Freshly laid at Hadleigh Maid

Easter eggs are hand made on a grand scale in Suffolk. Chocoholic KATY EVANS goes to investigate.

With Easter only a week away, Katy Evans tests her resolve on a visit to a Suffolk chocolate factory to see how Easter eggs are made.

EASTER for me, as a child, was often spent sat in front of the television watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 Gene Wilder version), while munching my way through dozens of eggs.

This love of chocolate has never since waned and as such, I am known for consuming vast quantities of the stuff. For this reason, I often give it up for Lent - purely to test my will power and not for any religious reasons - so taking a trip to Hadleigh Maid in Suffolk was a true test of restraint.

As I walk through the door at the Lady Lane Industrial Estate factory in Hadleigh, the smell of theobroma cacao (the full name for cocoa) is intense to say the least.

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“A few people have been known to feel faint when in the chocolate room for too long,” says Donny Briggs as he hands me a white coat and hat to wear before entering the heart of the operation.

Once inside, the smell is even stronger and I, with my chocolate addiction, am like a kid in a candy store, literally.

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Images of the fat Augustus Gloop from the aforementioned film spring to mind as I look longingly at the brown liquid being churned in huge mixing machines.

Hadleigh Maid was started up in 1976 (way before my excessive Easter feasts) and these days their main business is bars, boxes of individual chocolates and, at this time of year, eggs.

Thousands are 'laid' daily in the run up to Easter, to the extent that the growing, family run business has to recruit extra help.

“We are going for the high quality end of the market,” says Donny, who is Hadleigh Maid's main man.

Hadleigh Maid is truly a family affair, having been started in 1976 by Michael and Avril Briggs, Donny's father and mother-in-law. Donny (whose real name is also Michael, just to confuse everyone) joined the company at the tender age of 17. He is now married to Angela, the Briggs' daughter, and the couple took over the business a few years ago. Mike and Avril still play an active part in the company and at busy times, such as Easter, Mike's brother Neville and his wife Janet also help out.

Donny and Angela also have children of their own, two girls aged three and six, who Donny describes as their chief tasters. “Luckily though, they don't have much of a sweet tooth and so don't eat masses of chocolate,” he smiles.

The company has gone through 22 tonnes of chocolate since last September and while every process, from mixing to filling, was once done by hand, the company has grown to such an extent that now machines, called depositors, are used for churning the chocolate. However, the vast majority of the production is still a hands-on affair, as is evident from Donny's chocolate-stained apron.

Having been in the business for 16 years, Donny knows a thing or two about chocolate and explains the stages.

First of all, cocoa pods are harvested and the beans are extracted and left spread out to dry in the sun, often under banana leaves, where they ferment and turn into what Donny describes as “a horrible mush you'd never want to eat'.

Then the beans are roasted and the nibs - the bit inside the shell - are milled, which is a grinding process that squeezes out the cocoa butter and leaves behind the cocoa powder.

The cocoa then goes through a conching process, which means it is mixed back and forth to produce a smooth consistency.

To make couverture (the ingredient used by all master chocolatiers as well as mass manufacturers) cocoa butter is added back to the cocoa powder (plus vegetable fat if making a lower grade chocolate) as is sugar and lecithin (derived from soya), which helps with the fluidity.

Donny buys all his couverture from a Belgian company called Callebaut. “We only use Belgian grades because they are smoother,” he says.

The couverture comes in two forms: one as huge slabs, which are melted in a special machine, and the other as callets (small pellets) in 10kg bags.

Once it arrives as the factory, the tempering process begins. This is where the couverture is first heated and cooled in stages before it can be used. Donny explains why tempering is such a critical part of the process and why it can all go wrong.

“There are six crystals in chocolate and we only want two of them. We need to melt it (the couverture) to turn the other four crystals into the two we want.

“You can tell when chocolate has been tempered well because you get a good snapping sound when you break it,” says Donny.

If you've ever bought a bar of chocolate that's had a white 'bloom' on it, it's usually because the tempering was not done correctly and the fat content has come to the surface.

Donny says the working temperature for milk and white chocolate is 30 degrees C and 32 degrees for dark. “You have to be pretty precise. You need to go over the working temperature to start with but not too high or it can alter the taste or even burn it. If that happens it doesn't smell or taste nice at all,” he says.

Tempering also involves pouring in colder chocolate to maintain the right temperature; however, it's not an exact science as things like humidity and outside air temperature can also affect the process.

“When I first tempered a vat of chocolate it took an hour and a half using one of the machines. Now, I can temper 100kg in 20 minutes, but I have been doing this for a long time,” he chuckles.

In showing me how an egg is made, Donny pours a bag of drops into the depositing machine and then father-in-law Mike ladles out the lovely brown liquid into the moulds, which are then left to set in a cold room.

This, says Donny, is when you know if the tempering has been done right because if it not, the chocolate stays stuck in the moulds.

The next stage is to trim the excess off the shells and fill each one with individual bags of chocolates (all made weeks before, by hand). Then the delicate iced flowers are added on top and the two halves piped together, after which they are dispatched to the George Street shop where Donny's wife Angela packages them beautifully in cellophane and ribbon.

So far, the close-knit family team has made 3-4000 eggs and Easter is still a week away. Some of the largest eggs on the go when I visit are for the Port of Felixstowe, Kentwell Hall, a shopping centre in Liverpool and OCS Catering in Ipswich.

At present, Donny still has a 65cm egg to make for one customer but they have in the past made ones a metre tall, the heaviest of which weighed in at 70kg.

Chocolate is of course a messy business to be in. “When everything was made at the George Street site we used to get it all over the ceiling,” laughs Donny.

“Back then, we were the smallest chocolate makers in the country.”

That was when they only had a 14ft square room; now they have more than 15000 square feet to play around in but are still looking to expand.

But with £17,000 worth of moulds stacked up on the shelves, it's certainly not a cheap business to set up. The spinning machine costs £8 new and the largest depositing machine, which makes 40,000 buttons an hour, set the original owner back £70,000.

Having worked with chocolate for so long, does Donny every get sick of the sight or smell? “Not really. If you're using good ingredients and making new things all the time then it's still fun.”

And as for me, despite the lure of biting into a freshly formed shell, or sneaking some chocolate coated hazelnuts into my bag to take home, I manage to resist all temptation, unbelievable to most who know me. But when Easter finally arrives, I know which type of egg I'll be after.

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Tips for keeping chocolate:

Sunlight and moisture are the two worse enemies of chocolate. The best thing is to keep it dry and out of sunlight and away from anything with a strong odour.

If chocolate gets too hot or too cold, this can result in a whitish bloom. While not harmful, this looks unattractive.

Good quality chocolate should make a sharp 'snap' when it breaks.

Good grade chocolate will not contain vegetable fat, which is added by mass producers to save money.

Hadleigh Maid chocolates can be bought from:

Hadleigh Maid, 35/37 George Street, Hadleigh, 01473 822305. Chocolates can also be bought from Hollowtrees Farm in Semer, near Hadleigh, Snape Maltings, Smiths bakery in Aldeburgh, Carley and Webb in Framlingham, Essex Rose in Dedham, The Jam Shop in Tiptree, The Brewery Farm Shop in Polestead.

Prices for Easter eggs range from £2 up to £595 for the massive metre-tall eggs. The most popular ones are the 'number 4s' costing £14.99.

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