Chefs get cracking with Egg Farmers of Canada
I’m looking at eggs with renewed appreciation having spent a day last week visiting an Eastern Ontario egg farm. As on past farm visits, I was impressed by the farmers’ dedication to producing top-quality food. As a lover of cooking with quality ingredients, I find it fascinating to learn about all the work that goes into ensuring we have a consistent, safe and delicious food supply in Canada.
Recently, Egg Farmers of Canada invited a handful of Ottawa-area chefs and media folks to visit the Laviolette family’s egg farm in nearby St. Isadore. Ferme Avicole Laviolette (‘avicole’ means poultry) is just one of the over 1000 regulated egg farms represented by Egg Farmers of Canada, best known to many for their catchy ‘get cracking’ slogan and campaign. These farmers collectively produced over 9 billion eggs last year, helping to satisfy our love of eggs. Did you know the average Canadian eats 250 eggs per year?
Billed as a “Chef to Farm” event, the intention was to connect chefs directly with one of their key food sources while highlighting the effectiveness and strength of the Canadian egg supply management system. Thanks to farmers across the country, we have easy access to eggs that are local and very fresh – usually making it to nearby grocery stores within 2 – 4 days of being gathered from the hens. In addition, Canadian egg farmers adhere to world-leading animal care and food safety standards.
At the Laviolette farm, their ‘enriched colony’ farming system represents the future of the egg industry. Hens are housed in cages twice the size of conventional ones and a fully-automated system supplies them with food and water plus gathers the eggs with no disruption to the birds. As Marcel Laviolette explained, “treating the birds right is our main goal. We are fortunate that Canada’s egg supply management system supports farmers and helps us earn a good living so we can continually invest in new technology to help us remain part of a quality food chain.” In the Laviolette family’s case, that new technology includes a climate control system that maximizes bird health and egg production. Marcel’s son Kevin explained that the system can be monitored via cell phone and easily adjusted remotely (for example, they can raise the temperature slightly in the barn if the hens are eating too much, or lower it slightly if they are eating too little).
I learned a few interesting things about eggs during my day on the farm:
- Hens begin to lay at 19 weeks of age
- The best eggs are produced when hens are between 6 and 7 months old
- Hens lay for a total of 51 weeks
- Ontario and Quebec produce 60 – 70% of Canada’s eggs
- A well-managed flock will consistently yield almost one egg per day, per hen
- Eggs are one of the most complete natural foods available
After touring the barn we shifted to the ‘chef’ part of our day. Inside a tent erected beside golden corn fields, there was a long harvest table decorated with flowers and beautiful place settings. There were also six cooking stations and a well-stocked pantry area. Our host for the day, celebrity chef Lynn Crawford, quickly explained that we were about to embark on a black-box cooking competition, the goal of which was to showcase the egg and make it the star of the dish. Teams were to be judged on appearance, flavour, use of black box ingredients and overall creativity. Chef Matt Dunbar from No Small Feast in Toronto (who set up the temporary kitchen and workstations) was on hand with a team of assistants to help direct traffic as we whipped up our dishes in just one hour.
I had the very good fortune to be paired with David Godsoe, executive chef of the Eighteen hospitality group (including restaurants Social, e18hteen, the Clarendon Tavern and more) and chef Ross Fraser of Fraser Cafe and The Rowan. Our fourth team member was the friendly and enthusiastic Duncan from Egg Farmers of Canada. Our black box ingredients with which we were to prepare an appetizer included scallops, vibrant green cauliflower (dubbed ‘Kermit the Frog’ cauliflower by Chef Lynn), dandelion greens and Delicata squash. I was amazed how quickly chefs Ross and David brainstormed to come up with a dish that was sure to be complex, flavourful and visually appealing. We grabbed a few additional items from the pantry to round out our ingredients list and it was time to get cooking.
The hour sped by in a blur as our team’s professional chefs undertook the bulk of the work, assisted by Duncan and me. We were so busy I didn’t have time to check in on the opposing team’s progress as they crafted an appetizer based on the same black box items as ours; meanwhile there were duelling squads creating main course and dessert dishes. The tent was a veritable hive of activity as competitors rushed from their main workstations to the pantry, the sous vide station, the deep fryers and the barbeque, while Chef Lynn kept up a lively stream of amplified banter the entire time. It was loud, energetic and fun.
Our plate was composed of tempura-fried squash rings with a sous-vide soft-cooked egg yolk in the centre, topped with a dollop of sauce Gribiche (made with eggs), along with a perfectly-seared scallop and a rolled-up scallion and cauliflower pancake (the flavour of which was enhanced with a splash of a sweet-salty-sour soya-based sauce). It was a combination that drew praise from everyone who ate it; it may have helped that it was the first item that was served so the judges’ appetites were especially keen.
After all six dishes had been presented, the judges declared Team 2, of which our squad were members, to be the winners. I’ll cherish the bragging rights, fancy apron, live-edge wood cutting board and many memories of this fun day for a long time, I’m certain.
I’ll be visiting several more farms this week so stay tuned for more information and remember that farmers feed cities (it’s one of my favourite hashtags). Click here for a link to one of my very favourite ways to serve eggs – in crispy sweet potato nests!