Easter eggs and the Victorians
When many of us think of Easter, chocolate eggs are, naturally, are first association – far ahead of the image of the death and resurrection of God. As a result, it’s hard to picture a time when Easter celebrations did not revolve around the giving and receiving of chocolate eggs. Mass produced chocolate, of course, has not existed for all that long, meaning Easter eggs are actually a relatively recent development. But when and where do chocolate eggs come from? What were early versions like? And can we make our own take on an early type of chocolate egg?
If chocolate eggs are a relatively recent part of Easter celebrations, eggs themselves, not to mention lambs, chicks and bunnies, have a much longer Easter history. So long in fact that they predate Easter itself. Much as Christmas is the Christian version of the sort of midwinter festival that is found in many cultures (and its decorations and food reflect what is around in that season), so is Easter part of a traditional spring festival and, as such, uses many of the same images of birth and renewal as many earlier pagan traditions.
The Easter Bunny is a good example of this. The character has no particular Christian or biblical associations, but is a part of spring/birth symbolism through the fact of rabbits and hares being abundant and fertile in spring. (Female hares are capable of something called “superfetation” where they can conceive a second litter while pregnant with the first and can, thus, give birth to multiple litters in a year). Apparently, Pliny (he of very specific dining interests with regards to a pig’s sexual organs) claimed that hares were hermaphroditic and, thus, give birth without a mate. Bizarrely, people seemed quite happy to believe this right through the Middle Ages, despite the ease of observing it was nonsense. (The level of attention that Pliny paid to a pig’s reproductive organs seems not to have been replicated in a hare). The Easter Hare (which became our Easter bunny) was a German creation, exported to Britain and America in the 1800s, much like the Christmas tree. In Sweden, however, a mistranslation of the German “Påskharen” (Easter Hare) has given them the “Påskkarlen”, or Easter Wizard, meaning Swedish children dress as witches and wizards for Easter!
Eggs have also been associated with spring festivals and related images of rebirth and rejuvenation long before they were attached to any specific religious connotations. When Christian Easter adopted the practice of giving and decorating eggs, the image of spring renewal became associated with the risen Christ and the egg became the stone rolled away from his tomb. In addition, the use of eggs at Easter corresponds with Pancake Day at the other end of Lent. With eggs being one of the banned foods during the 40 day fasting period, their use at either end of it became more special.
Traditional Easter eggs would have been painted or decorated chicken eggs given as gifts or used as Easter decorations. There is plenty of evidence that the dyeing and decorating of eggs was a popular Easter tradition during the mediaeval period. In 1307 the household accounts of King Edward I, for example, recorded: “18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household“.
Different parts of Europe have different traditions of how to decorate their eggs, the most luxurious being those made for the Russian Czar Alexander III and his family by Peter Carl Fabergé. The most expensive Fabergé egg was commissioned by Alexander’s son, Czar Nicholas II, on the eve of the First World War with the nation struggling with poverty. It cost 24,600 roubles, around £1.8 million in today’s money. No wonder they needed a revolution!
Here in the North of England, pace eggs (sometimes “paste eggs”) have been the typical variety of Easter egg for centuries. These are hard boiled eggs dyed in vegetable dyes, most commonly wrapped in onion skins to create a reddish colour and marbled pattern. They could then be used for egg rolling or jarping (essentially playing conkers with boiled eggs).
Chocolate eggs, however, did not appear until the 1800s and even then were a very rare and unaffordable luxury for most people. There is evidence from the 1820s of egg based confectionery such as “egg comfits”, the making of which is described as: “Have the two halves of an egg made in box-wood; take some gum paste, roll it out, thin, and put into the casts, make it lay close, cut off with a knife the outside edges quite smooth, let them dry…They are usually filled with imitations of all sorts of fruits–In Paris they put in a number of nick-nacks, little almanacks, smelling bottles with essences, and even things of value, for presents. Join the two halves with some of the same paste, moistend with a little water and gum arabic“. In many ways these anticipate and influence the later chocolate Easter egg, but we would have to wait for the Victorians for that.
As you may remember, early chocolate was almost exclusively for drinking. It was not until the invention of Casparus van Houten’s cocoa press in 1828 that eating chocolate could be produced on a large scale. Soon after that, J.S. Fry & Sons’ introduced of the first mass market chocolate bar in Britain in 1847. Milk chocolate, meanwhile, would have to wait until the invention of powdered milk in 1867. From my own efforts at making chocolate from raw cacao beans, it is clear that, without modern machinery like a melangeur, such early eating chocolate would be gritty in texture.
It was after Van Houten’s cocoa press that chocolate eggs started to be moulded for Easter treats. Like the Easter Bunny, these probably also have their origin in Germany, or perhaps France, although there is very little written on the subject. We do know, however, precisely when the Victorian British introduced their first chocolate eggs and that was in 1873. Like the chocolate bar, it was to be a creation of J.S. Fry & Sons of Bristol.
Like many others in the confectionery industry (our own Joseph Rowntree and Joseph Terry here in York, John Cadbury in Birmingham, and American Milton Hershey), Joseph Storrs Fry was a Quaker. In the context of the development of Easter eggs, this is slightly odd as Quakers do not traditionally celebrate Easter, but there you go. The Quaker community in Britain was always a small one, less than 0.1% of the population in the 19th century, but they were influential in terms of both business and social reform, often the two going hand in hand. The interest in cocoa was seen as an alternative to alcohol. J.S. Fry’s cousin, also called Joseph, married Betsy Gurney (whose brother Joseph John Gurney was responsible for the split of “Gurneyite” pro-word of the Bible Quakers from others). Betsy would become the country’s most significant prison reformer, so-called “Angel of Prisons” Elizabeth Fry.
