Bettys' iconic Imperial Easter egg weighs in at 12lbs and is 70 cm high
PUBLISHED: 12:31 21 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:31 21 March 2018
©Justin Slee 2018
What inspires Bettys' innovation team to keep producing such cracking Easter treats?
Don’t tell anyone, but the woman in charge of creating Bettys’ iconic Imperial Easter egg is not keen on chocolate. ‘I don’t have a sweet-tooth,’ said bakery product development manager Lesley Norris, looking nervously over her shoulder as if someone is about to march in and demand her staff badge back. ‘I wouldn’t thank someone for buying me an Easter egg. I’d much rather have a Bury Simnel (a special Easter version of Bettys’ iconic Fat Rascal) or our hot cross buns. But if I had to choose chocolate, I’d probably go for our hand-painted ganache eggs because they’re rich without being too sweet.’
It’s quite an admission for someone who has worked at Yorkshire’s most famous bakery for 38 years, where you’d imagine a sweet-tooth was a job requirement. But could it be that her fondness for the savoury side of life has actually made her better equipped for the job in hand?
‘I honestly think it has helped,’ said Lesley, ‘because I can taste our chocolate as a professional rather than as a fan. I can pick out and appreciate a really good chocolate, it’s just that I don’t want to eat a lot of it. Which, again, is probably a good thing, otherwise I’d be the size of a house by now.’
She joined Bettys as research and development manager in 1980 after training as a home economist at Salford College of Technology. It was a new role for her and for the company, who had already built a successful range of products and was now looking to broaden its appeal.
Inevitably, her role has grown and evolved in the last four decades and she now leads a team of product innovators who are constantly trying to stay one step ahead. In other words, when you’re buying your Factor 30 for your summer holiday, they’re designing Easter eggs.
‘We start preparing for Easter in July and have all the designs finalised by October,’ said Lesley. ‘It has to be this way because as soon as Christmas is over, we start our Easter production.
‘You also have to bear in mind that we’re working on multiple projects at once. We’re busy with Easter at the moment, but we’re also working on our Christmas designs, developing a new afternoon tea offering and planning next year’s centenary celebrations. There’s never any time to stand still; we’re always moving forward.’
One of the innovations she’s most ‘egg-cited’ about this Easter (the editor has rationed the puns, so you’ll be relieved to know that’s your lot from me) are a set she calls ‘egglets’ – a trio of mini animal character eggs (a pig, a sheep and a chick) that have more than a hint of Aardman about them, only they’re made from coloured chocolate instead of modelling clay.
‘They’re already selling extremely well,’ said Lesley. ‘We can’t deliver them by post because they’re too delicate, so customers have to buy them in the tea rooms. Honestly, we’ve had reports from staff saying that people are taking them directly off the trays before they’ve even reached the shelves.’
Novelty items have become increasingly popular in recent years, with Bettys’ bespoke chocolate badger (not a phrase that comes up in conversation every day) now firmly established as an Easter favourite.
But nothing can really touch the popularity of the company’s traditional Easter eggs – made in the same moulds for generations.
‘The egg market is changing,’ said Lesley. ‘Some companies are producing very peculiar-shaped eggs now – some are like rockets and some have jagged edges – but that’s not our style. Novelty items are great, but when it comes to Easter eggs, we think they should be egg-shaped.’
So, where does she start when it comes to designing a new egg? Unsurprisingly, next year’s design starts with this year’s best-sellers. ‘I’ll be looking round this Easter to see what everyone is doing and what trends are emerging,’ said Lesley. ‘We don’t slavishly follow trends, but it’s important to know what they are. I’ll also keep a close eye on taste tests in magazines and we’ll do our own benchmarking to see how our products stack up.’
And when that’s all done, she hits Pinterest, which is where she found the inspiration for this year’s lavish Imperial egg – a handmade 12lb stunner that stands at almost 70cm high and weighs in at £250. ‘I don’t just look at food images on Pinterest when I’m gathering ideas; I find fabric particularly inspiring too,’ she said. ‘This year’s floral eau de nil egg was inspired by Japanese and Chinese blossom fabrics. The blossoms work really well with our traditional royal icing flowers to give us a fresh oriental take on spring.’
The stunning pale green shell of the Imperial – and it’s smaller, more affordable limited edition cousin – is created using several layers of chocolate. Both while and milk are used to give it the strength it needs to stay upright and in one piece, with the final layer infused with naturally coloured cocoa butter over-lustred in silver.
Lesley has handcrafted six Imperials for Bettys’ tea room windows in Harrogate, Harlow Carr, York (both St Helen’s Square and Stonegate), Ilkley and Northallerton and will probably make another 15 or so for customers. Each egg takes a whole day to make.
‘We have customers who order an Imperial every year,’ she said. ‘I do sometimes wonder whether all of them are given to a loved one. I wouldn’t blame them if they kept them for themselves though. What a treat!’
Fortunately, it’s not just the lucky few who can enjoy a Bettys’ treat at Easter. There’s a whole range of goodies to choose from, including smaller hazelnut and almond eggs, bite-sized champagne truffle eggs, sugar-coated miniature eggs and milk chocolate bunny lollipops.
‘I think our Easter treats come boxed up with a lot of family nostalgia,’ said Lesley. ‘We have customers who were treated to an egg at Easter by their parents and are now doing the same for their own children and grandchildren. It’s become something of a family tradition.’
If you’re planning on taking a family trip to Bettys in Harrogate, take a good look at the person next to you in the queue. You might just see a familiar face. ‘You will occasionally find me lurking outside the tea room listening to customers as they look in the window,’ said Lesley. ‘When I see them pointing at the Imperial egg that I made and saying lovely things about it, well, it just makes my day.’