In the chocolate shops of Paris, the Easter chocolatier has laid the Easter eggs. It means springtime is here—gorgeous in pastel royal icing, edible gold, and velvety cocoa powder. At La Maison du Chocolat, a daisy with a mustache sprouts from a chocolate egg. Arnaud Larher has made clown and elephant eggs for the kiddies and glorious chocolate eggs bearing priestly breastplates made of mendiants for the adults. At Jean-Charles Rochoux’s shop, a giraffe hatches from one massive chocolate egg, and the bust of a bewigged man—the seventeenth-century playwright Molière—looms from another. Choco-Story, the Musée Gourmand du Chocolat, is preparing a giant chocolate egg for children to destroy with tiny hammers on Easter. (How giant? “Big, but not big enough to fall over on them,” a clerk tells me.)
Chocolate eggs are more than candies, symbols, or what the German Insurance Association calls “delicious, energy-rich products of the confectionery industry”: they confuse and titillate; they suggest egginess when no real eggs are in sight. Eggs are so fundamentally about origins that even egg-shaped chocolates can’t help but evoke their antecedents. Half the pleasure—or disgust—in a Cadbury Creme Egg derives from its uncanniness: the fragile shell, the oozy innards, the flavor whose intensity rivals that of a soft-cooked yolk. Then there’s the Kinder Surprise: food, fowl, or foul?
Chocolate eggs are for lovers, philosophers, and Christians. In 1902, the French teachers’ journal Manuel général de l’instruction primaire published “Easter Story,” in which a chocolate egg is used to romance a melancholy schoolteacher. A century later, the (fabricated) tale of a Perugian couple’s mishap with a diamond ring inside a dark chocolate egg—exchanged, by the fiancée, for a milk chocolate egg—went viral in the Italian media. Researchers have given children chocolate eggs to test the bounds of friendship; philosopher Slavoj Žižek has tested our patience by opining about chocolate eggs as the central void of subjectivity; Ludwig Wittgenstein had the wherewithal just to give them as gifts to friends. During World War I, little Simone Weil was so moved by the suffering that, at Easter, she donated her chocolate egg to soldiers.
One day this past February, inside Jacques Torres’s factory on Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront, pastry chefs painted colored details into polycarbonate chocolate molds before turning out bemused ducklings and saucy bunnies. In the lunchroom, Torres and I, wearing hairnets, studied the history of chocolate eggs—on his phone, on Wikipedia. In his native France, the traditional Easter symbols include eggs, fish, bells, and hens, but “in America, it’s rabbits,” Torres says. “We sell more rabbits than eggs.” Eggs inspire Torres. “Eggs are a very interesting topic. I think that has something to do with the baby. The egg is a symbol of birth, renewing, beginning, spring!”
Easter eggs date at least to 1290, when England’s Edward I spent eighteen pence on 450 colored, gold-leafed eggs. But in many cultures around the world, eggs have long symbolized creation, birth, fertility—or death or witchcraft. Egg-decorating folk traditions have crossed the boundaries of paganism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and communism.
The history of the chocolate egg is murkier. The sixteenth-century introduction of Mesoamerican cacao to Europe created, at first, an imitative hot chocolate-drinking culture. At Versailles, chocolate was whipped with sweet almonds or orange flower water and—wait for it—an egg yolk. According to Élisabeth de Contenson’s Chocolat et son histoire, it was the eighteenth-century chocolate-drinkers who first blew out a chicken eggshell to fill with drinking chocolate: thus, the chocolate egg may predate the invention of solid eating chocolate.
Solid chocolates and molded chocolates, including egg shapes, were invented in the 1830s. Chocolate ovoids remain elementary: not only symbolically, but also in the pastry chef’s education. Jürgen David, senior coordinator of pastry arts at New York’s International Culinary Center, supervises students in tempering and molding chocolate eggs, then, later, building chocolate sculptures. “If you think of the shape of a bunny or teddy bear, you can make a big egg that’s the body, and smaller eggs for the feet. If the eggs are hollow, they can become ears.” Even in France, there’s only so much a chocolatier can do with a whelk or an Easter bell. An egg, on the other hand, is a fundamental form whose simplicity provides opportunity for creativity, meaning, and humor. (One 2016 Parisian trend is eggs with teeth: À La Mère de Famille’s egg-chickens brandish candy toothbrushes; Pierre Marcolini’s “Easter Wonderland” eggs are grinning, eyeless Cheshire cats.)
For Easter 2016, Torres is molding a streamlined “Egg-Rabbit,” a shape resembling a Japanese netsuke, designed by sculptor Carter Jones. (“I cannot recall if we asked him to make a rabbit egg, or maybe he came with this idea and said, ‘Eh, what about a rabbit egg?’”) He’s also making chocolate eggs containing underwater scenes. (“In France, fish is for Poisson d’Avril—April Fools’ Day—so we make chocolate fish here, nobody understands why! But that’s okay for Easter: people buy them because people go fishing. But spring is when the fish start biting—and fish make eggs, too!”)
One chocolate egg summons up not only confectionary history, but also the origins in the chicken egg. All over Paris they’re sold, singly from wire egg baskets or six at a time in egg cartons. I buy mine at Rochoux’s: a chocolate “oeuf dur,” or hard-boiled egg. It’s a real brown chicken eggshell, containing a hard chocolate shell filled with luscious hazelnut praline. Ronald Bilheux and Alain Escoffier, in the French Professional Pastry Series, called this an “Oeuf Surprise”: “Very often purchased by our clientele to be put in the gardens on Easter—it’s really a surprise egg!” How am I supposed to eat it? The staff at Rochoux’s say, “Cut it with a knife, and eat it like any egg!”
Surprise eggs are a fixture in Parisian chocolate shops but rare in the U.S., except in the kitchens of intrepid food bloggers. David, who grew up in Vienna, said, “When I was an aspiring pastry chef, they just started popping up in magazines and things, in the late eighties, early nineties: Wow, that’s a real egg that has chocolate in it! You’d crack the egg and have a chocolate egg inside! I said, I’ll do that for Easter. But when I got here [to the U.S.], the health department wouldn’t consider them sanitary.”
It must be said that these shelled eggs are fussy to eat. Like fresh hard-boiled eggs, they’re the damnedest things to peel. Shell chips get stuck in the chocolate. But that’s part of their magic. They use the eggshell itself—the inedible, discarded, beautiful-until-cracked eggshell, upon which the egg depends for its characteristic form—and turn it into a chocolate mold. Chocolate eggs, so to speak, were born inside real eggshells, and now they’re back, as mysterious and strange as they ever were. They resurrect both chocolate and eggs, making us rethink the uses of foods so common we hardly even register their marvelousness, telling us nearly forgotten food histories, revealing origins we didn’t even know they had. Spring is here, beginning all over again.