Spinach & Eggs from Spitalfields City Farm
The old hawthorn at the Spitalfields City Farm was in full blossom under a blue sky to welcome me as I arrived yesterday morning in search of spinach & eggs, in anticipation of one of my all-time favourite lunches. At the far end of the farmyard, I was greeted by Helen Galland, the animals’ manager, whom I interrupted from her mucking-out duties to sell me half a dozen freshly laid eggs. I deliberated between hens’ and ducks’ eggs so Helen kindly gave me three of each, £1 for the lot.
The Spitalfields flock is a mixture of rare breeds (Marsh Daisies and Buff Orpingtons) and rescued chickens, bought by a charity from battery farms that would otherwise destroy the hens after a year’s life of producing an egg a day, when they still have another four to five years of life left laying eggs. “When they arrive they have to learn to be chickens because they have never seen anything but the inside of a cage before, so the first thing they do when they arrive is lie in the sun.” explained Helen with maternal sympathy, as the flock ran around our ankles pecking in the yard, “In factory farms, they have no nesting materials but they soon get the hang of it here.”
I stowed the half-dozen eggs in my bag and walked over to the other end of the farm where the vegetables are grown. Here, Chris Kyei-Balffour, a community gardener, led me into the humid atmosphere of one of the polytunnels to admire a fine patch of spinach that he grew, glowing fresh and green with new leaves in the filtered sunlight. To my delight, Chris picked me a basket of the most beautiful fresh spinach I ever saw and presented it to me. We shook hands and it was my privilege to buy this spinach for £1. Thanks to Helen and Chris, I carried my ingredients of spinach & eggs away for a mere £2. Anyone can buy produce at the city farm, you just have to go and ask. Let me admit, I was pulling out spinach leaves from the bag and eating them in the street, unable to resist their tangy sweet flavour, as I walked home, hungry to cook lunch.
Although spinach & eggs is one of the simplest of meals, careful judgement is required to ensure both ingredients are cooked just enough. It is a question of precise timing to ensure the perfect balance of the constituents. I steamed the spinach lightly while I poached the eggs in salted water. The leaves need to be blanched but must not become slushy because texture is everything with spinach, it needs to be gelatinous yet chewy.
Once the spinach was on, I broke three hens’ eggs, slipping them gently into a pan of simmering water and poached them until the white of the egg was cooked but the yolk remained runny. Be aware, you have to be careful not to break the yolks when you drop the eggs into the water and some concentration is required to master the knack of scooping then out intact too. I have ruined the aesthetics of my spinach & eggs on innumerable occasions with a casual blunder at this stage, though I can assure you the meal still remains acceptable to the taste buds even if you top your spinach with pitiful fragments of poached egg.
Yesterday, I served a generous portion of my delicious spinach in an old soup dish and – blessed with good luck – I balanced all three eggs on top, perfectly intact and wobbling like jellies. With eggs freshly laid that morning and spinach picked half an hour before I ate it, the ingredients could not have been fresher. No vocabulary exists to explain fully why I like this combination so much, it is something about what happens when you recklessly slice through the egg and the hot golden yolk runs down into the slippery seaweed green spinach. You have to try it for yourself because the combination of the sweet yolk and almost-bitter spinach is astounding.
With the addition of a little ground black pepper and grated parmesan on the top, I carried the spinach & eggs outside into the garden triumphantly, enjoying my lunch in the sunshine for the first time this year. The anachronism of eating my meal of ingredients fresh from the local farm, here in the secret green enclave of my garden in the heart of Spitalfields only served to amplify the pleasure. It was an unforgettable moment of Spring.
Chris Kyei-Balffour and his fine crop of spinach.
A Buff Orpington.
Kellogg the cockerell and a Marsh Daisy hen.
A refugee from a factory farm.
A Buff Orpington Bantam.