This was the time of year I’d hoped to be filming in France – among other locations, in Étretat and on the creamy coloured Falaises (Côtes Albatre). I’d set up the exclusive contact to involve one of the very few Englishmen with a licence to take gull’s eggs. We’d fly the guy into Le Havre’s tiny airfield about 12 kms away. Amazingly, the French aren’t onto this most special of specialities. Ortolan, thrushes, frog’s legs, etc – but no gull’s eggs as yet. I have a plan to change that and Étretat is my campaign HQ.
Sea gulls, which I have an unexplainable affection for, are hardly an endangered species. Gastronomically, their eggs are at the top of the Ovum Tree – only plovers’ (peewit’s) eggs would rival them – and these are now protected, although maybe they’re not – perhaps someone can put me straight.
I thank my Maker that I’m of an age to have hunted down plover’s eggs by the dozen, season after season, with my Grandfather as a child growing up in Wales. He taught me to understand, ‘feel’ and ‘read’ the country. He was also a natural born hunter – or chasseur which seems to better explain the term. To chase – probably from the Medieval days of hunting down deer – is more thrilling than being driven to and from a peg in a heated Range Rover. On his shoots, he would even sometimes take me along to load the workaday 20 bore he carried later in his life as it was so much lighter than the classic 12. Back then, 20 bores were referred to as ‘ladies’ guns’ – hardly sexist, because sassy country ladies would take their pegs alongside the men.
Walking the ploughed fields on top of the hills above Llangollen and Glyn Ceiriog, he’d show me how to not be fooled by the plover mother calling excitedly overhead. He’d ask if I could see the nest. I’d say no. He’d then point to my feet and there they would be – 4-5 eggs in a scruffy, make-do, excuse for a nest. The mother bird would be at the other end of the field trying to outsmart us away from her nest.
We only ever took 1-2 from each nest, but a long hour of hunting and we’d be home with a dozen or more. We’d eat these rich eggs – with their almost transluscent blue-hued whites and rich orange yolks - at the kitchen table, two men together, and he’d pour me a small glass of Port. No celery salt, clipped cress and sourdough toasts here – just Grandma’s fresh baked white bread with a thick spread of the near white, salty Welsh farmhouse butter from the farm along the valley. I would be 10 years old, no older.
So to gull’s eggs. On May 4, I celebrated, maybe strangely, my ‘other’ birthday. This was the day I left the children’s home and was legally adopted – that day I was no longer Thomas Andrew, but became Gareth Spencer Owen. The ‘Spencer’ I explained in ‘Art and The Gimlet’ – a family tradition was for grandparents to choose middle names. Owen was my hero grandfather’s middle name. My only wish was it had been spelt ‘Owain’ – from my other hero who saw off the English invaders, finally with help from a French fleet arriving in the Bristol Channel - Owain Glyndwr (should have a circumflex over the ‘w’ in Glyndwr, but it’s not on WordPress). The man disappeared and was never seen again so nobody knows his resting place.
Once more, to gull’s eggs. To celebrate, my partner Joy came home from Mount Street (Mayfair, London) with fresh, uncooked gull’s eggs. Times past we used to buy them by the tray – wholesale from the traders. Now at an eye watering £4.50 an egg, they are probably more expensive than cloves, gold and saffron. The season is short and last year there were so few, we missed the celebration altogether. Whilst considering the price, best to also consider the hunting of these delicacies. Gull’s don’t conveniently lay in nest boxes in a hen coop in your backyard – the hunters have to climb steep cliffs or hunt through coastal foreshore and be spat on by the male gull’s as they bag their eggs. They also know how to avoid eggs where the chick is beginning to form. All things considered, they earn their price which will be nowhere near the £4.50 an egg in the shop. Cliffs are steep too.
In Étretat I have planned to cook and present a menu at ‘Les Roches Blanches’ – the bar, not the restaurant (in the last building before the cliff above) - centered around gull’s eggs. The ‘dressed down’ BC/BG Parisian weekenders would love it and I still planned tables for my local friends to share in the feasting. On my menu were gull’s eggs, soft boiled with their traditional celery salt and cress, but ‘bag’ permitting, I’d be making a dish of gull’s eggs richly cooked à revuèltos with the tips of local white asparagus, baby peas and other primeurs (new season produce). To follow, quick roasted pale pink Spring lamb from the Normandy pré-salé – and the most special of ice-cream they make in town.
So far in Étretat the only gull’s eggs – les oeufs des mouettes – are the near identical sugar coated, rich chocolate truffle versions from the Confisèrie Georges V.
For the third time, to the gull’s eggs. In years’ past they were mostly sold ready boiled – and clumsily too, so over-cooked with their shells often cracked. We’d deal with the Smithfield Market game dealers to buy them by the tray and raw. Now the rules are relaxed and they are available raw for those who prefer the heavenly ritual of cooking these gems at home.
Into boiling water they go, for 5′ and not a second more - and then straightway into iced water to arrest the cooking. Let them cool for a good 10′ – like most foods, gull’s eggs are at their best enjoyed tiède (lukewarm). Make certain they are at room temperature before you begin the cooking.
Best too is eating them from the half shell whilst standing about the kitchen. Two each was the affordable treat. A third would have been a thrill, but a fourth downright gluttony. Celery salt does flatter these eggs – but it must be top end, made from celeriac, not celery, or worse, industrial ‘celery flavouring’. Mayonnaise is, for us, too cloying and cress quite unnecessary.
No Port these days – better a glass of Blanquette or Crèmant from a good source. No Champagne as the money’s gone on the eggs.
Quickly in closing, we went on to serve long, slow cooked lamb shoulder (8 hours at 85ºC -first too, please have your butcher, or you yourself remove the blade bone), with bowls of Italian peas and tiny broad beans cooked for a minute or three with tiny dice of pancetta. On such special occasions we like to bring joints, like the lamb shoulder, to table for each to slice their own however they wish - much like those Medieval chasseurs would likely have done. Sometimes we leave out the forks, using just knives and bread instead. Blue Collar Gastronomy says, every meal is a celebration.
Note Bene: the gull’s egg celebration at No 19 was actually two-fold – Joy had just been invited to run one of her, open to all, day long ‘Too Busy to Live Your Life’ sessions at Mount Street Jesuit Centre on October 27 (2012) www.mountstreet.info - based on her daily blog: www.walkwithjoy.com - the eggs come from Allen’s, almost next door, which also stocks genuine DOP San Marzano tomatoes.
Bravo Allen’s, bravo Joy et bravo ces mouettes.