Food is often used as a means to communicate religious ideas. Perhaps because food is so fundamental to our survival, reverent importance has been bestowed on many an edible morsel.
From the tofu treats left for the fox companions of the Japanese Shinto deity Inari Okami, to the dates that Prophet Muhammad broke his Ramadan fast with, to the 33 layers of traditional baklava representing the years of Christ’s life, food is a big deal when it comes to spiritual metaphor. The food most closely connected to this time of year is the Easter egg, though its familiar chocolate form is a relatively new design.
Eggs are an ancient symbol of fertility and new life. Hindu scriptures teach that the world developed from an egg. The Norse goddess of fertility Ostara (sometimes known as Eostre), whose symbols were the hare and egg, was celebrated around the spring equinox.
The ancient Zoroastrians, one of the world’s oldest religions that began in a region that is present-day Iran, painted eggs for Nowruz, their new year celebration, which also fell on the spring equinox.
Decorated ostrich eggs, estimated to be up to 5,000 years old, were found in the tombs of ancient Sumerians and Egyptians. Early Christians in Mesopotamia dyed eggs red, said to be a reminder of the blood spilled at Christ’s crucifixion. Eggs in Christianity are seen as a symbol of Jesus; the hollow egg is a symbol of his empty tomb, while the cracking of the shell represents his resurrection.
Eggs can be simply dyed using natural ingredients. Onion peels added to boiling water cooking the eggs leaves a brown stain on the egg. Beetroot juice added to the pot gives you a pink egg. Remember the hare and egg symbols of Ostara, the Norse goddess? It’s thought that this long-time association of hares and fertility prompted the German Lutherans to come up with The Easter Hare, a giant rabbit that gave gifts of decorated eggs to good children as early as the 1600s.
Over time, decorative eggs became a popular gift, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, the pysanka are decorated with traditional Ukranian folk designs using the wax method of batik. Perhaps the most famous decorative eggs are the Fabergé eggs, made by the Russian jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé between 1885 and 1917 for the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. It’s thought they commissioned around 50 eggs, 43 of which have survived until today. Two more were planned for Easter 1918, but the Russian Revolution got in the way of their delivery.
Chocolate Easter Eggs are linked with the invention of the chocolate mould. Before Dutch inventor Casparus Van Houten invented the press for separating cocoa butter from the cocoa bean in 1828, chocolate was only consumed as a hot drink. Van Houten’s invention meant that cocoa powder could be produced, making hot chocolate much easier to make, but it also paved the way for solid, eating chocolate. In 1847, British chocolate maker and inventor Joseph Fry discovered that if he mixed cocoa powder, sugar and melted cocoa butter, he could create a chocolate paste that was mouldable.
In 1824, John Cadbury opened his shop in Birmingham selling tea, coffee and drinking chocolate. When Fry made his discovery of mouldable chocolate, the Cadburys started to experiment with moulds and solid chocolates. John’s sons, Richard and George took over the company in 1861 and in 1875 they produced the company’s first chocolate egg. Richard Cadbury was an artist of considerable talent; his own paintings adorned early chocolate boxes. It’s thought that his artistic influence played a big part in the development of ornate chocolate eggs.
In 1919, Cadbury and Fry merged their companies and in 1923, they produced the first chocolate eggs filled with cream, an early prototype of Cadbury’s Creme Egg. Forty years later, Fry’s Creme Egg was launched, and its name was changed to Cadbury Creme Egg in 1971.
The most expensive chocolate egg ever made is called the Golden Speckled Egg. It was created by William Curley, a master chocolatier based in Twickenham, England. The egg weighed 110lbs, and was crafted from the prized Venezuelan Amedei chocolate. It took seven chefs three days to complete. Inside the egg are William Curley chocolates, in flavours that include Japanese black vinegar, muscovado caramel, rosemary and olive oil, and toasted sesame. At a Fabergé auction in 2012, it was bought for £7,000, just under €9,000, by the Indian technology investor Cyrus K Vandrevala. I wonder did he eat it?