I had never experienced it before. After tearing O-shaped holes out of the centres of buttered white bread, Garth placed the slices on to the hot barbecue plate until browned, turned them over, cracked eggs against the cast-iron side and plopped the contents in, one for each hole. When they were firm he lifted the slices off and slid them on to our waiting plates. He said they were Toads in the Hole – although I have subsequently learned that the title correctly applies to a Yorkshire pudding-and-sausage dish, and that what we crunched so delightedly into that particular morning was Eggs-In-The-Basket, sometimes referred to as Square Eggs.
A moist dove-grey Sunday morning recently seemed a sensible time for more orthodox fried eggs, eggs accompanied by rashers of bacon. A rare treat, and all the lovelier for that: bacon is so famously bad for you (saturated fat plus salt; virtually no nutritional value) that I just about never permit myself to buy it. And yet there I was confronted by locally produced stuff whose food miles were negligible; it was autumn; I wanted my cottage to fill with that particular eggs-and- bacon fragrance.
And lovely it was. Except that it made me aware what an art there is to the frying of eggs, an art, furthermore, I had yet to cultivate. It is not a mere matter of cracking open eggs into a hot pan. There are as many tricks and secrets as there are with most forms of cookery whereby no one way is necessarily correct. I wanted my eggs to sizzle in the melted bacon fat in order to assume its unctuous, smoky saltiness; I also wanted a butteriness to the dish other than the lubricated toast. Somehow my eggs stuck to the base of the pan and in my attempts at dislodging them I punctured some of the golden yolk – it spread out, muddying the bacon, ruining the look.
A French chef called Fernand Point is credited with, among other things, perfecting the fried egg. His technique is somewhere between frying and poaching in hot butter. After he has slid the eggs into gently foaming butter he covers the pan, enabling the whites to solidify into a snowy white cream and the yolks to thicken. And yet fried egg purists claim that using a lid, thereby steaming the eggs, is not properly frying at all. In Anthony Telford’s very useful cookbook ‘The Basics’ he recommends doing the same thing, adding that he despises ‘a crispy underside to my fried eggs’. I think that’s part of their charm! – that and crizzled edges. Just another example of the very subjective nature of food appreciation. I discover that, periodically basting the egg with the melted bacon fat, you can avoid runny whites, achieve perfectly cooked yolks and have that fantastic, evil bacon flavour throughout. A lot of people flip their eggs – but what a sorry sight they then become! A bright gold orb the centre for its pure white halo: this is how fried eggs should look, and why, presumably, the term ‘sunny side up’ was coined.
The blissful marriage of eggs and bacon has gone on to spawn other dishes of equal lusciousness. Spaghetti Carbonara, for example, whereby batons of pancetta, or unsmoked bacon, are crisped in a little olive oil which then anoints the freshly cooked and largely drained pasta before being swiftly folded through egg yolks seasoned and whisked with a little cream, the heat from the pancetta-pasta completing the cooking process. I confess to an affection for the abomination known as the Aussie Pizza, topped with eggs and bacon. And still love old-fashioned unfashionable quiches studded not with ham but with fatty, salty bacon. Best of all are Egg and Bacon Pies. Stephanie Alexander’s version might represent the pinnacle: cream cheese pastry filled with careful layers of blanched bacon, finely chopped parsley, basil and green onions, grated parmesan, eggs cracked cautiously on top then pricked with a skewer, pastry lid composed and the whole thing baked until golden. A magnificent Sunday night supper – unless, of course, you have begun the day with eggs and bacon!
Fittingly, last week was Bacon Week.