Eggs are, or were, an integral part of our childhood memories, and they continue to be a constant presence at the table. A symbol of life, or its very beginnings, they constantly ask the question regarding what came first; the chicken or the egg? As a symbol of life, it plays an important role in gastronomy, especially during the Easter period, and is associated with the resurrection and a symbol of hope for a new existence. Ever-present in the art associated with birth, it was then to be found in still life paintings by great artists, such as Velázquez, Bosch, Titian, Zurbarán and others. There are various sources that mention eggs in the Egyptian diet, making them a very ancient food. The Latin tradition itself of "de ovo usque ad mala", which means starting a meal with egg and finishing it with fruit, confirms this. In Imperial Rome eggs were considered an important part of any diet. This tradition seems to come from the Etruscans who, even in death, had graves depicting people with eggs in their hands (a symbol of food in the afterlife). After the Middle Ages they were regarded as a fundamental part of the diet for pregnant women and convalescents.

Like many other natural products, they have been subject to new takes on diet and, after getting used to their qualities, new "scientific" information (possibly motivated by the food production lobbies) appeared that only mentioned the dangers related to cholesterol, liver or gall bladder problems, or the fact that they are fattening when coupled with butter. Later, it was announced that eggs often carried bacteria, making summer meals such a concern. However, eggs have long been the subject of popular sayings like the one Teófilo Braga published in 1881, in “As Adivinhas Portuguesas” (Portuguese Riddles):"As small as an acorn, they fill the house to the door." Or from the Brazilian popular slang: "A white house with no key, no lock."

I remember, as a child, being a fan of eggnog (“gemadas”), which is egg yolk beaten in a glass with sugar and then flavoured with port wine. At the time when central heating was a dim and distant dream for primary schools, this eggnog was what warmed the cockles of our hearts before school. I also remember that frying an egg was an art. This was used with savoury food and could be served as a dessert, topped with sugar to make the yolk very creamy. Then we would make little bread soups in the sugar-filled yolk... The difficult part was ensuring that the egg white was well cooked and the yolk was still runny.

However, recently, science has come to our aid and through Hervé This we learned that egg whites start getting hard at 61 degrees and yolks at 68 degrees, which allows the great chefs of today to use this knowledge and frequently come up with new recipes with this fine produce. Of course, at the same time, there are new devices, such as the "Roner", that ensure slow and low cooking temperatures. And it's great to see how contemporary chefs have rediscovered the egg (and the egg yolk in particular) for their various compositions and creations.

Returning to the use of eggs in history, let’s not forget that the egg whites were used to starch caps and other types of fabric in the convents, which meant that the thousands of left-over yolks were used to create many of our richest desserts. Egg whites were extraordinarily good for cleaning, filtering liquids with solids, such as consommes and wine itself. This technique, which is called clarification, originated with the use of egg white and is still used today, with or without the egg whites themselves.

In terms of Portuguese sweets, we have the glorious "Farófias", the “Travesseiro de Noiva”, the "Alfenins" from the Azores. As for egg yolks, they have many different uses in Portuguese culinary tradition, such as “Ovos-moles de Aveiro”, “Trouxas-de-ovos”, “Papos de Anjo”... the list of culinary pleasures is interminable.

Whole eggs are essential for “Bacalhau com Todos”, for "peas with poached eggs" and "Açorda à Alentejana." And in the Brazilian "Peixada do Ceará" or "Caldeirada Maranhense”. We are used to seeing a raw egg yolk stirred into "Açorda de Marisco" (seafood bread soup) to make it creamier. This is one of the dishes that created a hubbub because of the risks associated with eating raw egg yolk. Greater scientific knowledge led to the rise of pasteurized eggs in the market, separating whites and yolks. It’s a pity they are hard to find on the Portuguese market.

If this solution was found, science once again has now brought new life back to eggs through choline, which is found in large quantities in egg yolks and a substance vital for the production of neurons and other cells. Medical communities suggest that eggs should be eaten with a runny yolk, if possible. Great news! Who doesn’t remember the sometimes rather caricatured episodes of 3-minute eggs at breakfast? But beware. Eggs are not all equal, which is why we have seen a return to more free-range poultry farming.

The best eggs are undoubtedly those that come from the chickens in our back yard.

© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes