It’s got to be freshest egg I’ve ever eaten.
I am standing with Anita and Fergus d’Arcy in the hut that houses their flock of quails when I notice the small brown eggs trickling down into the mesh grate.
“Do you want to try one?” says Fergus, grabbing a few.
Three minutes later, I’m back inside the d’Arcys’ farmhouse kitchen popping a just poached quail egg into my mouth. There’s no worry about food miles up here on a beautiful hillside overlooking Ludlow.
I am at Haytons Bent, which is one of those “blink and you’ve missed it” rural settlements in which small, dedicated food producers seem to thrive. From the terrace outside their kitchen, Anita and Fergus look out to the right towards The Wrekin, to the left are the Brecon Beacons and straight ahead lies the Long Mynd. They apologise that it is a little misty today, but everything looks perfect to me.
And it is egg perfection that the couple, who married two years ago, are aiming for. Anita, a former hairdresser, and Fergus, a self-employed carpenter, spotted a gap in the market for quail eggs. The vast majority of the tiny birds’ eggs are imported from France but Anita’s mother, Margaret, used to keep a few quail along with chickens and Anita wondered if there might be a commercial potential.
Her eldest daughter, Rhian, was working at a local hotel and mentioned her mother’s quail eggs. The chef said he was interested in trying them and starting putting in orders. The business, Haytons Bent Quails, grew from there and the business now supplies other local restaurants and sells at food fairs. “No one else was doing quail eggs. We just saw a gap in the market,” says Anita.
The challenge now is keeping up with demand. Their stock of 300 birds has fallen to 150 because the popularity of the eggs is outstripping the incubation and growth period needed for new layers.
Fergus says: “They chicks come out like little bumblebees. They are really tiny. It is two months before they start laying.”
“It’s more like three,” says Anita. “You just sit there waiting for them to lay.”
The birds are Japanese quail and the eggs are collected twice a day. An average bird might lay six eggs per week so the margins aren’t big, especially as the couple set about establishing their internet presence and mail order deliveries.
Wildlife has a way of getting in the way of the best laid plans. The breeding programme is currently on hold because a nesting swallow swooped into the mating shed and is sitting on her own eggs. “We don’t want to disturb her,” says Fergus, showing me the new arrival, perched over a door frame.
One way of adding value has been to pickle the eggs and the results are terrific. I try a special variety of smoked eggs in white port and other varieties include pickling in an onion and garlic mix, beetroot and peppercorns.
“We have started experimenting with chillies but we have not had too much time because we are so busy,” says Fergus. Quail Scotch eggs have also been a success.
It’s been a case of learning on the job. It took a long time to get the right feed combination for the small birds after consulting an animal feed supplement specialist. There is no use of chemicals and the feed features natural calcium supplements like oyster shells.
Fergus says: “Quail need a lot more protein than chickens. Chickens usually run on 12 per cent protein in feed and you are looking at 27 per cent for quail. It’s because a higher proportion of the quail egg is yolk.”
The couple have no plans to breed quail for meat. Having had them as pets as a child, it’s a little too much for Anita. “We’re too soft,” she says.