The thinker and theologian Foma Akvinsky said that marzipan could be eaten during times of religious fasting. The great Bocaccio linked it to romantic passion. While Hans Christian Andersen said that mercy smells like marzipan.
There must be something especially attractive about this confection if such different individuals found it equally enchanting. For one thing, of course, it’s very tasty. But the main ingredient, almond, is also exceptionally good for you.
Marzipan was used to sweeten bitter pills until the mid-19th century, and was often given as a present to wish a sick person a speedy recovery.
The recipe is simple – almond flour and sugar syrup. There are lots of variations, in which almond is swapped for another nut, or the sugar for honey. Some add different flavourings. But classic marzipan is almond and sugar. And possibly a little magic, which the top manufacturers keep secret!
There is reason to believe that the true secret of quality marzipan is simply the proportion of ingredients. They should be around 70/30 almond to sugar. But there’s another small detail. Almond paste is made from sweet almond, the kind used in food. Bitter (or wild) almond, meanwhile, is rich in amygdalin, a glycoside that can turn into the acid hydrogen cyanide – extremely dangerous if consumed in sufficient quantities. On the other hand, it’s amygdalin that gives us the strong scent of almonds that you don’t get from the sweet variety. Which is why the master confectioners at Lübeck add a tiny amount of bitter almond to achieve their signature taste. What about the acid, though? Well, the nuts are heat treated to neutralise the amygdalin, thereby preventing the formation of hydrogen cyanide.
Marzipan from Lübeck is today considered one of the very best in the world. It’s not just because of the addition of bitter almond, but thanks to the use of excellent ingredients and the company’s unwillingness to compromise standards over the centuries.
It’s hard to say where the idea of mixing almond flour and syrup was first invented. There are two theories: European and oriental. The first suggests that a Mediterranean country – possibly Italy or Spain or France, the dispute continues – suffered a grain shortage one year, and there was nothing at all to bake bread from. Someone clever decided to grind up almonds into flour and bake the result. Someone else clever had the idea of adding sugar – and it turned out even better.
The oriental theory says that marzipan came to us from China via Persia, along with many other exotic trophies gathered by the Crusaders. Having said that, however, ancient Greek sources were talking about a kind of marzipan made with honey many centuries earlier than the Crusader campaigns.
Those who follow the oriental version of the sweet’s origins sometimes propose that marzipan came to Europe via the Arab occupiers of the Iberian peninsula.
They say the Arabs considered marzipan a medicine that lifted the mood, boosted the production of blood cells, increased vitality, and supported the regeneration of injured tissues.
There are also lots of theories about the derivation of the word marzipan, but perhaps the most attractive is that it comes from the latin martuis panis – March bread. Which fits with the idea that it was initially conceived as the result of a grain shortage.
You can choose whichever story you prefer, but the main thing is to make sure you choose the right marzipan. There’s a lot out there that frankly isn’t genuine marzipan at all. That might explain why some people say they don’t like it – they haven’t been introduced to the real thing, just nasty stuff made from cheap ingredients with colourants and sweeteners.
But if you try genuine marzipan, if only once, you’ll understand immediately why for so many years it has been considered an aristocratic luxury.