4 Nov 2012

Simple pleasures in food

I enjoy food, and by that I mean good quality food, made with decent ingredients which are well-prepared. And not too much of it at one time. But, despite the fact that my work is concerned with the workings of taste and particularly its applications to wine, I am definitely not what is known as a "foodie", that is to say someone totally obsessed with whatever goes into his mouth. I don't care a lot for fancy restaurants, for example. I prefer to eat in places that make me feel at ease. They must serve decent food for sure, but the atmosphere of these places, and the friendliness of the service is at least as important than what is in my plate. I happen to know a few famous chefs and appreciate very much, on occasion, eating their cuisine. But I would never make a thing of going to such places regularly, even if I had the means to do so. For instance, I simply cannot imagine booking ahead seats in a fashionable restaurant. If they can't take me when I show up or call that same morning (rare event) then I will just go someplace else or stay at home. So you can be sure that you will never find me standing in a queue (real or virtual) for any restaurant, unless of course I am truly starving. The rest is pure snobbery.

oeuf à la coque on the floor of my kitchen in Gascony

When one feels the need to get back to basics, like when strong feelings flow around you, during seasonal changes, when life is hard, intense, stressful, beautiful or otherwise powerful, the simplest foods are often the best. This morning, for me, it was a boiled egg.

Living in France and spending more than half my time speaking the French language, I am often struck by differences in the senses behind expressions or words that describe the same object, event or process between English and French. I have occasionally, on this blog, underlined the impoverishement of sense that prevails in the translations of film or book titles from English to French. But, in this instance, the impoverishement would seem to run in the other linguistic direction. The French term for "boiled egg" is "oeuf à la coque". This means "egg in its shell", and I like this far better than "boiled egg". Not sure why, but I do. The very definition provided in the inevitably useful Wikipedia is quite enough to put one off the English version, far too basic and flavourless in its expression.

"Boiled eggs are eggs (typically chicken eggs) cooked by immersion in boiling water with their shells unbroken. 
(Eggs cooked in water without their shells are known as poached eggs, while eggs cooked below the boiling temperature, either with or without the shell, are known as coddled eggs.) Hard-boiled eggs are either boiled long enough for the egg white and then theegg yolk to solidify, or they are left in hot water to cool down, which will gradually solidify them, while a soft-boiled egg yolk, and sometimes even the white, remains at least partially liquid."

 the same egg on the table, to show that we can be sophisticated down in the country!

There is something quintessential, amost primitive, about the egg in its shell. It doesn't matter whether it comes from the chicken or another bird. Just the size (and the flavour, to some extent) varies. The shape is strong yet refined with its variable taper on each end. I have heard that the strength of an egg-shell lies way beyond it thickness, signifying perfect design and strength/weight ratio.

A friend once told me that French table protocole stipulated that there were 7 forbidden practices to be avoided at all costs in refined society, when confronted with an "oeuf à la coque".

1). Do not place the egg sharp side down in the egg cup.
2). Never cut off the top of an oeuf à la coque with a knife. One can bash it with a spoon or cut it off with a spoon.
3). Never use a silver spoon to eat one (for the very good reason of undesirable chemical reactions affecting flavour).
4). Do not dip slices of bread or toast into the egg once opened.

This is the point at which I part company with these rules of good behaviour, so I will spare you the others, especially as I cannot remember them anyway! As you will notice from my photographs, I was not about to not obey rule 4 anyway. On the contrary, dipping a slice of fresh and firm bread (or toast) with its crunchy crust into a soft-boiled egg is one of the morning's great pleasures. Eminently sensual, of course. Rules 1, 2 and 3 are just plain common sense. 


  1. Actually, I beg to differ on rule 1... The yolk of an egg is positioned towards the more rounded end of an egg. When you place the pointed or sharp side up in the egg cup, cutting the top off does not expose the yolk and your first morsel is just egg white. I think we can all agree that the most enjoyable part of the egg is the yolk, so why start your culinary journey with a more lacklustre first bite when you don't need to? Otherwise, as usual, a wonderful post about life's simple pleasures that are available to all...

    Alex Keiller

  2. Alex, I suppose I will have to try eating my next boiled egg with the pointed side facing downward. I imagine that the reasoning behind rule one is that it is easier to cut off the top of the sharp end without bits flying all over the place. Actaully I think what I like about boiled eggs is the blend between yolk and white. A sort of ying/yang effect if you like.

  3. Yes, you're quite right. One without the other just doesn't do it...