food humorfood humor Eat, Drink and Really Be Merry

Marzipan: A Sweet And Tasty History
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did this delightful holiday treat originate? Who were the first lucky people to savor the sweetness of marzipan and how did it get its unusual name? These and other questions will be addressed below. Read on and dare to be sweet even if it is not your nature.

History records marzipan as a valued blend of crushed almonds and honey that dates back to 1800 BC in ancient Egypt. In all probability, however, the mixing of these two ingredients dates back even further to man’s beginning. There are several legends associated with the birth of marzipan and to this day they must remain as such.

It is known that marzipan was prized by the Emperors of Rome and became an important part of Italy’s culinary heritage as marzapane (March bread). Marzipan is the earliest documentation of the word, but original etymology remains unclear. One possible meaning derives from a Middle Latin word meaning small box and another as set forth in the Oxford English dictionary, argues that the word marzipan may well be a corruption of Marta ban, a Burmese city famous for its decorative jars.

According to one legend, marzipan was so valued in the early villages along the Nile River that it was used as barter coins known as march pans. It is believed to have thus possibly spread throughout the world, but it is more likely that its origins are Arabic (Persian to be exact), and that the Crusaders carried it back to their homeland during the Dark Ages where it was made by nuns in France. It became well known as march pane in Europe by the 13th century. This particular confection is known for its ability (not by itself, of course) to be sculpted into fantastic shapes. These included figures of men, animals, trees and castles made from sugar paste and jelly and they were served to royal audiences at the end of each course of medieval feasting.

Sometimes the figures had allegorical meanings and bore written mottoes that pertained to the specific occasion. In some instances, they were highly complex and ritualistic, symbolizing the Trinity and other religious subjects. They were always admired and properly lauded before slipping down royal gullets. During the reign of Elizabeth I, a marchpane was produced regularly as the chief showpiece of the banquet and it became very popular among the Elizabethan elite as Saint Marks Pain.

The cherished dessert was always made of ground almonds and sugar on a base of wafer biscuits and formed into a round. (A hoop of green hazelwood was sometimes used to insure the proper shape.) The frosting was made with sugar and rosewater and made the confection shine like ice. This was an important part of the marzipan’s preparation as was the gilding of decorative shapes in gold leaf.

Marzipan is well documented from the Renaissance to the present day. During the Renaissance, the kings of France cherished marzipan and had it baked into small cookies called masepains. Marzipan became a specialty of the Baltic Sea Region of Germany, particularly the city of Lubeck. Niederegger, the city’s chief manufacturer, guarantee that their marzipan contains 2/3 almonds by weight, which results in a bright yellow product. In the Middle East, marzipan is known as lozina, which is derived from the word, lows (the Arabic word for almonds). In that part of the world, the marzipan is flavored with orange-flower water and shaped into delicate floral designs before baking.

One fanciful legend about marzipan’s history comes from Spain during the siege of Toledo (850-900). As the story goes, food supplies were running low, and so the inhabitants mixed together the only available foods, namely almonds and eggs, and added some water. (This sort-of proves the life giving you lemons and lemonade theory, but to no avail.) Whether or not this is a tale for elves and their kindred, it is a fact that marzipan has delighted many cultures in many ways for hundreds of years. The Swiss covered marzipan with chocolate (but not their watches or bank executives); the Danish fashioned pink pigs for good luck and the Germans used the delectable confection to decorate their Christmas trees.

Marzipan has become an important Christmas tradition in most countries and its characteristic flavor comes from bitter almonds. It is said that arsenic retains the odor of bitter almonds and therefore one could mistakenly conclude that causing the demise of a nasty marzipan lover might seem easier than plotting the death of other people. (This is not a recommended course of action as you are sure to get caught, and then who would eat all that marzipan?) Some of the sweet confection is also flavored with rosewater. A similar product, persipan, uses apricots or peach kernels in place of almonds, making foul play by poisoning even more difficult.

Marzipan is very versatile and is often made into sweets. Most commonly, it is used to fill chocolates candies and as marzipan imitations of fruits and vegetables. (No vitamin C here; just a worthwhile dose of old Mr. Tooth Decay and Ms. Diabetic Coma.) Marzipan is also sometimes rolled into thin sheets and glazed for cake icings, particularly wedding cakes, Christmas confections and stollen. In some countries, pig shapes are very popular, especially as a traditional New Years Day treat. During Carnival season, marzipan is also utilized in Tortell (an O-shaped pastry) and in some versions of "king cake." (a new Orleans specialty). Denmark is known for its charming marzipan parties, which are part of their standard Christmas tradition.

In Palermo, Italy, during the Christmas season, marzapane is often shaped and painted with food coloring to resemble fruits, a confection known as fruitta martorana. In Portugal, marzipan (macapao) are fruit shaped sweets made in the Algarve region. Toledo, Spain, is known for shaping marzipan into simple animal shapes (yema) filled with egg yolk and sugar. In Latin American cuisine, mazapan is traditionally eaten at holiday times.The Indian sweet, badam barfi is also from almonds and tastes similar to marzipan.

Marzipan has made its way into pop culture jargon as well as down our welcome gullets. In business, the "marzipan layer" refers to the group of managers just below the highest level of directors or partners. The reference here is to the fact that in some cakes, a layer of marzipan lies just below the icing.

Wherever it comes from and however it is used, marzipan remains one of the world’s most wonderful holiday confections.

Have some for your holiday season. It may not turn out to be a lot of things you planned, but it is sure to be sweeter if do!

Happy marzipan to all and to all a good…holiday season.

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2007