One of the oldest surviving social institutions in the world can be found in the German city of Lübeck. It’s the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, built by wealthy merchants at the start of the 13th century as a place to heal and shelter the sick and impoverished of the city.
According to legend, it was precisely here that they began to make cakes from almond flour and sugar and hand them out to the poor.
It’s hard to say if the legend is true. But what is certain is that in the 18th-19th centuries in Lübeck there were already 135 establishments producing marzipan.
In other parts of Europe, marzipan was produced with a great deal of sugar and a relatively low almond content. The nuts were generally then imported from the East and there wasn’t always sufficient supply for marzipan manufacture.
Lübeck was an important trading hub, giving it a easy and stable supply of almonds. Which is why it was there that they began to add more almond than sugar, and why today the city is still seen as the capital of quality marzipan. The name ‘Lübecker Marzipan’ is in fact protected by the EU with PGI status – a Protected Geographical Indication.
Marzipan can bear the name ‘Lübecker’ so long as it contains no less than 70% almond and no more than 30% sugar.
The leading role in establishing modern production in the city belongs to Johann Georg Niederegger, the leading culinary expert of the town, who set up shop in 1806. When he died 50 years later, his products were already legendary and enjoyed by the Tsars of Russian and the royal courts of Europe.
Today it remains a family business, producing 300 tonnes of almond paste each day and delivering more than 300 different confections to every continent of the world.
Niederegger were the first to consider coating marzipan in dark chocolate, which turns out to highlight its taste better than anything.
So what’s the secret of Niederegger’s more than 200-year predominance? First, without a doubt, the taste. Up to 100% top quality almond content. The second ingredient is sugar, which helps act as a preservative. The carefully guarded recipe of the company ensures, however, that the absolute minimum amount of sugar is required. That makes it better for your health, but also helps reveal the delicate taste of the almond paste, which is made from aromatic Mediterranean nuts.
Second, you have the famous German respect for technology and the best quality standards, cleverly mixing tradition with modern innovation.
Third, the products are beautifully wrapped and packaged. The company makes many seasonal offerings for Christmas, New Year and Easter, alongside other occasions, and the tasteful designs make Niederegger a great choice of gift – for friends and family, or just for yourself.
And the last thing on the list, though not the least, is the balance of price and quality. If you express it the relationship mathematically, for example, the whole will always be greater than the sum of the parts. Try this famous marzipan yourself and check your result!
One of the most loyal customers, was the author Thomas Mann, who was born in Lübeck. He considered himself addicted to marzipan, calling the sweet ‘a luxurious burden upon our stomach’. His passion is shared today by the millions of tourists who have passed through the Niederegger boutique and café.
The company prospers, and so does the city. Maybe that’s the magic of marzipan?
Or perhaps the city is fortunate because its authorities had the courage to deny Hitler his campaign in the city in 1932? It didn’t save the world from fascism, but it is a great credit to Lübeck.
Or possibly it’s the protection of the Holy Spirit, in recognition of the kindness of local citizens to those who suffered in the far off middle ages.
Taste some marzipan and decide for yourself. But make sure it’s the very best. Never economise on quality.