Springtime brings with it many culinary treasures: woodsy morel mushrooms, vibrant green asparagus, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them ramps, to name a few.
But the most glorious of all these seasonal delights is, for me, the chocolate egg. Ideally milk chocolate. Ideally wrapped in gorgeous technicolor foil. Maybe even filled with gourmet truffles or—truth time—Cadbury chocolate buttons. Sure, maybe you know a guy and can get them all year round, but like eating (supposedly) fresh peas in November, it just wouldn’t be right. The time is now. Chocolate Egg Season is upon us. And soon, the moment will have passed.
Eggs have long been associated with Easter and other older spring festivals (including Ostara, the pagan festival from which Easter may have derived its name). But chocolate eggs in particular have origins dating back to Germany in the early 1700s, when confectioners had the bright idea of filling egg-shaped papier-mâché boxes with dragees (chocolate drops coated with a shiny film of sugar). Toward the mid 18th century, there are records of solid chocolate eggs (poured into molds like those used for wax candles), but they would have been leaden jawbreakers of gritty cocoa.
Chocolate back then was a rather different beast from the product we know and love today. It was dark, fairly bitter, and coarsely textured. Mostly it was consumed as a beverage.
At first, the beverage was considered a risqué aphrodisiac. It was even the subject of a 1660s sex scandal, when, the poet Andrew Marvell tells us, a cup of “Mortal Chocolate” was supposedly used as a vessel for conveying poison to the mistress of the Duke of York. But over the next 40 years chocolate became a popular mainstream drink. The invention of the steam engine in 1698 paved the way for the hydraulic cocoa bean grinding machine, which improved consistency and upped the quantity of cocoa, meaning that more people could afford to buy and enjoy it.
Manufacturers were quick to take advantage of this new era in chocolate. In 1761, Joseph Fry and his wife Anna purchased a patent for a “new invention or engine” to be used for “expeditious, fine and clean making of chocolate.” They opened a factory in Bristol, which would go on to become the largest producer of chocolate in Britain. In 1824, the Cadbury Brothers opened their business in Birmingham, importing cocoa to make their soon-to-be ubiquitous hot chocolate drink (a favorite of Queen Victoria’s, and still drunk by royalty today).
In 1828, a chocolate revolution (the best kind of revolution) took place. A Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, built a hydraulic press that could remove around half the natural fat from chocolate liquor. He added an alkalizing agent to the cocoa powder that this produced, which reduced the bitterness to create a more uniform taste. This product was Dutch cocoa. And Dutch cocoa changed everything.
Chocolate makers quickly started experimenting with Dutch cocoa, adding the extracted cocoa butter back to it in varying, precise quantities. By dictating the amount of cocoa to fat, they were able to control the consistency and malleability of the chocolate paste. The Fry company received a patent for an industrial-scale version of this process in 1847, and launched their first molded chocolate bar soon after. Though this bar was made with dark chocolate, it had a sweet fondant filling, which might make it the grandfather of the modern-day Crème Egg.
The first chocolate eggs were made by pouring liquid chocolate into a half-egg-shell mold, allowing it to set, then gluing the two halves together with more melted chocolate. The very first was made by the Fry factory in 1873. It took Cadbury a few years to innovate on the process of getting their chocolate to flow into the molds correctly, but they cracked it eventually, releasing their own egg in time for Easter 1875. By 1893, the company was producing 19 different designs of chocolate egg. (If you’ve ever unwrapped a Cadbury egg and seen the crocodile skin pattern on the chocolate surface, that design started here, as a way of disguising cracks and imperfections on the candy’s the surface.)
All of these early Easter eggs were made with dark chocolate. Milk chocolate only came into its own at scale in 1865, after the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter came up with the technique of mixing powdered milk (developed by Henri Nestle) with chocolate liquor. Cadbury was the first to get into the milk chocolate egg game in a big way, launching their version for Easter 1905. It was a game-changer for the whole industry, turning eggs from a sure-let’s-make-them-why-not? seasonal treat to a massive best seller.
In 1919, Fry and Cadbury merged, with both companies operating under their own names. That’s why, when the first fondant filled palm-sized chocolate egg was made in 1963, it went by the name Fry’s Crème Egg. In 1971, a few years after the full merger in 1967, the Cadbury Crème Egg was born.
The Cadbury Crème Egg is an international smash hit of a confection. The company makes over 500 million of them every year and 1.5 million of them a day at its factory in Birmingham alone. Over the years, the chocolate has changed (bring back Dairy Milk, I say), and the number of eggs in the multipack has changed as well. (How are there only five eggs in an egg box now? Everyone knows there are six eggs in an egg box. Moan. Moan. Mutter.) Still, the popularity of the Crème Egg hardly wavers. It is a fact universally acknowledged that egg-shaped chocolate somehow tastes better than non-egg-shaped chocolate.
This is the season. Carpe Egg.