In 'meet' department, clearly chickens come before the eggs

HAPPE EATER

June 27, 1993|By ROB KASPER

It is not every day you meet the chickens that laid your breakfast. That happened to me recently when I toured the chicken house at Virginia Organic Farms near Manassas.

Several thousand big brown hens either squawked their greetings or came running over to peck at my shoe laces. They resided in an airy barn that opened onto a sunny, fenced-in yard. The chickens moved with impunity. Their food was grown in nearby corn and soybean fields. They sipped water provided by a spring-fed pond. But regardless of what the residents eat and how freely they roam, chicken houses are still aromatic. When it came time to meet the birds I would have been just as happy to stand outside their house and wave.

However, when Doug McNaughton, "the egg man," as some of the the chefs of Washington's finer restaurants call him, opened the hen house door and walked toward his flock, I felt obligated to follow.

McNaughton is a former city slicker, a lobbyist from California, who, as he put it, "got the Green Acres syndrome" and moved to northern Virginia to farm. That was six years ago. He is still there with his wife, two kids, some cattle, about 25 lambs, a visiting goat and about 8,000 French hens.

Shortly after the hens lay (peak egg-laying time is from 8 to 10 in the morning), the eggs are whisked to fine Washington restaurants and a handful of specialty stores. (In Baltimore the eggs are sold at Sutton Place Gourmet, 1809 Reisterstown Road, and the Marvelous Market bakery shop, 1420 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. They sell for about $3 a dozen.)

Like other organic eggs on the market, McNaughton's eggs, with their sturdy yolks and stiff whites, appeal to serious cooks.

One customer is Roberto Donna, chef and owner of Galileo and I Matti restaurants in Washington. McNaughton's eggs, Donna said in a telephone interview, "make a serious difference in the pasta. With this egg, the pasta is velvety."

"It costs a little bit more . . ." Donna said, "but such a difference!"

Another fan of McNaughton's eggs is Washington's Jean-Louis Palladin, who, along with New York's Larry Forgione, was recently cited by the James Beard Foundation as the nation's top chef.

In the early stages of McNaughton's egg operation, Jean-Louis would inspect the work of the hens. "He would break the egg open and feel it," McNaughton recalled. Often the chef wasn't pleased. The yolk wasn't firm enough. The white not stiff enough. But eventually the hens laid an egg that satisfied Jean-Louis.

A more moderate assessment of McNaughton's eggs came from Mark Furstenberg of Marvelous Market bakery. Furstenberg uses the eggs in some of his baked goods and sells the eggs to customers.

"If you are using it in pastry, there is a big difference," Furstenberg said. "It whips better, and the whites are much stiffer than commercial eggs. There is no doubt that Doug's eggs are much fresher than other eggs." But, Furstenberg said, if "I fry it, bake it, boil it, I can't taste the difference" between McNaughton eggs and the ones sold in supermarkets.

Despite their high-falutin' friends, McNaughton's chickens do not live in posh surroundings. On the day I visited the farm, the 90-degree heat was sweltering. Flies were buzzing, a goat needed milking, a lamb had escaped its pen, and several visitors discovered that chickens droppings, even those from organic chickens, still stink.

McNaughton had the placid demeanor of a man of the soil. The only hint of his previous deal-making days as a Washington lobbyist was the long-sleeved pink oxford cloth shirt he wore. After he had milked the goat, fed a lamb and checked his chicken flock, he sat in the shade and talked. Besides the chickens, he has begun raising lambs and veal cattle. He is a farmer, proud of his work. He talked about how, unlike bigger egg-laying operations, his farm does not wash the eggs. Washing eggs, he said, removes a protective membrane that coats the egg, and fills the egg with water.

McNaughton gave me some of his eggs. The Caesar salad I made with one of his eggs had exceptional flavor. But the pancakes I made with a couple of the eggs a few mornings later were not noticeably improved. A scrambled egg looked whiter than one made with supermarket eggs. But its flavor was plain old scrambled eggs. Nonetheless, I felt a sense of loyalty to these big, brown eggs. I had, after all, met their makers.

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