Elizabeth’s contribution to reform is honoured on the current £5 note, but it is her counterpart on the £50, James Watt, that was responsible for her cousin-in-law’s growing success. In the 19th century, Fry’s were the pioneering chocolate business and one reason for this was their commitment to mass production on an industrial scale. Watt’s steam engine was one of the driving forces behind the Industrial Revolution and, in 1795, Fry was the first confectioner to install one for the purpose of grinding chocolate.
By the time that Fry died in 1835 and his three sons took over, Fry’s was comfortably the largest chocolate producer in Britain and able pioneer such innovations as chocolate Easter eggs. They would not remain on top, though, as the Victorian era drew to a close. By 1919, when Fry’s merged with Cadbury’s, it was with the Bristol company very much as the junior partner. They did still have one more significant contribution to make to Easter egg history, however, in creating perhaps the most popular brand of chocolate egg. The Fry’s Creme Egg, as it was called on its creation in 1963, would become the more familiar Cadbury’s Creme Egg eight years later, as the senior company began to phase out the Fry’s name.
Cadbury’s launched their own chocolate Easter egg in response to Fry’s in 1875. Under John’s sons Richard and George, the Cadbury brothers, the company had grown into a major rival for Fry’s and in 1866 had produced a more efficient cocoa press. This process removed a lot of cocoa butter and made for a chocolate that was much smoother and mould-able, hence making chocolate eggs easier to produce.
Thanks to Richard Cadbury’s artistic interests, the early Cadbury’s eggs were increasingly decorative, once again taking influence from the Germans. By 1893 Cadbury’s offered 19 different types of Easter confectionery. A typical example of one of these Victorian eggs would have been made of dark chocolate, hollow and filled with dragees or comfits (small, bite sized, sugar coated confections like sugared almonds). The egg would be decorated with spring flowers in marzipan or sugar paste. This, then, was the model for the Victorian egg that I chose to make.
Thanks to my previous experiments with chocolate egg making on my re-imagined Kinder Surprise, I already had the egg moulds required. The scaled patterned shape on these moulds is another development that Cadbury’s brought over from Germany in the Victorian period. Known as the “crocodile finish”, it was designed to break up the shape of the smooth egg surface in order to hide any imperfections. Just like those Victorian chocolatiers,
I was glad of that ability to conceal imperfections when moulding my chocolate. As with my earlier chocolate making experiments, I tempered my chocolate with the seeding method, in which part of the chocolate is held back while melting the rest and then stirred into the melted chocolate away from the heat. Unfortunately, this method is not always the most reliable and my first effort cracked as I tried to take it out of the mould. Fortunately, chocolate can easily be re-melted and re-tempered, so I was able to try again and the second attempt worked much better.
To fill my eggs, I made the popular variety of small confectionery of the Victorian period, traditional sugared almonds (sometimes called jordan almonds). To make these, I beat an egg white until it was a fluffy consistency and then coated blanched whole almonds in it. I mixed sugar with a little cinnamon and covered the almonds in this mixture before baking them on a low heat for about an hour. This almond filling complete, I put these into half of my chocolate egg and brushed some melted chocolate around the edge of the other half to seal the two shut.
Finally, I came to decorate the eggs. I decided to take inspiration from the Cadbury egg in the picture above (although I think that one may be early 20th century rather than Victorian) and make a pair of daffodils and a ribbon out of sugar paste.
Using lemon juice and gelatine, I made a binding agent to mix with icing sugar and make a sugar paste, before kneading in yellow and green food colouring. I shaped each daffodil petal individually and then pressed them together in the middle and shaped the trumpet part up from that. Using the green sugar paste I made a set of leaves and then cut out strips that I folded into a bow to make the ribbon around the middle of the egg.
And that’s it, my take on a Victorian Easter egg. After Cadbury’s introduced the Dairy Milk in 1905, most Easter eggs became much more akin to their milky chocolate, but I prefer the old fashioned dark chocolate on offer here. I’m pleased with the sugar paste flowers, too. They’re something that you don’t much see on an egg these days, but maybe you should. It’s a nice way to do something Easter-y and colourful. It may have been the kind of thing that none of us could ever have afforded over a hundred years ago, but in this day and age it was remarkably easy to achieve something that looks and tastes pretty good. Perhaps not such an incredible treat, then, as it would have been for the Victorians but I think I’d rather have one of these than another creme egg!
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: It’s not how I imagined a Victorian chocolate egg; I’d assumed it would be solid, for a start, though I did know it would be dark chocolate. I suspect it’s rather nicer dark chocolate than you got in Victorian times, when tempering was still something of a mystic art without the ability to hone temperatures down to the perfect degree. The sugar work was lovely (how pretty are those daffodils?!) and works with the dark chocolate in a way it wouldn’t with milk. The sugared almonds aren’t quite what I expected either – they’re not like the little pastel confections I first encountered at my cousin’s wedding – but they are very moreish, like the sugared nuts you get on stands at German markets at Christmas.