Life & Culture

Giles Coren's chicken soup adventure

Our intrepid columnist's quest for a chicken with unlaid eggs to make the perfect broth


Columnist Giles Coren at his home in north London. Byline John Nguyen/JNVisuals 17/05/2023

The first place I tried was Menachem’s on Golders Green Road, just because I’d heard of it. But they said no, sorry, no chance.

The unlaid eggs only come in every two or three weeks, and they weren’t expecting any for a while.

On the plus side, they could give me three chicken carcasses for the price of two, which is a great deal, no question. But I didn’t need three carcasses, thanks. Just one. And those eggs.

Then I tried Silvermans in Temple Fortune, because it’s up by my parents-in-law and I could drop in on them on the way.

But they said, no, sorry, they had nothing in. Perhaps later in the week.

Then I called Basar in Hendon (by now I was googling kosher butchers), which had exactly the same recorded message, music and options as Silvermans (“dial one for opening times, two to place an order, three to speak to a member of staff …”), and I wondered, as I held the line, if it was maybe the same shop with a different listing, or perhaps I had accidentally redialled the previous place, and this time they would shout: “NO! WE DO NOT HAVE ANY UNLAID CHICKEN EGGS STILL ATTACHED TO THE INSIDE OF THE CARCASS, YOU COMPLETE MENTALIST! IS THIS SOME SORT OF PRANK? NOBODY HAS ASKED ME THAT IN 30 YEARS OF RUNNING A KOSHER BUTCHER! NOW GO AWAY BEFORE WE CALL THE ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE!”

But when a staff member finally came on the line, he didn’t shout at all. He said, “eggs? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask.”

And I heard him say something to a more senior butcher in the background (I imagined a burly shochet chopping the heads off chickens under the gimlet gaze of a bearded, broad-hatted mashgiach) and I heard that second butcher reply tetchily, “eggs? No. We don’t sell eggs.”

Oh, but the guy hasn’t understood. He thought I just wanted eggs. Who would call a butcher for eggs?

“It’s not plain old eggs, I’m after,” I said. “It is a proper ex-boiler with all its unlaid young lined up on the inside of the carcass that I need, starting with the smallest ones up by the neck and getting bigger and bigger as they proceed towards the, er, well, vagina, where they were about to develop a shell before being squeezed out into the world to become a chicken — or a boiled egg — when the axe fell and that was that.

“I need them because I am a deracinated Jewish restaurant critic of pure Orthodox stock, but horribly lapsed, who has just agreed, after a couple of beers in the sunshine with the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, to write a regular column about trying to reclaim my Jewishness through cooking, and the place I have to start — simply have to start — is with a proper chicken soup with matzah balls and unlaid eggs because…”

Click, brrrrr…

Meh, you can’t blame him. He’s a butcher. He has chickens to sell. He doesn’t want to know my life story.

He hasn’t got time to stand there among the giblets hearing about my maternal grandma Isabel, a wartime refugee from Bratislava who fled the Nazis in 1939 along with my grampa Michael, first for Derby (whoops), then for Stanmore (which was at least on the Metropolitan line) and by the time I showed up for Seder night (or any other night) in the mid-1970s, expecting chicken soup, kneidlach and, above all, unlaid eggs ranging from pea-sized to ping pong ball, bobbing in the bowl, had every kosher butcher in north London on, well, not speed dial in 1978, but there was… an understanding.

“One chicken doesn’t have enough eggs for my darling grandson!” she would tell me, squeezing my fat cheeks as if sizing me up for the pot myself. “I tell him to put aside for me the eggs from ten chickens!”

And there they would be on the kitchen table of her Modernist 1930s house on Aylmer Drive (where in the late 1940s the local vicar would not let my mother play with his daughter, on account of her complicity in the killing of Christ), filled with the sort of mid-century furniture, even in the kitchen, that wealthy homemaking millennials would kill for today.

Although what they’d make of the huge old chicken, split open there, I do not know, with her eggs lined up inside like parachutists at the plane door, waiting for their never-to-come-now moment of birth.

Grandma Isabel served her gentle, lambent soup, shiny with globules of schmalz, in flattish dishes, so that the big, fluffy matzah balls sat on the bottom and nosed just above the surface of the broth, like icebergs.

There were probably shards of carrot as well, although we have never been a vegetable family (my mother will not touch a carrot, so it’s possible there were none) and then three or four of the eggs. Although for me, seven or eight, with more promised in the kitchen if I finished.

I remember the smallest ones as the most treasured, the ones I could pop whole with a squeeze of my tiny molars.

They were smooth, sweetish and textureless. Gel-like if added very late to the soup. The bigger they got, the more they looked and tasted like plain old egg yolks. Even my grandfather, stern and bushy-eyebrowed at the head of the table, seemed to enjoy them. And he did not enjoy much.

But then, the 1930s and 40s had not given him much to enjoy. From a big family in Czechoslovakia — gone forever — there was now only this starting again, with us, in Stanmore.

The most recent addition to which new family was me, giggling away at the other end of the table in my gluttonous lust for the unlaid eggs, the weight of whose metaphor, at a post-Shoah Seder in heathen England, was unclear to me then.

Chicken run
“Yes, sure, we have eggs,” said big, cheery Peter from Greenspans on Falloden Way, the fourth place I tried. “But I can only let you have one bag.”

“How many in a bag?” “Two or three. Depends. We used to take them all out by hand years ago. Now they get sucked out by a vacuum. Shhhlurp! We give a bag with each carcass but can’t give more. It wouldn’t be fair.”

