Borough Market’s chocolatiers talk to Clare Finney about the history and significance of chocolate at Easter
Members of the Christian faith may dispute it, and will almost certainly be disappointed by it, but if you were to ask a kid what Easter’s about, chances are they’ll say “chocolate”. They may mention other things as well—eggs, bunnies, chicks, roast lamb, hot cross buns—but chocolate will be pretty high on the list. Mind you, if the buzz around Chocolicious, Artisan du Chocolat and Rabot 1745 at the moment is anything to go by, even adults feel Easter isn’t Easter without a chocolate egg to demolish. But where did the idea of a chocolate egg initially come from—and how has it come to play such a role?
“It’s a bit random, isn’t it!” laughs Hayleigh, “but it stems from the practice of saving the eggs laid during the fasting period of Lent [eggs traditionally being a food people would forgo during the period] and decorating them for Easter, as a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” In fact, the practice of decorating eggs with paint (or, in earlier times vegetable dye and charcoal) pre-dates even Christianity, eggs being an ancient and near-universal symbol of fertility, new beginnings and rebirth. “We like to give the stall a bit of a rebirth too,” says Hayleigh. “We introduce new flavours and figures—we’ve a cute rabbit hugging a hen this year—so that those of our customers who have given up chocolate for Lent have something exciting to come back to.”
Single origin chocolate
Louise at Rabot 1745 has also been hard at work developing their Easter range: large half eggs filled with handmade truffles. While both these talented chocolatiers spend their days (and, at this time of year, nights) working with beautiful, ethically-sourced single origin chocolate from St Lucia or Ghana, the mass-produced chocolate eggs of their childhoods could not have been further removed.
But without the refinement of chocolate-making techniques and large-scale manufacturing processes brought in by Victorian pioneers such as Cadbury’s and Fry’s, Easter would not be as associated with chocolate as it is these days. While the first ‘chocolate’ eggs—a solid egg of ground, roasted cacao beans—are said to have appeared in Germany and France in the early 1800s, it was British food technology that enabled moulded chocolate, and thus the sweet, cheap, hollow ovoids now sold around the world.
Today we’ve come full circle—or full ovoid, if you like: from the first small scale, high cocoa, painstakingly hand-piped eggs, to the mass-produced sugar hits piled high and sold cheap, and right back again. Artisan du Chocolat, Rabot 1745 and Chocolicious are just three of hundreds of artisanal chocolate producers creating new and exciting things. “There’s a definite trend for single origin, interesting combinations of flavours and using other, vegan-friendly milks,” Louise explains.
The most difficult shape
The eggs and truffles Hayleigh creates have more in common with those of 19th century France in terms of cocoa content and attention to detail, but she still owe something to British industrialists. Even now, almost 150 years later, hollow eggs continue to be “the most difficult shapes in chocolate you can make,” she says. “You have to fill the mould with chocolate, leave it to get tacky, then tip it out to get the mould coated.” This is repeated, building the layers until it is thick enough.
“Eggs are a tricky business,” Louise agrees. “Once you’ve done the two halves, you have to stick those together to create the whole egg. There’s not much margin for error.” Solid chocolates are far less stressful. But there’s no denying that chocolate eggs are a joy to contemplate—and to smash into thick, chocolatey pieces come Easter Sunday.