Try this old Elizabethan recipe – but beware of explosions! A dish I am sure John Dee would have relished. A roast egg, according to the recipe, is cooked to perfection when it begins to vibrate on its skewer. So far, my eggs have done everything except vibrate. They have cracked, split, oozed, smashed, buckled, dribbled, shattered and rolled off their spits into the fire. My boots have been spattered in shell shrapnel and there’s yellow yolk in my hair.
They have not – yet – exploded, as the recipe warned they might, but there are still half a dozen left in the basket. There is a very good reason why we no longer eat eggs roasted on spits. Compared to boiling, scrambling, poaching, frying and coddling, spit-roasting an egg is a volcanic business.
It was once, however, common for cooks to spit-roast a hen’s eggs over a roaring fire. Academic David Walddon, a food historian, has unearthed a fascinating fifteenth-century recipe for spit-roasted eggs, as they would have been cooked in Elizabethan England.
He has written about his discovery in the spring issue of Petits Propos Culinaires, the food journal founded by the great cookery writer Elizabeth David in 1979. In his essay, Walddon explains that the method for spit-roasting eggs comes from a cookery manuscript written by the Italian chef Martino de Rossi in the 1460s and translated into English in 1598.
The basic method, though it varies from translation to translation, is this: heat a spit until very hot, pierce the eggs with the spit, roast them over the fire, and serve. There are some helpful hints in the 1598 translation – “heat your spit very whote”; “rost them like meat” – but otherwise, the method is vague and the egg enthusiast is left to make it up as they go along.
With Easter only a few months away and bored with boiled eggs, I thought I might put Martino’s recipe to the skewer whilst I was back at the farm during Storm Desmond.
Martino’s instructions are is brief and there is little help elsewhere. The doughty Mrs Beeton in her Every Day Cookery has recipes for every sort of egg, from eggs and brandy (for invalids), to egg nog, egg soup, eggs pickled in vinegar and eggs scrambled with oysters. But she says nothing about eggs on spits.
Nor does Larousse Gastronomique, the vast French cookery compendium. There are 29 pages of densely-typed entries on eggs in the 1961 edition, including recipes for hard-boiled lapwing eggs, eggs boiled in veal stock, and eggs deep-fat-fried and served with bacon à l’Américaine. Not a word, though, about spitted ones.
There is, however, a note on roasted eggs in Food in England, Dorothy Hartley’s magisterial survey of English cooking and eating habits.
Curiously, eggs were not often boiled before the sixteenth century; they baked well in the soft ash of the wood fire. These fire-baked eggs were rarely eaten more than one or two at a time. The generally accepted opinion was that ‘one egg is gentility, two sufficient and more excess’.
Another early source, quoted by Hartley, warns: “all eggs hard roasted be grosse meat.” In other words, very filling. Hartley says nothing, though, on how to successfully roast eggs – only that you shouldn’t eat more than two.
Even one would be a good start. After an hour blowing on the wood burner, there is a blazing fire. The method given in Petits Propos Culinaires advises heating a skewer in the fire until very hot. Then, holding an egg in a gloved hand, gently, but firmly, wiggling the point of the skewer into the egg and carefully pushing it through to the other side.
This, hot skewer in hand, I manage to do. The next part proves more difficult.
The method states that you must seal the albumen (the white) and yolk inside the shell, stopping any leaking, by thrusting the egg straight into the fire. There, the egg should be rotated continuously, until it starts to vibrate.
Easier said than done. The first of a dozen eggs spewed hot albumen and yolk from either end before cracking, splitting and rolling off the spit into the kindling. The second I dropped, splashing yolk over my boots and trouser cuffs.
The third shattered as the skewer broke the shell. The fourth cracked over the coals where the yolk set solid. No wonder one early translator of the Martino manuscript felt moved to add: “This is a stupid invention and an absurd game for cooks.”
Then, just as I was thinking longingly of scrambled eggs on toast, the fifth egg came good. The glowing skewer went straight through and the egg neither leaked, nor slid off the end of its spit.
After four minutes, the shell had turned black and a small bead of amber yolk had formed where the skewer met the shell. While the egg wasn’t vibrating, it had started whistling like a kettle on a hob.
The charred shell peeled away to reveal an egg white as soft as a toasted marshmallow and a golden-jelly yolk.
The taste was smoky, meaty and absolutely delicious. All the more so for being eaten in the freezing cold. Four of the remaining eggs leaked, collapsed, split or were immolated on the coals. Three came out with perfectly blackened shells and went straight into waiting egg cups.
The Martino recipe recommends eating the eggs “spiced”. Since pepper was an Elizabethan obsession – in 1594, 1,500 bags of pepper from the East Indies, each weighing 200lb, were consumed in London alone – I had my second egg liberally peppered. I could not have managed a third. One egg was indeed gentility, two sufficient, three would have been excess.
A boiled egg cooked in a saucepan is certainly easier, less messy, less wasteful and far less dangerous. Do not try Martino’s recipe without good, thick gloves or gauntlets and a very long skewer.
You certainly wouldn’t spit-roast an egg for breakfast each morning. But in the week before Easter, on a chilly, blustery day, it is well worth risking an explosion (or two), for one perfect roast egg, spitted over a fire and eaten with plenty of pepper from a favourite china egg cup.
Eat like an Elizabethan – dishes that have disappeared
A feast day game pie
Containing a whole roe-deer, a gosling, three capons, six chickens, ten pigeons and one young rabbit
Hedgehogs and Sea Urchins
Minced pork spiced with ginger and mace and formed into a ball or oblong before being cooked in a buttered pan and studded with silvered almonds to look like the quills of a hedgehog or sea urchin
Collops of Marchpane bacon
Marzipan, coloured and shaped to look like rashers of bacon
A blend of hot cider, spices and apples heated until the liquid forms a white ‘woolly’ head.
Slices of eel rolled in saffron and verjuice – the acidic extract of crab apples – baked in a pastry crust
Pears and vine leaves
Pears and vine leaves poached in cider spiced with ginger and cloves. Served with custard and sugar