The yolk’s on us: when did the humble egg become so fancy? | Eggs

There are few things on Earth as perfect as an egg. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in the single most appetising parenthesis in western literature, a soft-boiled egg with buttered toast is “(the most delicious meal known to man)”. With the cost of living crisis worsening, there are few cheaper sources of nutrition, too. The egg is egalitarian and utilitarian. To my mind, there is no reason for Deliveroo to exist when you can prepare a three-egg omelette in 30 seconds.

From a farmer’s perspective, eggs are equally miraculous, since they arrive on the production line as neatly and uniformly as Model T Fords – which is far from the case with bacon, tomatoes or milk. “Really, you just need a room, a grader, some hens, and you’re away,” says Paddy Bourns, an organic egg farmer at Cackleberry Farm in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. “You can sell them anywhere because they’re ready-packed in their shells. You could drive down the road now, pick up some eggs, put them in a box and sell them out of your gate. There are not many products you can do that with.”

But here lies a source of contention. Bourns’s CackleBean eggs, laid by rare-breed organic hens on his tiny solar-powered farm, are some of the most coveted in England. He prides himself on rearing the best eggs he possibly can, and they’re the best I’ve ever tasted. They are also among the most expensive: about £3 for half a dozen in boutique stores such as Gail’s Bakery and Selfridges food hall. Bourns is not inclined to sell them to supermarkets as he won’t compromise his high welfare standards to meet the demand. “You cannot be high-end and be in a supermarket,” he says.

However, since all hen’s eggs look more or less the same to the untrained eye, you could easily mistake one of his 50p organic eggs for, say, a Tesco own-brand 18p free-range egg or, indeed, an Asda 9p battery-farmed egg. Most consumers don’t really look past the packaging. And increasingly, Bourns feels, the giants that dominate the poultry industry are taking advantage of this by selling us mass-produced, factory-farmed eggs and marketing them as small, artisanal products.

Fancy that … eggs are increasingly the subject for niche marketing. Photograph: Tal Silverman/The Guardian

“It happened to me yesterday,” he says. “I won’t name the company but this was somewhere I always thought was all right: small company, little farm, one gate. Then the whole thing shatters. You realise they buy their eggs off other farms. The little farm’s a front. There’s Big Egg behind it.”

Big Egg is, indeed, big business. According to industry data, 42m British hens produced 11.3bn eggs in 2021, which adds up to about 30m eggs laid each day. Egg consumption is up 4% year on year and has been rising steadily through the 21st century. We ate 202 each in the UK in 2021, compared with 176 eggs each in 2004. Most of the growth has been in the free-range category, which now accounts for 63.7% of the market, according to Defra.

Among the criteria for British Lion “free-range” standard are that hens must have access to outdoor space, live in flocks no larger than 16,000 with no more than nine hens per square metre in their hen houses. Organic (which makes up 4% of the market) adds further requirements: no genetically modified feed, no antibiotics, flocks no larger than 3,000, more outdoor access, and no “beak trimming” – a mutilation designed to stop hens pecking each other, as they do when in stressful conditions. In caged systems, there are no limits on flock size.

The market leaders in the egg world are Noble Foods, which produces more than 60m eggs a week and distributes them under various brands, some organic (Purely Organic), some free-range (The Happy Egg Co) and some neither (Big & Fresh). Another big layer is Stonegate Farmers, which provides all of Waitrose’s eggs and owns posh egg pioneer Clarence Court, a Wiltshire farm that pumps out 400,000 free-range eggs every day.

Lockdown has helped increase demand – more homebaking, more breakfasts at home – and so too has social media. On social media, egg-related hashtags (#yolkporn, #egg) comfortably beat those of its aspirational breakfast-mate the avocado. Celebrity chefs are developing their favourites: Cacklebean has been touted by Mary Berry and Tom Kerridge; Yotam Ottolenghi and Mark Hix have pushed Clarence Court. In all, the egg appears to be going through a similar rags-to-riches trajectory as kale. The reason the vitamin C- and K-rich brassica was so touted by cooks in the first place was that it was a cheap source of nutrition. However, it soon became shorthand for an upwardly aspirational lifestyle and a byword for foodie faddism. The Old Cotswold Legbar seems to be enjoying a similar Instagram moment.

