Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lucie Snodgrass: Dyeing Eggs the Swiss Way

Easter arrives late this year, but author Lucie Snodgrass writes that there’s no need to wait to dye eggs. Decorating eggs is a fun, memorable way to capture and celebrate the naturally occurring colors and patterns of the season — especially when using plant ingredients to achieve truly unique results.

Decorating eggs is a fun activity that kids and adults can do together, and one that sticks in children’s memories long after the chocolate bunnies and jelly beans have melted or been eaten.

Growing up in a Swiss family that emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1960s, we eschewed store-bought coloring kits in favor of a more traditional egg dyeing process that used onion skins for color, and flowers, leaves, and other natural materials to create designs on the eggs. It’s a practice that I continued with my own boys and that I still love today. The flowers and grasses — which come mostly from the garden, depending on whether early spring flowers like crocuses, daffodils, and Lenten roses are blooming — are carefully layered on a bare white egg, which then is wrapped in brown or red onion skins that envelop the whole egg. When wrapped in white cloth fastened with string and boiled all together, the onion skins dye the eggs a pleasing mocha (or pinkish purple) color and the pressed flowers and grass create interesting and unique patterns on the egg’s surface. No two eggs are alike and, best of all, for kids who aren’t especially artistic, there is no right or wrong way to decorate the eggs. Each one turns out beautifully, and some of the prettiest eggs I’ve seen came from clumsy fingers like mine and not from the hands of perfectionist artists (like my sister, Alexandra).

When my siblings and I were young, the lead-up to Easter meant two things: packages full of chocolate from our grandmother in Switzerland (all of which disappeared into some secret closet until the Easter egg hunt) and dyeing Easter eggs with our father, a cherished tradition.

A few days before Easter we would go with him to our local supermarket where we methodically pinched onion skins from big, round onions and collected them all in a bag. (Believe it or not, in Switzerland they actually sell little bags of onion skins for dying!) As an adult, I’ve often wondered whether anyone thought it odd that a family seemed so interested in onions that they stood in front of a store’s onion supply for long periods of time. Similarly, I’ve imagined how peculiar the cashiers must have found it to ring up a bag that was 95 percent onion skins and five percent onions, but they never questioned us and our onion skins always made it home safely.

Equal in importance to the onion skins were the materials we collected to create the patterns on the eggs.  Grape hyacinths and crocuses were always popular, as were fern leaves, grasses, and anything that might either transfer some color to the egg or create a distinctive marking. If Easter was early and the garden was still bare, we used houseplant leaves and even store-bought blooms, but most years we managed to scavenge enough supplies to decorate the eggs. The only other supplies we procured were raw white eggs, old cloth that we cut into pieces large enough to envelop an egg, and twine to tie the egg packages at the neck. After that, the boiling water and nature took over. We never could predict exactly what the eggs would turn out looking like, but I remember never being disappointed, either. Once the timer went off we eagerly crowded around the big pot, taking turns to cut the strings and unwrap the eggs, oohing and aahing at each one.

Unlike the brightly colored eggs that most American families produced, our Easter eggs blended in so well in the garden that it was often hard to find them, a fact that just added to the fun and challenge of the Easter morning egg hunt ritual. 

Making Your Own Swiss Easter Eggs

If you’d like to try making your Easter eggs the Swiss way, you’ll need just a few supplies:

1 dozen white eggs, uncooked
Enough onion skins to wrap the dozen eggs
Flower blossoms, grass, ferns, etc., for decorating the eggs
Cloth squares for wrapping the egg packages
Twine for tying the egg bundles
A large pot filled with boiling water

  1. Collect your materials and lay them out in order, with the eggs first, then the flowers and grasses, followed by the onion skins, the cloth squares, and the twine. Meanwhile, put on a large pot of water to boil.  
  2. Carefully pick up an egg, holding it between your thumb and forefinger. With the other hand, select some flowers or other decorations from your pile and place some of them against the eggshell. This is the trickiest part: you need to try to hold the flowers in place so that they cover the egg’s surface. 
  3. Next, pick up an onion skin and carefully place the egg inside of it, again trying to make sure that the flowers and leaves are pressed against the egg’s shell. If the onion skin isn’t big enough to cover the whole egg, use as many other skins as needed to cover it completely. Again, you will need to use your fingers to hold the skins in place.  
  4. Pick up a piece of cloth and carefully wrap it around the onion skins, creating a little package with the extra material bunched at the top of the egg. Tie twine around the bunched material as tightly as possible, taking care not to break the egg.
  5. Place the egg bundles in a large pot of gently boiling water and cook for ten minutes.
  6. Remove the eggs from the heat and run under cold water. Let the eggs cool for five minutes and then cut open the string and unwrap the package. If desired, dry and then coat the egg with vegetable oil to create a sheen. 
  7. Refrigerate the eggs until you are ready to use them. Eggs will store for several weeks this way. 
Photos courtesy of Lucie Snodgrass.

Lucie Snodgrass is an award-winning author whose writing has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, and Vegetarian Times, where she was a regular columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of Dishing Up® Maryland, and blogs about her travels at Bird in Paradise. Se lives, writes, and cooks in Annapolis. 

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