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Object lesson No 96

Philosophers can argue all day about chickens and eggs and which came first, but the Romans were right when they said omne vivum ex ovo - all life comes from an egg. It took until the 1820s - when a microscope finally showed the fertilisation of a human egg - to show the truth of this proverb, but for centuries people revered the egg as a symbol of new life, and as something good to eat.

Today's Easter eggs - wrapped up, sweetened up and all too soon eaten up - are a chocolatey version of a springtime custom celebrating new life that dates back to the hard-boiled and hand-painted eggs that first appeared around the 13th century. The rearing of fowl for their egg production began 3,000 years earlier in the jungles of India.

Given the choice, hens still prefer the outdoor life of their Indian ancestors, roosting on low branches in the evening and keeping out of the midday sun. But it's a lucky hen that gets the chance. Only about 10 per cent of them are free range in this country, with the rest kept cooped up in cages, even if the eggs are described as farm fresh.

In the wild, the distinctive ovoid outline is nature's way of preserving this perfectly self-contained life support system. Its round but slightly tapered shape lets it sit snugly with other eggs in the nest, keeping it warm enough to hatch, and its low centre of gravity means it won't roll away if it's knocked out.

A hen's egg is a fantastically versatile foodstuff - the pleats on a chef's hat originally symbolised the hundred ways in which it could be prepared. Packed with protein, essential amino acids and vitamins A, B, D and E, eggs have unique physical properties that make them adaptable to all sorts of preparations. They coagulate, binding custards and cakes, aerate to make meringues and souffles, and emulsify, most famously in mayonnaise. We consume about 170 eggs each every year - on their own and in other foods - and our favourite ways to eat them are boiled, followed by scrambled and fried. So, whether you are a bad egg, a good egg or an egghead, next time you tuck into one, just remember, we all owe our life to an egg. As sure as eggs is eggs.

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