Like all major festivals, Easter is a time of year when traditional foods are enjoyed by many of us.
There are certain foods that we only eat at Easter – and in doing so we’re often continuing traditions that are hundreds of years old.
Take hot cross buns for example. These sweet, spiced buns are made with dried fruit and topped with a sugary glaze. The cross on top is a symbol of the crucifixion, and these buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday.
Eating hot cross buns once marked the end of Lent – a 40-day period of abstinence and moderation that begins immediately after Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, in February.
In Tudor times, fruit cakes or buns – such as hot cross buns – were considered treats and were eaten only on special occasions.
It’s hard to know exactly when and where hot cross buns were invented, but one theory suggests they originated in the 14th century in St Albans, Hertfordshire, where a monk distributed them to the poor on Good Friday.
One of the first recorded references to hot cross buns comes from a London street cry in the early 1700s: "Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs. With one or two a penny hot cross buns" – a cry that later became the well-known nursery rhyme.
In old English folklore, buns baked on Good Friday would never go mouldy, and were often seen to bring good luck.
The Easter Bunny – or is it a hare?
Easter eggs are perhaps the most widely enjoyed Easter treat. Eggs have been associated with Easter for centuries – they’re a symbol of new life, and have strong links with spring.
But chocolate Easter eggs have only been around since the 1800s. The first chocolate eggs were made in France and Germany in the early 19th century, and were made from plain chocolate – often decorated with chocolate piping and marzipan flowers.
The first UK chocolate egg was made by J S Fry of Bristol in 1873, with John Cadburys’ chocolate Easter creation launched a couple of years later.
In 1905, the famous Cadbury's Dairy Milk Chocolate was invented, establishing Easter eggs as seasonal bestsellers.
Before chocolate eggs were a thing, people enjoyed Easter eggs laid by hens, ducks or geese. And in Anglo-Saxon times, it was widely believed that hares laid eggs – and this could be the origin of the idea of the Easter bunny.
While rabbits live in warrens deep under the ground, hares nest above ground and hide from predators in shallow indentations called ‘forms’. As it happens, lapwings also scrape out a shallow nest, and often live in the same grassy farmland that hares inhabit. And the birds will sometimes steal hares’ forms to nest and lay eggs in.
During the Anglo-Saxon month of Ēostur-monath – or April, as we know it – country-folk searched for fresh-laid eggs in the fields. It was common practice to eat all kinds of wild birds’ eggs, including those laid by lapwings. Finding eggs in a hare’s form understandably led to the belief that the rabbit-like mammals also laid eggs.
The eggs were hard to find in the long grass, and many historians believe that this spring activity was the origin of modern Easter egg hunts for children.
Nowadays, children still enjoy an Easter egg hunt, but these will usually be of the chocolate variety.
If you’re indulging in chocolate this Easter, buying Fairtrade is a great way to enjoy a treat that’s been ethically sourced. The farmers that have produced the cocoa in Fairtrade chocolate have been paid a fair price for their goods. Their businesses are sustainable, because they have a stable, reliable income. And they have a better standard of living, in thriving communities with accessible facilities such as schools and clinics.
Chocolate bearing the Fairtrade mark is easy to find. Green and Blacks, Divine and Sainsbury’s all offer a range of Fairtrade chocolate, including eggs – and all Co-op Easter eggs are made from Fairtrade chocolate. Many Easter eggs are now also produced without any plastic packaging, so they’re better for the environment too.
Making your own chocolate goodies using Fairtrade cocoa or bars of Fairtrade chocolate is a delicious way to celebrate Easter.
Rocky road – a mix of crushed biscuits, melted chocolate and golden syrup combined with dried fruit, nuts or sweets – is one of the easiest treats to make and can be tailored to include all your favourite ingredients such as mini marshmallows, crushed Maltesers or soft fudge pieces.
Or make a delicious chocolate cake as the centrepiece for the Easter tea table – the recipe below is quick and easy to make.
If all this overindulgence worries you, be reassured by recent studies that suggest dark chocolate, in moderation, may help lower blood pressure and improve brain function. It also contains beneficial minerals such as iron, zinc and potassium. So, with this in mind, enjoy a little chocolate this Easter!
Easy chocolate Easter cake
For the cake:
175g caster sugar
175g butter, softened
3 eggs, beaten
175g self-raising flour
40g Fairtrade cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk
For the icing:
100g butter, softened
175g icing sugar, sifted
25g cocoa powder, sifted
Mini eggs, to decorate
Mix the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder together in a bowl. Cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Gradually add the flour and egg to the creamed mixture, incorporating a little of each and beating well until it’s all been mixed together. Turn the mixture into a lined 22cm sandwich tin and bake at 170°C for about 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean, and the top is firm to the touch.
To make the icing, combine the icing sugar and cocoa powder in a bowl. Add the butter and mix well until smooth.
Turn the cake out onto a plate and spread the icing all over the top, or make swirls using a piping bag. Arrange mini eggs on top before serving.