Maria Clifton can’t exactly remember how or why she began making chocolate toilet rolls with messages written on them. It doesn’t matter, really. If people want everyday items crafted from Belgian milk chocolate, she will do it.
It started about four years ago when she founded Personalised Chocolates 4U, a small family venture she runs from her home in Hastings, East Sussex. She makes confectionery that children will always go crazy for – minions, trolls – but about half of her orders come from adults looking for something delightfully ridiculous.
Two weeks before Easter, she is frantically moulding chocolate incarnations of prosecco bottles, pie and pints, lobsters and full English breakfasts. Weekends are spent shaping chocolate avocados and etching personal messages on gifts in Swiss chocolate. “For Easter, I’m finding that ‘fuck my diet’ is quite popular,” she says.
Until fairly recently, chocolate Easter eggs had remained largely the same as they looked when the family-owned company Fry’s debuted them in the UK in 1873. About 80m are sold annually in Britain, and in 2019 the market was worth £340.9m.
But Easter eggs are no longer simply repackaged versions of children’s favourite chocolate bars stacked high and sold three for £5 at Tesco. They have become statement pieces – often aimed at adults rather than kids – and the more outlandish, the better.
This year the shelves, both in-store and virtual, are stacked with £80 ostrich eggs or ones infused with Marmite. There are eggs that double as cheese fondues and blonde chocolate geometric eggs.
“Recently, we’ve seen a move toward luxury Easter eggs,” says Charley Meredith, a product developer for confectionery at Sainsbury’s. There’s a greater desire for eggs that shimmer with edible dusting, created from intricate moulds and sophisticated flavours. The retailer’s Cocoa & Co range is specifically designed for adult tastes, with £4.50 eggs made from single origin Colombian dark chocolate and £8.50 Belgian chocolate beehives. “Animals and nature always resonate well,” she says.
The first coronavirus lockdown hit the industry hard, knocking out the final weeks of trading before Easter 2020. Specialist retailers were closed, many supermarkets had not introduced Covid-safe infrastructure and people questioned if they could be arrested and jailed just for browsing the Easter egg aisle. According to the industry magazine, the Grocer, £35.5m that would usually be spent on Easter chocolate went on booze and meat instead.
This year is in limbo, too. The Grocer notes: “Many expect demand for more premium Easter treats to go through the roof following a winter of isolation.” But Easter spending as a whole is estimated to be down 10% (£92m) on 2020. Of that, millennials are expected to spend the most.
Some supermarkets are pinning their hopes on artisanal or celebrity-endorsed products to save the season. Waitrose has wheeled out Heston Blumenthal to concoct banana ganache-filled hen eggs (currently on offer at £4.80 for four), while Harvey Nichols is selling £125 porcelain egg cups designed by the ceramicist Mary Rose Young.
Easter preparation starts right after Christmas at Harvey Nichols, and what ends up on the shelves goes through a process of team meetings and mood boards. “If we can create something delicious that has an element of surprise, then we’re happy,” says Shirley Aubrey, a food development manager for the department store chain.
Among Harvey Nichols’ adult-oriented treats are Danish liquorice covered in chocolate and sold for £27.95 a bag under the brand Ægg, and small boxes of chocolate scotch eggs, which, thankfully, are not only for meat eaters. There is also the £65 Legless egg hunt jar, which contains six miniature bottles of chocolate liqueur alongside a kilo of sweets to hide.
Some chocolatiers have a more simple ethos. Philip Stas is the second generation of the Stas family, who began importing Belgian chocolates in the 60s. In a good year the company will shift between 30,000 and 40,000 eggs, ranging from small decorative pieces to 27,000-calorie, sour cherry-covered varieties that weigh about 5kg and cost £140.
I told Stas I came across his Godzilla egg after watching a YouTube video of a competitive eater called BeardMeetsFood attempting to finish it in one sitting. “What an idiot. That’s ridiculous. Why would anybody do that? He’ll die,” he says. After some more of this, he reconsiders: “I’m sure he’s a lovely guy and I have nothing but respect for him.”
