Hens are short lived, like my henhouse
I need to construct a new henhouse and this time I ought to properly consider its design
A modest food, but a fresh, plainly prepared egg can be soul steadying and deeply fortifying. Photograph: Getty
I need to construct a new henhouse and this time I ought to properly consider its design. I built our first for my wife’s birthday – not overwhelmingly romantic I admit, but it was what she asked for. I think she anticipated concentrated industry with an easy ripple of muscle as I sawed. She didn’t witness the actual process: hammered thumbs, anguished sobs and filthy curses.
But the great thing about building something to your own vaguely imagined design is that there are no plans get wrong. You are free from the tyranny of symmetry. You make a bit, then another bit to fit the first bit and so on. It’s an organic adventure in carpentry with a hoped for but uncertain destination and like any first time voyager I made some unexpected discoveries on arrival.
The roosting perch ended up directly above the laying boxes. Hens poop perpetually so this was not ideal. And the main door at the front only needed the mildest of thumps to close properly. But I got the hatch at the back right. A pleasingly snug fit it opened discreetly behind the hens allowing easy access to the daily treasure hidden beneath fresh straw and fresher poop: warm, just laid eggs.
A modest food, but a fresh, plainly prepared egg can be soul steadying and deeply fortifying. Top chefs often test young aspirant cooks by getting them to simply fry one. Sunny side up, a twist of sea salt around the white and a tiny knob of butter on the yolk is best I think. Lightly poached is even better. A squirt of white wine vinegar in the boiling water, the heat turned off then the egg added gently and left for about four minutes produces Zen-like perfection.
The essential thing is freshness though: the yolk is brighter, the white is firmer and the flavour is the pure quintessence of eggness that connects me to a bright memory of my five-year-old self consumed in the act of consuming a perfectly boiled one.
Anything baked with fresh eggs is remarkably improved: cakes are lighter and meringues are airier; even an ordinary pancake is made fluffier and tastes almost ethereal. Our asparagus season is short and sweet. We only have a few plants and my wife and I keep the produce to ourselves – like misers we sneakily share a few delicious, secret lunches in early summer. The unadorned spears with butter and a twist of lemon are, of course, delicious but when you dip one in a soft boiled fresh egg the pleasure is, well, shameful really.
I take a more solitary delight in a humid autumn when mushrooms dot the field. I’ll pick a few early when the grass is still wet with dew but before the slugs have got to them. Fried with an egg in a toast sandwich with a scrape of mustard, they start the day at a level of joy which is hard to sustain. The problem is, because of the dwindling light at that time of year the hens lay later in the day: sometimes the mushrooms are picked and ready but I have to wait for an egg . . . life can be flawed. Then on other days the delight of a double yolk reminds me that the universe is bountiful.
Hens are short lived creatures and we’ve had a succession over the years. The first batch arrived when our older boy was a toddler. He named them Whitey, Brownie, Goldie and Biggie – he called it as he saw it. He and his brother have christened every successor. There have been Donkey Kong, Princess Peach and Luigi – dating from when they were aficionados of Super Mario Brothers on the Wii. Then there were Rover, Spike and Butch from when they imagined they were subtly indicating what manner of livestock they actually hoped for. Sadly that trio didn’t acquire any canine qualities with their names because the fox got them.
Apart from their daily grain they ate any left-over potatoes, rice, pasta and bread and we also let them out to scratch around for beetles and bugs. Sometimes they dug up seedlings and I had to chase them out of a vegetable bed but I liked the contented clucking as they pecked around whilst I weeded peas and beans. At night they were snug and safe in the henhouse . . . until that grim day they were snaffled before dusk.
Unfortunately that first henhouse was undermined by foundation problems. I sympathise with the many architects of previous projects beset by similar issues – the leaning tower of Pisa for example. It gradually became clear that the base was not strong enough to hold the total weight. The thing sagged drunkenly after a few winters and we regretfully decommissioned it last year.
There is now a derelict gap in the agricultural quarter of our acre, between the mouldering compost bins and the warped vegetable beds – perhaps I’m not as handy as I think. I need to learn from my mistakes and build a new henhouse. I miss the eggs and the asparagus is looking promising.
Philip Judge is currently on tour with the Abbey in Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints and his book In Sight of Yellow Mountain is published by Gill