Eggs of the Gull

They're incredible and edible, but rare.

The British larder holds a national treasure considered by some to be the equivalent of France's black truffles or Russia's caviar: the eggs of the black-headed gull. A bit smaller than hen's eggs, these are laid by the millions throughout Britain and collected from early April through mid-June. They are said to be far more savory than quail's eggs and are traditionally boiled for eight minutes, then eaten cold with a pinch of celery salt. Enthusiasts seek them out for their pure, clean, tangy flavor as well as for their bright orange yolks and translucent whites.

A century ago, when gull's eggs were everyday food in Britain, no rules governed their gathering. Typically, urchins would wade through marshes or scramble along beachfront cliffs (some seagulls nest in rather precarious locations), pocket the goods, and sell them—tuppence for a nest's worth. Environmentalists today, however, believing that the birds need protection, have imposed limits on the harvest of their eggs. Each season, for example, only 10,000 gull's eggs may be gathered from Earl Haig's estate, near Melrose in southeastern Scotland. "You could easily take twice that number without the gulls noticing," says Alex Aitken, owner of Le Poussin, a restaurant in the New Forest, about 100 miles south of London. "The important thing is to collect the eggs daily so that they don't become addled. And always leave a clutch to hatch so that the gulls will come back next year."

It's probably just as well that the gull's-egg harvest is now restricted, because the eggs have fallen out of culinary fashion—and are likely to be found today in only a few British shops and restaurants. They remain especially popular, however, among the crusty gents at exclusive London men's clubs. There, the eggs are lined up at the bar and served with cocktails. "We used to sell thousands a day," says Syd Short, who wholesales the eggs to butchers and game dealers at Smithfield, London's major meat market. "We'd get them either from kids who'd go 'nesting' on weekends or all jumbled up with lapwing's eggs and sawdust in huge crates from Denmark." Even as sales have greatly decreased, however, prices have risen, to as much as £1.50 (about $2.25) per egg.

"Once people try them," Aitken says, "they really become enthusiastic." Nevertheless, the only other country where their flavor is appreciated, according to gull's-egg exporters, is Holland. (The eggs are not available in the United States.) Aitken, who calls the eggs' flavor "incomparable", adds them to salade niçoise and serves them soft-boiled with hollandaise and marsh samphire, a kind of asparagus native to the area. "People go mad over them," he says. Not Short, who, after years in the gull's-egg business, has never actually eaten one. "I see what the gulls are picking up, what they're eating," he says, "and I just can't."