their annual volume is output in the fourth quarter. October saw the enthusiastic team already dough deep in back orders, with plans for adding another whole shift to the production schedule.

“When you are a small company and growing, there are always financial pressures. You are always reinvesting in the company and borrowing and it’s very tough to get support in a poor economy. You never use the ‘f’ word—failure. It’s just not a part of your vocabulary. If you are entrepreneurial you must never think that way.  And if your mind wanders a little bit and you’re tired you must just stop that thought. Almost like behavioral therapy. Don’t go there. You have to lead every day…lead your staff, lead your customers and you have to be positive to motivate.”

“We’re going to have to expand, but we’ll always be in Northumberland.  I have thousands of flavours in my head, but they have to work in the market, they have to have mass appeal. I have been working on this beautiful Stilton shortbread, a Lemon Ginger, and a Pumpkin Spice, but more on our savoury line, they go so well with cocktails.”

Flavours include Vanilla, Lemon Zest, Apricot, Maple, Raspberry and Dark Chocolate in their dessert shortbread, and Original Cheddar, Rosemary and Spicy Thai in their savoury cocktail offerings. Their booth at this year’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair will launch the newest line of liqueur-based cookies called ‘Typsy’ shortbread, just in time for Christmas.

How does Mark like his own cookies?  “The apricot and the rosemary. The rosemary is the only cookie we have that you can put cheese on. A bit of Brie or goat or any soft cheese, even cream cheese. The Original and the Spicy Thai are very cheddar intense, you don’t want to add more.  Some retailers describe them as cheese and crackers all in one, just open up a bottle of wine with a box and you don’t have to add anything.”

The handmade, all natural cookies have no artificial flavourings, colouring, preservatives, hydrogenated oils or trans fats. “I’m an advocate of less is more,” says the chef who favours the Thomas Kellar philosophy of food. “I think you can overwork food. ‘Salmon foam’ isn’t very appealing when you could enjoy simple fresh salmon. The purer the ingredients, the fresher they are. We always want you to taste the shortbread and know its shortbread.”

Changing a tried and true recipe is not recommended for most cookie cutters following the norm, but Mark Pollard is cut from a different tartan. His particular blending of old-fashioned tradition and contemporary taste has revealed a new generation of appreciative followers who still like their shortbread pure and simple—and savoury.

Mark’s Scottish grandmother, and mine, would like that.

 ~           ~            ~