Arlington white hens at Cackleberry Farm.
Arlington white hens at Cackleberry Farm. Photograph: Steph Bourns

Nevertheless, since eggs (even posh ones) are so cheap, consumption seems likely to rise with the cost of living crisis – Sainsbury’s has already pledged to spend £500m keeping the costs of everyday staples such as eggs down. This is not necessarily a bad thing, says Jayne Buxton, author of The Great Plant-Based Con, which examines how food companies have manipulated concerns about animal welfare and the environment to push processed food. “The interesting trend is that demand for eggs is going up regardless of the narrative that says we should all eat more plant-based foods,” she says. One conclusion she has come to from her research is that we should eat more of this whole food with its excellent nutrition-to-carbon ratio. “People are smarter than we think. And they’re more resistant to the dominant zeitgeist narrative. They know eggs provide high-quality protein.” Basically, no other food gives so much bang for its cluck.

The problem is, it is extremely difficult to produce 30m eggs a day and sell them to a public that expects eggs to be available at all times but is in denial about the often bleak realities of industrial farming – let alone the fine distinctions between free-range and organic. Which helps to explain why, in recent years, the egg aisle has become such a fiercely contested, semiotically rich design space.

“The idea of egg brands would have seemed ridiculous a few decades ago,” says Lori Meakin, co-founder of branding agency Joint. “Eggs were just eggs, a pure generic that gave rise to expressions such as ‘sure as eggs are eggs’”. But as demand soared and customers became more discerning, manufacturers attempted to distinguish themselves with claims about welfare, carbon footprint, provenance, quality and safety – plus aspirational shell colours and improbably amber yolks.

Now, there are eggs and there are Tesco Finest Bluebell Araucanas, which come in a pale blue box and a “striking pastel blue” shell. There are the aspirational ovoids pushed by Clarence Court, which treats proprietary hen breeds such as the Burford Brown as luxury marques (£4.30 for 10 in Sainsbury’s). The company has recently introduced such innovations as ready-to-eat quail eggs with truffle mayonnaise and seasonal pheasant eggs (“their shells are a sophisticated olive green and brown, reminiscent of Farrow & Ball paint colours,” says the marketing material). Then we have the Respectful brand (like Clarence Court, part of Stonegate), which focuses on its carbon credentials. The top UK brand is the Happy Egg Co, whose animal welfare selling point was rather undermined by a Peta investigation last year, which found routine beak-trimming – permissible among free-range birds in the UK guidelines – and cramped conditions.

Cacklebean eggs are among the most coveted in the UK.
Cacklebean eggs are among the most coveted in the UK. Photograph: Steph Bourns

But it’s a fact that most shoppers (in a rush, mindful of our ever-decreasing spending power) are more likely to be swayed by a word such as “happy” than a Peta investigation. “Once the proposition is defined it’s simply about communicating it clearly on packaging, through visuals, through messaging, materials and production techniques,” says Vicky Bullen of branding agency Coley Porter Bell. “Respectful has a simple black line drawing on a box made of recycled materials – a minimalist approach that matches its proposition.” Clarence Court has, by contrast, gone for a “posh aesthetic” legible in everything from the colours of its shells to the “tone of voice” of its marketing material.

When it comes to the more premium brands, one of the main points of differentiation is provenance, says Bullen. “People want to know where their food comes from – St Ewe’s from Cornwall and Duncan’s Eggs from Scotland both do this. And the more specific the location – Daylesford and Stonegate for example – the more premium the brands feel.”

Quality is another marker. “We have learned to associate certain signs and symbols with quality. Crowns and crests appear on Clarence Court and Stonegate, while fine script – used by Daylesford – is another route to quality. God really is in the detail.”

But all this emphasis on design rather miffs Bourns, as becomes clear when I visit his farm. In normal circumstances, his hens would all be roaming around outside. The avian flu epidemic means they’re confined to their barns – but they seem happy and healthy enough, rootling around on the straw, feathers notably shiny. In the sorting area by the coop, there is a button to make a conveyor belt deliver white, blue, pink and brown eggs into a tray, straight from the roosts.

