Our friends Brian Marcy and Clare Carver moved from Napa Valley to the upper Willamette Valley with barn full of ideas. Brian is a craftsman of all kinds, from winemaker to welder, carpenter and inventor. Clare is the keeper of their many farm animals, several hogs, cows, horses, goats and chickens. We were invited to Easter supper at their farm this year, and as fate would have it, we would be delivering a special parcel. Gatherings at their home are frequent and generous, the source of their name, Big Table Farm.
Clare called on Saturday to tell us about her situation. There had been some mistake with the delivery of her spring chicks. They were stranded at the airport. We agreed to pick up this chirping box of cluckery and bring it with us for supper. As unlikely and amazing as it may sound, newborn chicks are packed tightly together and shipped by mail to their faraway destinations from the hatchery. These day old chicks were ordered from one of the best known, Murray McMurray's, and the chicks emerge from their shells fortified with enough nutrients to survive the shipping without food or water. Again, this is amazing. Clementine helps Clare watch over the young chicks until they are old enough to join the flock.
With parcel in tow, we head to Gaston, where Brian and Clare have purchased about 40 acres of hillside and forest. These little chicks will replenish their flock in the cycle of brooding and culling. Clare maintains a flock of about one hundred hens, keeping two or three roosters around to protect the ladies from their predators. She likes to have a variety of breeds, with different plumage, and laying eggs of different colors and sizes. When pressed to choose her favorite four, she named the Buff Orpington, Black Australorp, the Araucana and the Delaware, which are generally well-behaved, with beautiful and diverse feathers and eggs.
When Clare and Brian lived in Napa, they kept chickens in the city for four years, so they had a good idea of what kind of a coop they wanted for Big Table Farm. Brian designed and constructed the chicken bus from scrap metal and mounted it on trailer wheels. In fact, all of the animal huts on the farm are portable. The bottom of the bus is metal grating, so the chicken manure just falls right through, and they move the bus twice a month, so the hens can pasture freely over their farm.
The eggs from Big Table Farm are particularly delicious, and the reason is their diet. The hens enjoy many acres of fresh pasture, and their diet is supplemented with an all-organic feed, which is considerably more expensive than conventional feed. Clare is working with other farmers in the Willamette Valley towards a local organic feed co-op, an enormous project which would take years to establish. Clare believes more people could afford to use organic feed if transportation costs could be reduced, and many others agree with her. Inspired by the writings of Joel Salatin (featured in Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma") and others in the Stockman Grass Farmer, a journal of grassland agriculture, the farms of Willamette Valley will pursue the idea that with the right environment, animals can be raised naturally, healthy and profitably.
The Secret of the Magic Egg
When Clare delivers eggs to the restaurant, each one is lovingly dated in pencil, and sell for the bargain price of $5 per dozen. When you crack open an egg, it tells you it's whole story. The firmness of the albumen tells you how fresh it is, and the darkness of the yolk tells you what the chicken was eating (eggs at the grocery store can legally be on the shelf for up to two months). It is more difficult to peel very fresh, hard-boiled eggs, because very little of the albumen has evaporated, and it grips very tightly to the shell. Boiling the eggs in very salted water helps to dissolve the skin under the shell. Clare didn't believe me until she tried this for herself.
At the restaurant, I have been using her eggs for a salad of braised leeks dressed with a dijon vinaigrette, and placed on a sauce of nettle puree. The eggs are cooked for seven and a half minutes in boiling salted water, then drained and cooled in ice water before peeling. I quarter the eggs, and the yolk is still creamy inside. Lay the egg wedges against the leek and sprinkle with breadcrumbs (we use rye) and duck hams, made from a short-cured tenderloin.Another egg dish I have used recently with Big Table Farm eggs is a technique I saw in Milan, Italy, at the restaurant of Carlo Cracco. Like myself, Mr. Cracco has spent some time in Japan and has brought inspiring techniques back with him. There is an izakaya tradition of fermenting egg yolks in a mixture of miso and mirin for a few hours. The exterior of the yolk becomes firm, and encapsulates a still fluid, although cured interior, which flows out once it is cut. The richness of the yolks from Clare's hens make this a delicacy.
Begin by making a puree of cooked beans, salt and sugar, and lay the egg yolks in the mixture. They will float because of the high specific gravity of the puree, so after about three hours, you must lovingly roll the egg yolks over, to cure the other side. After another two hours, the eggs are ready. You can also leave the yolks in the mixture overnight to cure them all the way through, and then dehydrate them until they are firm enough to grate with a microplane, as you would bottarga!!
This dish has been on the Park Kitchen menu as the "magic egg," and a winter version of it was used at the Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene in January. The whites are separated from the yolks, then the whites are passed through a sieve to break up the albumen, then cooked into individual "omelettes." The yolks are cured as described, then the omelette is garnished with the yolk, and a salad of steamed cauliflower, croutons, black truffles, rabbit loin and parsley, inspired by the "a la Polonaise," preparations of French cuisine. Truffles and dehydrated eggs are grated over the top to complete the dish.