After several decades in the chocolate business, Stas does not plan to make unnecessary changes. “Why would you reinvent the wheel?” he says. “Nobody would reinvent the wheel, and Easter eggs are like a wheel. Just do something simple and do it well.”
The company aims its products at families and gift-givers who stand a chance of actually finishing their purchase. “If somebody gave you a present for £1, how would you feel about that?” he says. I instantly have flashbacks to all the £1 presents I have given but also remember the £1 present I very much enjoyed. “This has a wow factor to it. A tiny little egg? That’s nice. A great big egg? That’s terrific.”
Duncan Garnsworthy of the Chocolate Society thinks if a piece of chocolate can pull on the sentimental heartstrings of customers and take them back to familiar times, then it is likely to be a winner.
He started the Chocolate Society 11 years ago with his brother, Alasdair, after spotting an opportunity. Or, rather, an available domain name, chocolate.co.uk, which they bought for an unspecified amount. The fact they had no experience in making chocolate did not bother them. They had a killer domain name so the rest would figure itself out.
The Chocolate Society expects to sell between 5,000-6,000 eggs this year but knowing what will work is sometimes a case of trial and error. Honeycomb, toasted sourdough and sea salt, and tea and biscuit flavours are its biggest sellers: prices start at £9.50 for small eggs, while the more unusual flavours cost £29.95. Chocolates with bacon infusion and cereal pieces worked. Strawberries and cream did not. “It had a weird texture,” says Garnsworthy, who admits it did not make it past the testing stage.
Ordinarily, development of new products at the Chocolate Society happens about three months in advance. This year, lockdown meant they had just four weeks. At Marks & Spencer, however, eggs were on the shelves in January.
Katy Patino, the lead product developer for M&S’s Easter confectionery, sees this as part of a broader shift, where seasonal events are being celebrated and marketed earlier each year. “As the popularity of celebrating seasonal events grows, so has the importance of food and drink offerings within those celebrations,” she says.
The retailer’s grownup selections roughly fall into two camps. There are luxury eggs, preferably filled with booze: its £15 Marc de Champagne variety comes with fizz-flavoured truffles and the £5 Gin & Ton-Egg is made from gin-flavoured milk chocolate. Then there are creations that raise eyebrows. This Easter, it’s the 135g vegan eggplant emoji, selling for £6.
“The rise of the ‘snackfluencer’ has shown how chocolate and confectionery continues to drive real engagement and excitement from social media users,” Patino says.
It’s a simple premise: create a bizarre foodstuff, attract snack reviewers, they share it with millions of followers, repeat. But whether they taste good or not, unlikely food combinations have been a recipe for success online for years. A few years ago there were candy-floss burritos. Last year, it was TikTok-popular pancake cereal.
There is an artform to anarchic food, and companies such as Twisted Food have made it into a business. The company is the self-described “home of unserious food” that creates and films meals designed for social media engagement. Through recipes for red Thai curry meatball subs and macaroni pizzas it has gained more than 35 million followers across video platforms including Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.
It is an audience brands are eager to attract and who can breathe new life products we are long used to. This year, Twisted is making a series of wild desserts from Malteser bunnies and Galaxy eggs via a partnership with Mars. Tom Jackson, a co-creator and head chef at Twisted, says: “We use products in innovative ways and encourage brands to try new things. They gain exposure, yes, but it feels like Twisted is living vicariously in supermarkets, even through Easter eggs.”
Unlike Twisted’s ingredients, Clifton’s more risque handmade chocolate items are unlikely to be in supermarkets this Easter. Some messages she has been asked to write probably cannot even be printed. But whether said in toilet rolls or truffles, she says: “Chocolate is a talking point. I get requests that make no sense to me at all but to them, it’s personal. It’s their message.”