Once upon a time, I enjoyed Easter, relished spending the long weekend stuffing as many hot cross buns into my face as possible, making a pig of myself with roast lamb and new potatoes before smashing a few chocolate eggs for afters. All that changed last year when I was left alone in the conference room of a national newspaper save for 88 chocolate eggs and a looming deadline to review them all. Bleak doesn’t begin to describe the experience. By the time I’d torn into the last one, I was more jaded than Gwyneth Paltrow’s $66 egg of choice.
Looking at 2018’s selection, I feel relief that I don’t have to try a Marmite-flavoured egg, or indeed one moulded from blue cheese and filled with mini oatcakes and onion chutney, or any of the “naughty” adults-only versions, adulterated with gin or Prosecco. Looking at the various press releases almost makes me feel nostalgic for the days when everyone got an identical foil-wrapped cheap chocolate egg and a Kit Kat mug and was grateful for it.
Though chocolate rabbits, hens and even avocados (thanks Waitrose) seem to be making inroads into the British Easter market, we’re still largely a nation of egg fanciers, while across the Channel they prefer their festive chocolate bell-shaped – supposedly dropped by local church bells as they fly back from Rome after their Easter blessing. The Italians eat eggs, but not as we know them: each contains a surprise gift, which, according to budget, might be anything from a doll to a diamond necklace. The country also holds the record for the world’s largest chocolate egg, produced in Cortenuova in 2011, weighing 7,200kg, with a 19.6m circumference.
In Mexico cascarones, hollowed-out egg shells filled with confetti, are more common than the chocolate kind, while across the border they prefer to paint real eggs (a task facilitated by the fact that American eggshells are white rather than brown) and race them on the White House lawn. Kinder Eggs may be an illegal choking hazard there – a modified version was launched on the US market last year, no doubt to the relief of the US Customs Agency, who confiscated 60,000 smuggled eggs in 2011 – but our own Creme Eggs are fairly popular, manufactured under licence by Hershey’s (there’s an import ban on the Cadbury variety).
Not that we invented chocolate eggs – the Germans, who also created the Easter bunny, are thought to be responsible for that stroke of genius too. But a British firm, JS Fry & Sons, made the first mass-produced version in 1873, following the development of a process to separate cocoa butter and bean that allowed manufacturers to create a chocolate paste that could be moulded into solid shapes.
Cadbury’s wasn’t slow to cotton on to the marketing potential, producing its first Easter egg two years later. The 19th-century Easter egg would have been made from plain chocolate, often filled with sugary confectionery, and decorated with icing or marzipan. Milk chocolate, pioneered in Switzerland in 1875, came to the UK at the beginning of the last century, and still dominates the child-driven egg market today: the crocodile-like finish on many examples is an old trick to disguise any imperfections.
Writing this piece has functioned as therapy of sorts, but whether I’ll be able to muster the strength to crack into a single egg after last year’s extravaganza remains to be seen. Chocolate bunnies, however, should be just fine.
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special