Old Woman Frying Eggs: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), 1618, oil on canvas, 101 x 120 cm (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)
Eggs were widely eaten. Doctors repeated the old precepts of the Salerno School -- let them be eaten fresh and not overcooked: Si sumas ovum, molle sit atque novum. And there were numerous recipes for keeping eggs fresh. Their market price is a valuable indicator: eggs were a cheap commodity, and their price accurately followed the fluctuations of the economic situation. A statistician can reconstruct the movement of the cost of living in the sixteenth century from a few eggs sold in Florence. Their price alone is a valid measure of the standard of living or the value of money in any given town in any given country. At one time in seventeenth-century Egypt, 'one had the choice of thirty eggs, two pigeons or one fowl for a sou'; on the road from Magenta to Brusa (1694) 'provisions are not dear: seven eggs can be bought for one para (one sou), a fowl for ten, a good winter melon for two, and as much bread as you can eat in a day for the same price'. In February 1697 the same traveller, this time near Acapulco in New Spain, noted 'The innkeeper made me pay a price of eight (thirty-two sous) for a fowl, and eggs were one sou each.' Eggs were an everyday food for Europeans. Montaigne's surprise in the German inns was therefore understandable: they never served eggs there, he wrote, 'except hard-boiled cut into quarters in salads'. Montesquieu, leaving Naples and returning to Rome (1729), was astonished 'that in this ancient Latium the traveller finds neither a chicken nor a young pigeon, nor often an egg'.
But in Europe these were exceptions and not the rule that applied to the vegetarian Far East, where China, Japan and India never made use of this rich and commonplace item of diet. Eggs were very rare there and formed no part of ordinary people's fare. The famous Chinese ducks' eggs, preserved in pickling brine for thirty days, were a delicacy of the rich.
Fernand Braudel: from The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible (Les Structures du quotidien: le possible et l'impossible), 1979, Volume 1 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th century (Civilisation materielle économie et capitalisme); translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, 1982
Breakfast: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), c. 1618. oil on canvas, 109 x 102 cm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)
Peasants at the Table (El Almuerzo): Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), c. 1620. oil on canvas, 96 x 112 cm (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)
Kitchen Scene with the Supper in Emmaus: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), c. 1618. oil on canvas, 55 x 118 cm (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)