Clearly, I don’t have my grandmother’s charm. Although, in truth, nobody has my grandmother’s charm. She twinkled like a little sequinned Mama Bear, my grandma. Which cannot always have been easy, in the circumstances.

So I drove up there on the A1, and when I saw Greenspans on the opposite carriageway (if I’d carried on, I’d have got to actual Stanmore), swung a U-turn at the lights and parked up on the hot roadside.

Peter gave me my eggs, frozen in a little blue bag, and another one when I bought a second carcass (what a great shop it is — so many men working, such activity, so much meat). Six quid the lot. And when I got home, I saw there were two carcasses in each package, so I had four. Plenty of soup.

Now, I have no idea how my grandma made it. Personally, I make soup from a roast (unkosher, young) chicken carcass with the giblets, a load of onions and carrots and a glass of Madeira, and it comes up dark brown, rich and delicious. But it doesn’t remind me of my grandma. So I turned to Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food for help. (Claudia, whom I’ve met a couple of times, is not unlike my Grandma in her twinkliness, though without the Ashkenazi heft — Isabel would have taken Claudia down, no question.)

Claudia says to just lob the carcasses in a pot, raw, cover with water, bring to a boil, remove scum (and there IS a scum — yeuch! — and I do skim it off) and then add carrots and celery and parsley and leeks and a turnip.

But I have no leek or turnip so I chuck in two dried-out bunches of spring onions instead, which always come with the Ocado order because my goyische wife thinks she might chop them over a Chinese stir-fry or something, but never does.

It also says to add salt and white pepper, but I have not seen a container of white pepper since 1981 so I go black and reckon the unsightly specks will come out in the straining later.

While that’s simmering (2½ hours Claudia says), I set about making my kneidlach. Again, I don’t know how Isabel did it, but hers came out big and round and fluffy, like little pandas. Nor do I know how my other grandma, Martha, my father’s mother, made them. But hers came out small and bouncy like rubber bullets. She was not much of a cook, by all accounts.

After a lightning raid on Waitrose Holloway Road for matzah meal (medium), where my wife, who knows a thing or two despite her goyischkeit, said I would find some when I’d failed in Kentish Town, I separated two eggs, whisked the whites stiff, beat the yolks lightly and folded them into the matzah meal, covered and chilled for half an hour.

Then, I rolled the mixture into 2cm balls, which looked a bit small — much more like Martha’s than Isabel’s — but which I assumed would fluff up with cooking. Next, as directed by Claudia, I simmered the balls for 20 minutes in boiling water, rather than in the soup, because apparently they can soak up almost all of it and leave you with nothing for supper.

With my children, ten-year-old Sam (named after my father’s father, Martha’s husband) and 12-year-old Kitty, seated ready at the kitchen table along with my wife (not Jewish, like I said, but called Esther and raised in Golders Green), I prepared to serve up, and thus begin the Coren family’s gustatory journey back to Jewishness.

I opened the two bags of eggs, which to my delight held six or seven each, not two, and dropped them in the roiling soup.

“Yuk!” said Sam. “I’m not eating those.”

I then removed some of the kneidlach with a slotted spoon and transferred them to the soup. “They look rather small,” said Esther. And they did. Smaller, if anything, than when I’d put them in.

Cooking seemed, rather than fluffing them up, to have shrunk and hardened them to the condition of gobstoppers. Very yellow gobstoppers, as it happens, thanks to the orange yolks of my Burford Browns from Ocado.

Attempting to cut into a kneidl, to see what had gone on, I succeeded only in pinging it across the kitchen, where it was chased down by a cat, bitten, rejected, and spat into the litter tray. “Perhaps a bit longer in the pot?” said Esther.

So I gave them 20 more minutes, after which they had indeed swollen and softened somewhat, so that it was now possible to bite through the first 5mm of the dumpling before hitting stone.

I reckoned another half hour and they’d be perfect. But I only just about had my family’s attention at this stage, and Esther’s finger was hovering grimly over the Five Guys icon on her Deliveroo app.

So I served them up a bowl of soup each, containing three, impenetrable, Martha-style matzah balls and four unlaid eggs of varying sizes, now themselves cooked through to marble-like indestructibility, and handed them round.

There was silence as they inspected their bowls.

“Wait!” I shouted, and leapt up to get the finely chopped parsley I had prepared earlier, which I scattered across their bowls, and parts of the table, like a farmer sowing seed.

“Oh, yeah,” said Kitty. “That looks MUCH better.”

“My grampa used to say a prayer before eating this sort of thing,” I said. “But all I can remember is ‘Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu’.”

“Does it mean, Please God don’t make me eat this crap?” said Sam.

“Sam!” said Esther. And then she drank some of the soup and said, “It’s delicious soup, though”.

And it was, in a pale, gentle, rather humble way. Not as multifaceted as a roast chicken broth, but the more I ate, the more I thought, “yes, this is how it was in Stanmore in 1978”.

Meanwhile, the kids chased the cannonball kneidlach round the table with their spoons, unable to get a purchase, and occasionally picked up an egg with their fingers and said, “so you’re saying this was cut out of the hen’s body before it could be laid?” and placed it respectfully back in the soup, like a burial at sea.

And sometime after that the doorbell rang, and the guy handed over some cheeseburgers in a big brown paper bag.

But they will be sorry. In the weeks to come, they will look back on the night of the matzah balls as a time of happiness and bounty. Because next time, I’m doing cholent.

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