In Italy, there are no Easter egg hunts, no marshmallow Peeps, and definitely no jelly beans. Instead, there are chocolate eggs…massive, elaborately decorated, beautifully wrapped chocolate eggs. Throughout Italy, in small towns, and big cities, shop windows are filled with brightly colored chocolate Easter eggs, which stand tall on small plastic cups placed inside their wrappers.
The tradition began in the early 20th century as chocolate became increasingly popular and overtook the ritual of colourfully dyed hens eggs.
Food writer Elizabeth Minchilli has lived in Rome for 40 years and has watched the Italian Easter ritual take hold.
“It’s something that’s gradually grown after the war, when people had more money. I can remember living here in the 70s and the eggs were quite simple, but they grew and grew along with the idea that they have some sort of surprise inside. Like a lot of traditions in Italy, they start very simply, with people giving a chocolate egg at Easter, and as time went on, people wanted to make a bella figura, a special gift, for the holiday.”
Minchilli explains that for every holiday in Italy, there is an appropriate food gift. She says for Christmas, it could be a whole prosciutto, while at Easter, its chocolate.
But, as Minchilli says, it’s not just any chocolate. “You want something that really gives a big effect.”
That big effect comes in a number of ways. Minchilli splits the artisan chocolatiers into two factions – those who focus on the chocolate, with high quality ingredients, where eggs are wrapped in fancy dress, swaddled in elegant silks, tulle, and foils tied neatly with ribbons. And those who go for edible decoration, using pastel icing to personalize eggs, like 91-year old Virginia Valzani, who still tends the till at her family’s 88-year old chocolate shop in the heart of Rome. Valzani sells 1,000 eggs every Easter.
“We start making the eggs 40 days before Easter and get many of the same customers year after year.”
“People come from all over Rome at Easter time to buy their eggs at Valzani because they offer every single size of egg, and white, milk and dark and they’re not expensive,” says Minchilli, “Sometimes I buy an entire flock of chocolate sheep for the table and we eat them all after the meal.”
But, Minchilli says the really big impact comes from the surprise inside. “At the beginning, it was the industrial chocolate makers like Kinder and Lindt that were putting the surprises in them and that still exists, but there are certain chocolatiers that offer a service where you can bring your own present and have them put it inside the egg.”
Maurizio Proietti is a second generation chocolate maker and owner of La Bottega del Cioccolato. Proietti’s chocolate eggs range in price between 9 euros/$11 – 150 euros/$180. I ask about the most elaborate gifts he’s been asked to put inside an egg.
“Engagement rings and car keys are typical gifts, but two tickets to a tropical island, that was something unusual.” The surprise inside depends who it’s for. “A typical gift would be a charm for a necklace or bracelet,” explains Minchilli, “but If it’s for your wife, you might get a very small egg with gold earrings inside. A child might get a small toy. Otherwise, it’s usually something silly like a keychain.”
Elaborate chocolate eggs can cost up to $300 or more. Even though the eggs are hollow, a good sized egg can weigh half a pound. And they’re everywhere, from supermarkets, to small alimentari or corner stores, and even coffee bars. “Every single coffee bar sells these eggs and they’ll have one massive egg that weighs around 20 pounds,” Minchilli says. “They sell tickets and raffle it off the day before Easter. I’ve never won one, but I keep buying the tickets!”