Contrary to popular belief, the shell colour makes zero difference to taste – different breeds simply produce different-coloured eggs. “We mix all up the colours now,” Bourns says. “We find customers like that.” The amberness of the yolk is similarly purely a matter of aesthetics. It can be adjusted simply by feeding the hen orange- and yellow-coloured foods. (Bourns has his own proprietary feed made to a secret recipe; corn and marigold are common.) As for the packaging? It’s a cardboard box and Bourns designed it himself. In the packing room, his wife Steph is folding 2D templates into 3D six-packs with practised fluency.

“We produce our eggs this way because it’s what we believe in,” Bourns says. “We never wanted to be some bougie egg company. We like high welfare. We like regenerative agriculture. We haven’t got the heart to kill cockerels so we keep them alive. We do it because we wanted to do things that way. But then bigger companies latch on to it. They go: that’s a good marketing tool.”

While we are talking, Bourns’s phone keeps ringing with suppliers whom he has to let down as he never has enough eggs to meet demand. “It makes me look like I can’t manage my business. But actually I can. I’m producing every egg to the same standard. I could go now and buy eggs from another farmer, with his stamp but with my brand and no one would even think about it. But it’s wrong.” There was a time, he points out, before hens’ egg-laying capabilities had been optimised by selective breeding, electric lighting and other modern farming methods, when fresh eggs were a seasonal treat. Laying season started around Easter, and pickled eggs had to suffice from late autumn. “That’s how it was. We’ve completely forgotten about it. In a commodity market, people can’t understand why there are no eggs.”

Bourns emphasises that he has no problem with the industry as a whole, even at the intensive end. His concern is that small farmers such as him who have to make specialist, artisanal products to survive will end up being elbowed out by larger companies with bigger marketing budgets and fewer scruples about keeping 30,000 hens to a shed. His advice is to ignore all the words, all the typography, all the Farrow & Ball colours on the packaging. “See a box of eggs? There’s a number on it. Go on Google Earth, get the address, and have a look for yourself. See if the farm’s small or big. You can’t hide any more, can you?”

It’s understandable that many of us question whether paying £3 for six eggs when you can buy six for £1.50. But as alarming as the price rises at the supermarket are, it’s worth stressing that in the UK almost all of our food is historically cheap – and even the most expensive organic egg is a fraction of the price of beef, chicken, fish, cheese, tofu, nuts, or just about any other protein you can name. At just over 50p, the most delicious meal known to man seems, to me, the definition of affordable luxury.

Felicity Cloake’s egg taste test

I boiled all the eggs for 7 minutes 15 seconds – for a set white and a fudgy but not quite hard yolk – then chilled them in cold water.

Eggs in a pan of water.
Photograph: The Picture Pantry/Alamy

Waitrose Essential white, £1 for six
The glamorous interloper; a pure white egg, just like the ones on US cooking shows. Even though I know full well that the shade of a shell is determined by the breed that laid it, the difference is still mildly exciting. The white feels very compact and tight (possibly because it’s the smallest egg in the test), the yolk is deeply yellow (this is usually down to the hen’s diet) and the taste? You guessed it – like an egg.

Tesco Finest, £2
This may be the eggiest egg I’ve seen, with an even, pale terracotta shell that reminds me of the rubber egg we once bought from a joke shop to fool my mum (simpler times). Inside, it has a firm, opaque white and an ordinary-looking apricot yolk – but, to be fair, a lovely rich flavour. (After thinking hard for several minutes, I realise it’s hard to describe the flavour of an egg. They taste of eggs, simple as that.)

Duchy Organic free range, £2.15
No, hang on, this Waitrose specimen is the eggiest-looking: a slightly smaller body double of no 2. Same colour, and however hard I try to detect a herbaceous, nutty or corny note … the same flavour: delicious, eggy.

Clarence Court Burford Brown, £2.12
This egg raises the bar with a fetching sprinkle of freckles – it reminds me a bit of a Mini Egg, which is a good thing. Inside, it has a flaming red yolk, which looks amazing (and would kill it on Instagram) and tastes great, almost creamy. Much like the first one, in fact.

Old Cotswold Legbar, £2.60
If Farrow & Ball did eggs, they’d probably be this delicate blue, which looks very pretty against your Italian marble worktop … even if these pricier Clarence Court offerings are the same as any other egg inside. That said, the vivid turmeric-yellow yolks would make very tempting scrambled eggs … and that’s the point surely. If your egg looks unusually good, you’ll almost certainly find it tastes better, too. Even if it actually tastes just like all the rest.