Dan Smith has raised Khaki Campbell ducks for years at East Moosefart Farm (yes, that’s the real name), but didn’t start selling their eggs at the North Berwick Farmers’ Market until about four years ago.

“At the beginning there were not many customers,” Smith said. “They were viewed with suspicion. ‘Duck egg? Eww.’ I might as well have been trying to sell them an ostrich egg.”

People who had already tried duck eggs overseas became his regular customers. Eventually, more adventurous eaters took a chance on them and started coming back for more. Smith isn’t getting rich. At $5 a dozen, what he makes at the farmers’ market pays for the birds’ food, and not much else. But now he’s thinking of expanding his flock “because there certainly is a market out there, and it’s a growing market.”

Most duck egg producers in Maine seem to be like Smith – smaller operations that sell their eggs at local markets, and to health food stores and restaurants. While the idea of using the occasional duck egg may be somewhat ho-hum in fine restaurants, the general public appears to be catching on that they are a creamier, more nutritious and delicious alternative to chicken eggs.

“Some people are so funny about it – ‘eww, I don’t want to try it’ – so we sell them a half dozen,” said Jackie Wilson of Common Wealth Farm in Unity, whose 140 free-range layers provide eggs for Duckfat in Portland, as well as farmers markets in Bangor and Camden, the Belfast Co-op, and Maine Street Meats and the Salt Water Farm Cafe in Rockport. “They’ll commit to a half dozen, but they won’t commit to a dozen.”

But Wilson has seen her sales swell over the past three years, and this year they are poised to take off. Last year, her records show, she sold 800 dozen duck eggs. This year she is already up to 600 dozen, and it isn’t even summer yet. “What we’re seeing in the markets, especially, is people saying I’m never going back. I’m never going back to chicken eggs,” Wilson said. “I was really astounded, but it seems it just spreads from person to person.”

Alison Leary, owner of Al’s Quackery in Arundel, started out selling duck eggs and now focuses primarily on breeding. But when she first started selling eggs a few years ago, “it seemed like I couldn’t even give them away. And then all of a sudden people started buying them and now you see ads on Craig’s List and stuff. Everybody’s looking for duck eggs.”

Asian markets, of course, always stock duck eggs, but at least one expert thinks the ethnic market is not the segment of the market that’s growing. John Metzer of Metzer Farms in Gonzales, Calif. – the largest hatchery in the country that sells ducks for egg production – says sales of his best layers for “eating eggs” have been going up 10 to 15 percent a year.

“We have two breeds that are really bred for egg production, and we’re sold out of those for probably six weeks or so,” Metzer said. “So there’s more demand for egg-laying ducks than we can fill at this point, at least those two strains. And we expanded our numbers from last year, so we’re going to have to expand again.”

Why all the love for duck eggs? There are lots of reasons. Some people who are allergic to chicken eggs have learned that they can tolerate duck eggs. And the trendy Paleo diet apparently recommends them.

“I can tell you this past year, when people got very interested in Paleo diets, we could not keep duck eggs in stock,” says Elizabeth Davis of Rose’s Duck Eggs in Harpswell, who sells to Bow Street Market in Freeport and Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick.

Mostly it seems to reflect an increased interest in nutrition and taste.

“I tell people that it’s like the difference between black-and-white TV and color TV,” Davis said. “It’s just like the egg experience in color. It’s tastier, it’s richer, it’s more intense.”

Duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs, so they have more vitamin B in the yolks and more protein in the whites.

“From a foodie perspective, they’re definitely richer, a little bit more decadent,” said Sonia Acevedo, who raises ducks at Hide and Go Peep Farm in Pittsfield and has given up eating chicken eggs altogether. “The yolks are bigger. They’re higher in protein and higher in omega 3’s. There are more calories, but also more nutrients. The yolks are really rich and kind of velvety, so they stand up a lot higher than the chicken yolks.”

Acevedo prefers them poached, but she also uses duck eggs in foods such as Hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise, where she knows the yolks will really shine.

Duck eggs are versatile. They can be fried, poached or scrambled like chicken eggs, and they are good in custards and quiches. Bakers know that they make baked goods rise higher and have better texture. “For those people on a gluten-free diet, gluten is a sort of a natural binder holding things together,” Metzer said. “If you’re doing some baking with no gluten, things sort of fall apart, and apparently duck eggs are better as a binder than chicken eggs.”

Local chefs are doing some creative things with duck eggs. Go into any better restaurant in Portland, and you’re likely to find a dish that incorporates them in some way.

Pete Sueltenfuss, executive chef at Grace Restaurant in Portland, occasionally adds a duck egg to the top of a pizza. But he also makes pasta with them and cooks them sous vide to use as a puree to finish dishes. “We’ve cured them on salt and then you can kind of grate it over a dish,” he said, “and that just adds a different texture and depth of flavor.”

Sueltenfuss has also smoked duck egg yolks in a backyard smoker, with the eggs over a bowl of ice so they don’t cook but just pick up some smoky flavor.

“Then we’ll either use that to season things or finish a vinaigrette with it, or it will go into a dough,” he said.

The chefs at Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland have been using a lot of duck eggs recently, according to chef/co-owner Mike Wiley. They get them from a farm in the Bowdoinham area. “They just behave a little bit differently than hen eggs,” he said. “I’m a total sucker for yolks of all stripes, and for whatever reason the proteins coagulate more consistently at a certain temperature with the duck eggs, and they just look a lot nicer. They’re a little bit bigger, and they seem to taste richer.”

At Eventide, the chefs have been using duck eggs to make tamago, a steamed Japanese omelet. The eggs are blended with mirin, sake and some soy sauce then steamed until they become a custardy egg cake that’s a little bit sweet and a little bit savory.

At Hugo’s the tamago is diced very finely, the same size as a pickled celery root. “It all gets bound with a maitake emulsion,” Wiley said, “so it’s basically like an egg salad with little nori-dusted potato chips to go on top of it.”

And then, of course, there’s Duckfat, the Portland restaurant that almost has to serve duck eggs in one form or another to live up to its name. When they’re available, duck eggs top the restaurant’s excellent version of poutine. There has also been a soft-boiled duck egg salad panini on the menu, an item owner Rob Evans hopes to bring back at some point.

“We would bake (the eggs) in the oven in a large shallow pan, until the whites set and the yolks were medium – so runny, but still slightly stiff,” Evans said. “And then we would chop that up, and at that point the yolks had this creaminess to them so it didn’t need mayonnaise or a dressing. It was simply lemon juice, herbs and salt and pepper, and it made this beautiful creamy egg salad.”

But serving the sandwiches required a batch of 60 eggs for just one lunch service, and it can be hard to get a steady supply in winter.

“Our experience with duck eggs is they’re very popular, when we can get our needs met,” Evans said. “It’s just that, for such a busy place, we go through them really quick.”

There may soon be more duck eggs available, as small farms start expanding their flocks. The producers aren’t all, however, motivated by the lure of increased egg sales.

“Ducks are better than Prozac,” Davis said. “They just make you laugh every day. There’s almost nothing that a duck does that isn’t funny.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad