When we lived in Connecticut we had a ‘flock’ of hens. I use the term loosely; we had three hens. Ever since my grandmother told stories about making little rubbers for her chickens so their feet feet wouldn’t get wet, I wanted to raise chickens. It seemed more interactive than dolls, and less responsibility than actual children.
Our flock began with a gift of two small banty hens from a friend, which we augmented with the purchase of a Rhode Island Red and a Barred Plymouth Rock. Oh, they were lovely. One of the banties became despondent and went under the hen-house to die, but the other three lived with us until we gave them away upon leaving Connecticut, and they gave us just the right number of delicious small blue (the banty) and large brown (the other two) eggs.
In the U.S. the provenance of the eggs one buys is something of a mystery, as is their age. In a commercial operation, the eggs are washed and sanitized immediately, and then are sprayed with a thin coat of mineral oil ‘to preserve freshness,’ according to the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council. The quotation marks are mine, because I suspect it is done more to give the eggs a longer shelf life than for any other reason. When you buy a carton of eggs in the U.S., you have no idea where they’ve come from, unless the name of the farm is on the carton itself. And even then you have no way of knowing if the hens were caged or free-range, or what they were fed. (This is true: leftover bits of chicken at a processing plant are ground up and used as chicken feed. Blcch.) Fancier/organic egg producers are likely to advertise their practices on their cartons, but otherwise you’re left in the dark.
Here in Italy every commercially sold egg comes with a code stamped on it.
The first number identifies the life style of the producing hens: 0=biologic (what we might call ‘organic’ in the U.S.) 1 = living in the open (‘free range’) 2 = raised on the ground (something between free range and a cage) and 3 = caged. The next two letters give the country of origin of the eggs; the next three numbers correspond to the town where the egg was laid; the next two letters are the provincial code of the town; the last three numbers identify the name of the producer (not the hen, the farmer). So, no mystery about your egg here. Of course, not all eggs are equally legible.
This one is pretty clear (oh, busted! Now you know we buy eggs from unhappy cage-raised hens in the province of Bolzano. Shame on us.) Sometimes the printing is quite smudged so you have no idea what it says. Note also that there is a use-by date stamped under all the other info.
I haven’t been able to find out what Italian hens eat, but the yolks of their eggs are a rich red-yellow, almost orange. When we go back to the States the relatively pale yellow yolks seem anemic to us. But I must say, even our own flock of Connecticut hens produced the pale American yolk. It must be something in the Italian diet … even for the chickens.
We always feel good about buying eggs here. The laying date is stamped on the egg box (they’re sold in quantities of 4, 6 or 10, an odd mix of metric and imperial measurement). The egg itself will tell us exactly where it comes from. Italian eggs are not sold from refrigerated cases. They sit out on the shelf, proud to be fresh enough to do so.
Good as the eggs in the market are, though, the best egg is the one with no identifying marks, save perhaps a little bit of hay or something worse stuck to it, the egg your neighbor gives you.