David Gravelin has more work than he can do in a day, but right now, he's picking up straggling hens by the wing and pitching them over a low fence. He does this multiple times a week, and the "ladies" get the hint, flappingly landing unharmed and relatively unruffled on the other side. They're back to pecking for grubs again in a matter of seconds.
This is part of the work of pasture-raised chicken farming; four times a week the hens have to move to a new plot of land on Gravelin's 17.5-acre Wishbone Heritage Farms in Ridgeville outside Summerville ... or North Charleston ... or Moncks Corner, but anyway a long way from New York City, where Gravelin last lived.
"I never had an animal, not even a dog, the whole time I lived in New York," says Gravelin between the chickens clucking, ducks quacking, hogs rooting, and the farm dog Lila enthusiastically galloping through the mud in the background, it's a wonder I can hear him.
Gravelin spent more than a decade in the financial industry in the Big Apple, and there he began to realize he would never get the security he wanted. He would never have enough. So he decided to search for a new reality. Now this wasn't a measured, small step where he moved to Connecticut and planted a veggie garden, but a "travel and think and sleep on couches and volunteer" kick-in-the-soul-searching. And one day he volunteered at a friend's farm just outside of Memphis, Tenn.
"I had only worked three days, and I knew this was what I wanted. I wanted to farm," he says. "It was an extension of my passion for food, getting to the source, and being able to make food with what I've grown."
He started searching for a farm in the Charleston area — he'd visited Charleston a few times and had liked it — and somehow his personal "Wizard of Oz tornado," as he puts it, landed him in a field in Ridgeville.
"In the framework of starting a farm, eggs are one of the fastest ways to start," he explains, so he began with a few Hyline Brown hens. Today he has 300.
Later he added ducks, and geese, and eventually quail, and then 50-plus Tamworth hogs, rabbits, sweet potatoes, and a big stand of basil and vegetables.
But the eggs: chicken, duck, quail, and, very seasonally, goose, are still a mainstay of the farm two years later. All the animals are pasture-raised. That means there's a lot of moving and re-securing on a daily basis, of slowly pulling portable bird coops or "chicken tractors" behind a tractor, of watering, of feeding, of collecting eggs by hand, of washing and measuring and packing eggs by hand, of selling packs of eggs by hand. That's why these eggs are priced more than many chain grocery store eggs; most people don't want to know why the grocery store eggs are able to be priced so low, but let's just say it's not because they are moving hens to fresh grass on a sunny farm in Ridgeville.
So are those fancy pasture-raised chicken eggs, not to mention duck, quail, and geese eggs, worth buying? You bet, especially when you can see what you can do with them. For something simple, like an omelet, it takes two to three chicken eggs, seven to nine quail eggs, and one duck egg. The difference between a quail egg and a duck egg is "sizeable," and a chicken egg falls somewhere in between. Don't let those differences throw you off — go with it, just as the following recipes suggest.
Using similar ingredients, three Charleston chefs have provided three different approaches to eggs, and all serve as main dishes. All also play up the inherent richness of the egg, as well as playing with serving sizes. Charleston Grill's Chef Michelle Weaver provides an intimate main dish for two, Warehouse's Chef Emily Hahn suggests a decadent brunch for four, and Fish's Chef Nico Romo has the main attraction for a dinner party for six covered.
Poached Duck Eggs with Pappardelle from Chef Michelle Weaver, Charleston Grill
4 oz. or ½ cup fresh Pappardelle pasta (chef recommends Rio Bertolini)
2 fresh duck eggs
2 Tbsp. butter
½ c. fresh peas, blanched
¼ lb. guanciale, diced and rendered (Chef recommends Meat House)
½ c. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ c. pasta water
Salt and pepper
Cook pasta according to package directions to al dente, then drain and return to pan to keep warm. Reserve ¼ cup of the pasta water. While the pasta is cooking, poach duck eggs. In a medium sauce pot, bring 4 inches of water to gentle simmer. Slide eggs into water, one at a time, cook for approximately 3 minutes or until whites are set. Toss warm pasta with butter, peas, guanciale and pasta water. Next add parmesan, salt and pepper to taste, toss again. Divide into two bowls and top each with a poached egg.
Baked Gnocchi Carbonara from Chef Nico Romo, Fish Restaurant (6 servings)
3 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. flour
1¼ cups milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly ground nutmeg to taste
1 cup freshly grated Emmental cheese
½ cup peas, cooked (or thawed, if using frozen)
¹/³ cup roasted bacon lardon or jambon de paris, cut into small squares
2 cups store-bought gnocchi
6 whole quail eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Gradually add flour and cook to form roux, stirring constantly with wooden spoon or whisk until smooth and bubbly. Gradually add milk, continuing to stir as sauce thickens and slowly bring mixture to a boil. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste, turn the heat to very low and continue stirring for 1 minute, careful not to let the sauce stick to the bottom of the pan or begin to darken or burn. Stir in cheese, peas, bacon and gnocchi to cook 2 minutes more, until cheese has melted. Remove from the heat. Distribute into 6 small baking dishes (The chef prefers Le Creuset's petite au gratin dish). Top each with quail egg and bake for 17 minutes until egg has cooked and gnocchi is bubbly.
Farm Egg in a Hole from Warehouse's Emily Hahn
12 thin slices brioche bread
Batter for bread (recipe follows)
4 cups shredded fontina cheese
4 cups roasted chanterelle mushrooms
1 cups total guanciale
Béchamel (recipe follows)
Chiffonade of parsley and tarragon to garnish
For the Batter:
4 whole farm fresh eggs
3 additional egg yolks
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
1 bunch of fresh tarragon, leaves removed and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk all ingredients together and set aside.
For the béchamel:
¼ cup butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch Espellette pepper
In a medium sauce pan, melt butter then whisk in flour well and cook approximately five minutes. Slowly whisk in milk and bring to a boil to desired thickness then add nutmeg and pepper. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a saucepan to medium heat and melt a pat of butter to coat pan. Dip all bread in batter then remove and set aside. Layer your goodies for each sandwich in the following order: bread, guanciale, ½ cup cheese, 1/3 cup mushrooms, bread, guanciale, cheese, mushrooms, guanciale, bread. Assemble all sandwiches. Toast first side of each sandwich, then flip over and cut out a small whole in the middle of the sandwich for egg to be dropped into. A small biscuit cutter or cookie cutter works best for this. Once second side is toasted, gently move each sandwich to a baking pan, working fast. When all sandwiches are on pan, place in oven for 3 minutes or until desired doneness of egg. Remove from oven, place each on a warm plate, then top with béchamel, ¹/³ cup mushrooms, and herb chiffonade. Serve immediately.