Well, I for one am feeling quite proud of myself – there’s a whole stash of Easter eggs hidden at the bottom of the wardrobe, ready for this coming weekend – and they’ve been there for a whole week! Temptation has been resisted….
Come on, be honest….who’s already dipped in – safe in the knowledge they can easily be replaced next time a visit to the supermarket is required? Let’s face it, Easter eggs are so readily available and affordable these days, (many supermarkets regard them as lost leaders)….but this wasn’t always the case….
Early chocolate Easter eggs were an extravagant gift given by wealthier members of Victorian society – the mass commercialised eggs we know now didn’t appear until the 1950s….
To understand our love affair with chocolate we perhaps need to go back to its origins….it was certainly in a very different format to what we are familiar with today….
It was some 3,000 years ago, when Aztecs living in what is now present day Mexico, started to cultivate cacao plants, found growing in the tropical rainforests of Central America. The Aztecs were actually attempting to produce a form of beer; the cacao beans were fermented, roasted and ground – they were then mixed with water, honey, vanilla, chilli and other spices to make a hot, frothy, alcoholic chocolate drink – which was believed to have spiritual powers….
As the Aztecs began to dominate Mesoamerica in the 14th Century, they took their craving for cacao with them. So precious became the beans that they actually formed a currency; in the 1500s a hen could be purchased for 100 beans….
It was during the 1500s that the Spaniards set off to the Americas for the purpose of trading with the Aztecs for their silver and gold – but on returning home to Spain, they also carried with them the sacred chocolate drink. Cacao became a rare and precious commodity, a symbol of wealth and power, enjoyed mainly in the Spanish Royal Courts. The Spaniards sweetened the beverage with sugar and added cinnamon for flavour to suit their own palates; they managed to keep their chocolatey indulgence a secret for nearly a century. It was when the daughter of Spanish King Phillip III married French King Louis XIII, taking her love of chocolate with her, that France became privy to the secret – but soon it spread to other European Royal households too….
Such was the demand, that plantations were established in the equatorial regions to grow cacao and sugar. Disastrously, native Aztec workers were wiped out by diseases brought over by the Europeans; it was then African slaves were imported to work the plantations….
Chocolate remained a luxury only to be enjoyed by the aristocracy until 1828; which is when a Dutch chemist, by the name of Coenraad Johannes van Houten, invented the cocoa press. The press enabled the fatty cocoa butter to be squeezed from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind dry ‘cakes’ which could then be ground – to give cocoa powder. This powder could then be mixed with liquids and other ingredients to make an edible chocolate….
It was J S Fry of Bristol that made the UK’s first chocolate bar in 1847. Early chocolate contained 50% fat, making it hard to digest. Starch and other ingredients were added to make it taste better but it was still bitter and had a gritty consistency….
It is probably the French and Germans who can be attributed for producing the very first chocolate Easter eggs, in the early 1800s. They would have been solid, as this first chocolate would have been too difficult to mould….
Eggs have always been associated with Easter, being symbolic with fertility, rebirth and the beginning; the Church adopted the egg to represent the Resurrection. With the rise of Christianity, many existing Pagan customs were adopted; eggs had long been used in Spring celebrations, with their connection to new life….
The ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians and Egyptians all dyed eggs as part of their festivities, a tradition that was set to continue, right up until today. In the Middle Ages chicken, duck and goose eggs were all dyed and painted; the Victorians had cardboard eggs that were sometimes covered with satin and decorated, whilst Carl Fabergé made the famous jewelled creations for the Russian Tsar and Tsarina….
The Easter bunny was also popularised in the 19th Century, once again probably stemming from Pagan origins; Eostre, the goddess of fertility, was often depicted as a bunny. Children were (and many still are) led to believe that the Easter bunny decorated the eggs and hid them for the traditional Easter egg hunt. Some countries have their own variations of the ‘bunny’ – in Switzerland it is a cuckoo and in parts of Germany a fox, that has responsibility for Easter egg duties….
Early Easter eggs would have been highly decorated to suit Victorian tastes; adorned with large marzipan flowers and elaborate piped icing techniques, these frivolous gifts were just for the rich….
In 1866, the Birmingham chocolate makers Cadbury, imported a brand new type of cocoa press, enabling a method of halving the fat content of the chocolate; making it better tasting and smoother – so it could be more easily moulded. In 1873, Frys produced the first moulded chocolate eggs at their Union Street factory in Bristol. Cadbury followed two years later and soon others copied. Business began to boom and the custom spread to the USA. It was in 1879 that Rodolphe Lindt invented a conching machine that enabled a chocolate with a luxurious, velvety texture to be made. By 1893 Cadbury had nineteen different patents (a lot for those days) – their first eggs were filled with sugared almonds; the chocolate confectionery business was coming on in leaps and bounds. Further advancements in techniques heralded the introduction of milk chocolate; 1905 saw the arrival of Cadbury’s Diary Milk chocolate bar and with it the first milk chocolate eggs…. Frys and Cadburys merged in 1919….
Rationing of chocolate during World War 2 meant it was the 1950s before Cadbury introduced eggs aimed at children. At this point in time chocolate eggs were still an expensive luxury and a child would have been lucky to receive one. Since then the market has exploded, now most kids can expect to receive several eggs….
I must admit, I have always been partial to a Cadbury’s Creme egg….but did you know it was launched in 1963 as Fry’s Creme egg? Clever chap, that Mr Fry….I wonder what he would have thought of the chocolate market today…? Worldwide, we spend over £60 billion annually on the sweet confectionery….
Happy Easter and I do hope the Easter bunny hops down your way….