When I was a kid, my mum used to make us ‘poached eggs’ using a frying pan-like saucepan with little shallow cups simmering over water. She’d put a dab of butter in each cup, break an egg into each then let them boil to a soft set. I grew up sincerely believing that that was what poached eggs were and was rather shocked when I was first served the ‘real thing’ – a quivering, vinegar-tanged, swirled-in-the-water job in a hotel.
Eyeing some charming little 1950s-style vessels at a boot fair I was puzzled. Porcelain, sporting screw-on chrome lids with outsize rings on top; decorated with fabulous vintage views of British birds. They looked like egg cups and some were the right size but I wouldn’t have wanted to be the chicken that lay eggs fitting the large one. What on earth…? Sweetie jars? Spice containers? Pill-boxes?
The stallholder told me they were old-fashioned egg coddlers and everything fell into place. Of course – they were just china versions of my mum’s old 1970s pan, designed to boil eggs, in water but outside their shells. The larger ones would take two eggs and any additions the breakfast chef dreamed up.
Egg Coddlers have been around for since at least the 19th Century and were originally called pipkins. The Victorians created giant silver versions that sat grandly in the middle of the country house side board but the dish enjoyed its heyday in the heady days before World War I.
Most 20th Century individual coddlers are porcelain, with chrome lids. There’s a collecting-scene – in America there’s a website devoted to the serial numbers of various known makes – but you’ll generally only see a few basic designs over here. Britain’s best-known brand was Royal Worcester and it comes in a variety of patterns from willow tree, through 1960s/70s flower-power to 1980s-style fruits and berries. There’s also, somewhat randomly, a non-Disney Peter Pan series, perhaps a nod to Edwardian nursery suppers. The 50s-style birds (finches and wrens) are very common, but all make a lovely addition to a vintage breakfast table.
Royal Worcester don’t make egg coddlers any more but you can pick up the more popular designs very cheaply on ebay or car boot sales – I paid a tenner for my four – one large, three small. They often pitch up in charity shops where people have no idea what they are and they’re priced accordingly – I saw a boxed pair (with the bird design) yesterday for £3.50.
Half the fun of coddling is in the sheer ritual of using dinky little pots with their chrome lids and rings (for removing them from the water – I use the wrong end of a wooden spoon). They’re perfect for making a bit more of breakfast than a slice of toast and a mug of PG before dashing out of the door. You need time; washing up is a mare if you don’t butter them well enough and frankly you’d be better off boiling if you just want plain eggs – but where’s the fun in that? Coddling isn’t something you do for convenience; it doesn’t need to be practical. Like the Japanese tea ceremony in egg form, one coddles for the joy of creating something preposterous in its very fussiness, absurd in its precision, yet somehow deeply satisfying in its execution. Gingham tablecloths, toast racks and pretty china are, of course, obligatory…
How to Coddle an Egg:
Butter your coddler(s) thoroughly. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, so the water is roughly two-thirds up the side of the coddlers. Break one egg into a single coddler; two into the larger version. Screw on the caps and simmer for around seven minutes. You may need to remove the lid a couple of times (use the wrong end of a wooden spoon to lift it out of the water) and have a quick poke with a knife to ensure the consistency you like. To serve, either carefully remove the egg or present the whole coddler on a plate, with toast and seasonings to taste.
Try adding smoked haddock, salmon and dill, cheeses of various stripes or tomato and chilli in a sort of Victorian-gent-meets-Tex-Mex mashup. Anything goes – if you would consider eating it with an egg, you can probably put it in a coddler. Fried mushrooms? Absolutely. Crispy bacon? Sure. Curry? Why not. Last night’s left-over buttered spinach? How very Fiorentino…
If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…