By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author
I’ve been in love marzipan ever since I first tasted it as a child. Back then, marzipan candy was a rare and expensive treat, often difficult to find in the United States. But when I later moved to Europe, I discovered a whole world of marzipan, enough to nourish my lifelong love affair with this seductive sweet.
I’ll admit it: I’ve never met a marzipan I didn’t like.
Marzipan is nothing more than a smooth paste of finely ground blanched sweet almonds mixed with sugar. Other ingredients are sometimes added, too, such as water, egg whites, sugar syrup, honey, almond extract, a small amount of bitter almonds, rosewater, orange blossom water and food colorings. But that description doesn’t do justice to the tantalizing taste of this tempting treat, nor to the many ways in which marzipan is used today by professional confectioners and home cooks.
On the grocery shelf, the difference between “almond paste” and “marzipan” is mainly the ratio of sugar to almonds, with marzipan containing more sugar. That ratio varies, depending on the individual producers and the various countries where this confection is made, some of which have laws regulating the proportion of each ingredient. The finest German marzipans contain two parts (or more) of ground almonds to one part of sugar. Others contain 50% almonds and 50% sugar. Danish Odense marzipan, the European brand marketed widely in the United States, has only 28% almonds. (Odense “Pure Almond Paste” contains 45% almonds.)
Culinary historians think that marzipan originally came to Europe from the Middle East, where almond trees and sugar cane have been grown since ancient times, and where there’s a long history of making sweets from almond paste. Even though the early Greeks and Phoenicians planted almond trees around the Mediterranean region, it was the Arabs who expanded the almond orchards, introduced sugar cane cultivation, and began producing marzipan in the areas of southern Europe they conquered and colonized between the 8th and 11th centuries. After Arab power waned in those parts of the Mediterranean, during the 11th to 15th centuries, the secrets of marzipan-making were preserved by nuns in Catholic convents, who produced these sinful sweets for sale to support themselves. That’s why former Arab-ruled lands such as Spain, Sicily, and Malta still have strong marzipan traditions today.
Historians surmise that marzipan spread to northern Europe from Venice and the eastern Mediterranean during the time of the Christian Crusades, from the 11th through 13th centuries. Certainly by the Middle Ages marzipan was known in France, England, and Germany, although in many places it was considered a costly medicine, sold only in pharmacies. It soon became a favored confection of the upper classes, whose cooks molded marzipan into elaborate and fantastic shapes for use as showy centerpieces or edible finales to medieval feasts.
A traditional confection in Europe for several centuries, marzipan is made today by both artisan confectioners and big industrial plants. Centers of marzipan manufacture include Toledo, Spain; Palermo, Sicily; Budapest, Hungary; and Lübeck, Germany. Each has its own style of marzipan, with more or less sugar, baked or unbaked, and modeled into more shapes than you can imagine. At marzipan stores in Europe, I’ve seen this sweetened, colored almond paste formed into fruits, vegetables and flowers, from miniature to life-size; animals from penguins, polar bears and “good luck” pigs (for the New Year) to walruses, lions, hedgehogs and squirrels; Easter eggs and Easter rabbits; Santas and angels; fish and shellfish; lifelike sandwiches, cheeses and sausages; even modern marzipan cell phones and McDonald’s-like cardboard packets full of french fries.
Marzipan has other uses, too. Europeans fill chocolates with marzipan; wrap it around nuts, candied fruits and other sweet fillings; bake it inside cookies; and stuff dates, prunes, peaches and apples with it. They roll marzipan into thin sheets as a covering for fancy cakes and use it as ingredient in tortes and tartes, pies and pastries, sorbets and ice creams, even sweet dumplings, ravioli and roast pork. I once ate at a restaurant in Lübeck that featured “marzipan lasagna” for dessert, made with layers of white marzipan “pasta” and a red and green fondant filling.
Several cities in Europe have marzipan museums, most of them attached to a confection company’s coffee shop, candy shop or factory store. The Niederegger Marzipan Salon, on the second floor of the Konditorei-Café Niederegger in Lübeck, Germany, has a display about the history of marzipan. But the actual shop on the ground floor is even more interesting, where you can buy more than 300 types of the company’s products, including whimsical edibles made out of marzipan and Niederegger’s irresistible Cuandolé marzipan liqueur.
Leu’s Marzipan-Land in Lübeck features a “Marzipan-Show” on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. You’ll see all the stages in the manufacture of marzipan, as well as an unusual exhibition of large marzipan sculptures, before pigging out in the shop where you’ll be tempted to buy more marzipan than you should ever eat in one sitting.
Hungary boasts three marzipan museums, all owned by the Szabo confectionery company. My favorite is the Szabo Marzipan Museum in Szentendre, a pleasant (but now overly touristy) little artists’ village not far from Budapest. This small museum is chock full of displays of colored marzipan shaped into Disney characters, a Cinderella coach, a massive wedding cake, a cactus garden and even a detailed replica of the Hungarian parliament building. On the ground floor there’s a traditional confectionery kitchen where you can watch marzipan being made and a shop where you can buy goodies to go. Next door the Szabo café-and-pastry shop offers a wide variety of luscious Hungarian cakes, tortes, ice cream concoctions, marzipan candies, coffees and teas.
The smaller Szabo Marzipan Museum in Budapest features large marzipan sculptures of the Matthias Church, the Fishermen’s Bastion, and the Chain Bridge across the Danube (all local landmarks), a Chinese pagoda, several Harry Potter characters and other curiosities, some made from more than 100 pounds of marzipan. And there’s another Szabo Marzipan Museum in Pécs, also connected with one of their coffee-and-pastry shops.
In Sonseca, Spain, just south of historic Toledo, you can visit the interesting Delaviuda Marzipan Museum at the Delaviuda candy factory, which shows how Spain’s distinctive (and delicious) marzipan is made. And finally, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, also has a couple of small marzipan museums in the Old Town. I just haven’t managed to eat my way that far north yet.
ADDRESSES AND WEBSITES:
Konditorei-Café Niederegger, Breit Strasse 89, Lübeck, Germany
Leu’s Marzipan-Land, Drechlerstrasse 6, Lübeck, Germany
Szabo Marzipan Museum, Hilton Budapest, Hungary
Szabo Marzipan Museum, Dumtsa Jeno St. 14, Szentendre, Hungary
Szabo Marzipan Museum, Apaca St. 1, Pécs, Hungary
Delaviuda Marzipan Museum, Calle Santa Maria 4, Sonseca, Spain www.delaviuda.com