I remember exactly when and where I first ate a chocolate creme egg: in 1957, in the kitchen of my parents’ council house in Stevenage. My Uncle Bert, who had no children of his own, had clearly decided to treat his little nephew with an Easter novelty. My experience of chocolate Easter eggs to that point had been limited to the hollow variety: that a version filled with sticky sweet white and yellow gick existed was beyond my limited five-year-old ken. Thus, after I removed the foil from the egg, and, at the urging of Uncle Bert, whose motives I feel were not totally altruistic, I bit into the egg and discovered with surprise and trepidation that it was not, after all, hollow, as I had innocently suspected. The look on my face, I am sure, was the reward for his generosity that Bert was expecting: bit of a joker, Bert.
Those of you who have been paying attention to happenings in the world of confectionery will be puzzled at this point: surely Cadbury, king of the creme egg, has been celebrating 50 years of creme eggs this year: so how was I being startled by my first experience of one 64 years ago? The answer is, of course, that the history of confectionery is no less convoluted, complicated and paradox-filled than the history of anything else, be that beer, the British Empire, or baseball.
I’m sure proper confectionery historians will be swift to correct me, but the earliest reference to chocolate creme eggs I have found is from 1912, in the Denbighshire Free Press, North Wales, where J. Powell-Jones, wholesale and retail confectioner, of High Street, Denbigh, was offering for sale a range of Easter treats far wider than you might find today: not just plain chocolate eggs, but wooden eggs, tin eggs, cardboard eggs, “snake eggs” (no, no idea), marzipan eggs – and chocolate creme eggs, plain or tinfoiled, three old pennies a pop (about £1.30 in modern money).
How close Mr Powell-Jones’s creme eggs were to the modern Cadbury incarnation (or in-ovation – mildly amusing Latin pun alert) I have no clue. There were chocolate creme eggs on sale in the United States in the 1920s, and also a product called “Cream [sic] Eggs chuck full [sic again – that would be “chock full” in British English] of fruits and nuts, chocolate covered and packed in bunny boxes [sic a third time]”, and “Purest Jelly Bird Eggs”, which, assuming this is not a reference to something called the Jelly Bird, I am struggling to comprehend. My understanding is that “jelly” across the Atlantic covers that segment of the category known all-encompassingly in Britain and Ireland as “jam” that is made solely from fruit juice, rather than pureed fruit. Jam bird eggs? All suggestions welcome.
In Britain the chocolate creme egg looks to vanish, before reappearing in 1957, when they were being made by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, the manufacturing arm of the Co-op retail movement, which was a considerable force on the High Street in pre-supermarket days. Adverts show Co-op stores selling CWS creme eggs, clearly wrapped in printed foil, for 4½ (old) pence – a 50 per cent (nominal) price rise in 45 years, though in real terms those eggs cost the modern equivalent of 46p. I strongly suspect it was a Co-op egg Uncle Bert gave little nephew me for the lols of seeing my surprised face when I bit into it those many decades ago.
Internet sources suggest Fry’s, the former Bristol chocolate firm taken over by Cadbury’s, began making creme eggs in 1963, with the brand name changing to Cadbury’s Creme Egg in 1971 – hence the “Golden Goo-bilee” celebrations this year. I’ll put my slightly sticky, chocolate-stained hand up and admit to having an occasional Creme Egg since Uncle Bert introduced me to them: as Noël Coward would have said, if he had been addicted to Dairy Milk, “Strange how potent cheap chocolate can be.” I was, therefore, intrigued by the announcement that the Goose Island brewpub in Shoreditch, East London, offshoot of the Chicago-based, AB-Inbev owned brewery famous for its Bourbon County barrel-aged stout, was making a Creme Egg Stout in honour of the 50th anniversary of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, In honour of Uncle Bert, I thought, I have to try that.
Alas, this turned into a massive PR disaster for Goose Island, as the beer went on sale on its website on a Monday morning a few weeks before Easter and sold out withing less than two minutes. Would-be Creme Egg Stout drinkers found that even though they had successfully completed the first part of their purchase, in the seconds it took to click through to “checkout” their order could not be fulfilled, because all the beer had been sold. Disgruntlement was spread wide, and I fear I might have had a little bit of a rant on Twitter at how foolish it was of Goose Island to massively underestimate the love the British have for Creme Eggs, and not realise that a Creme-Egg-themed beer was likely to be hugely popular, their failure leading to considerable bad feeling – certainly from me, anyway.
Hurrah, though, for Jonny Tyson of Beerwrangler.com, top, top man, highly recommended for all your advanced cicerone needs, IBD-certified beer sommelier, beer educator extraordinaire, who saw my distress and stepped up where Goose Island had fallen on its face to supply me with a precious can of the otherwise impossible-to-find Creme Egg Stout. What a warm, wonderful human being.
And, er, was it worth it? I was expecting something like a Creme Egg when it’s been sat on – a sticky mess. But it was actually rather good, clearly brewed by someone who knew what they were doing, and with all the nods to its ovoid inspiration one would hope for: the chocolate and vanilla came though well, the aroma was good, and there was just enough roasty bitter to balance the milk sugar sweetness. At 4.5 per cent abv it was rather thin – 5.5 per cent alcohol would have been better. But overall, while not a classic, this was a fair stab: silver medal level. Be encouraged to do it again next year, Goose Island – but make about ten times as much.