To make marzipan, you need only two ingredients: ground, peeled sweet almonds and sugar syrup, which can be replaced by honey. Of course, a lot depends on the proportions (it can be single, double or triple, depending on the proportion of sugar added to almonds) and the flavouring; the characteristic aroma can be obtained by adding a little bitter almond, while old recipes also prescribed rose water or -oil. Its plasticine consistency makes it malleable; allowing it to be shaped into many different shapes or figures, and it is also an excellent decoration.
The Ruszwurm Confectionery's Confectionery Book describes the small and large-scale procedures for making marzipan and recommends small amounts of bitter almonds for flavouring. It can also be made from other types of oilseeds, such as walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios or coconut, or from unbittered peach kernel, known as perzipan. The unbittering process extracts a compound called amygdalin, which is found in the kernels of stone fruits and which produces hydrogen cyanide in the stomach, and the consumption of which can cause health problems if consumed in excess. Amygdalin is also the flavour of bitter almonds, which is why proportions are important, as recommended in the specialist book.
Where does marzipan come from?
The best-known origin story is that marzipan originated in ancient Persia, from where it was first brought to Europe by the Crusaders. It was a special and prestigious delicacy both on the tables of the rulers of medieval Europe and in the Arabian Nights Entertainments, not to mention the marzipan compositions of Baroque feasts. There are several variations on the etymology of the word marzipan, one of which is that it was brought by Venetian crusaders, and was therefore named after the patron saint of Venice, St Mark, and thus became Marci panis, meaning bread of Marcus. Another theory is that the origin of the name is to be found in the Arabic word martaban, which also means a transport box (including marzipan), and in the south of France the similar term massapan is still used for a box of sweets.
Medicine, bread substitute and premium sweet
It is said that the European population survived the plague of the 14th century with long-lasting marzipan loaves. Regardless of the epidemic period, marzipan was still sold in pharmacies at this time, possibly because of the beneficial effects attributed to rose oil and the sugar content, which was expensive and was considered healthy at the time, but was difficult to obtain. From the 15th century onwards, imports from sugar cane plantations in the New World, and later, in the 19th century, European sugar production based on sugar beet, boosted marzipan production, turning almond creations from a royal privilege into a dessert available to an increasing number of people.
The history of the famous Sicilian confection, the frutta martorana, a meticulously sculpted, lifelike, multiform miniature marzipan fruits, also dates back to the 14th century and was first created by the nuns of La Martorana monastery. Toledo marzipan is a gastronomic curiosity of the Spanish. Beyond the Mediterranean, marzipan spread rapidly along the Baltic Sea thanks to the Hanseatic traders who transported both the reputation and the raw materials of marzipan northwards.
The history of marzipan in Lübeck began in the 15th century, when a famine in the besieged city led to a search of the warehouses, during which a large quantity of almonds and honey was discovered. These ingredients were used to make the first Lübeck marzipan, then known as the bread of famine. However, it was Johann Georg Niederegger, a confectioner from Ulm, who tried his luck in the town of Hanza, and who made the marzipan famous. Niederegger opened his own business in 1806 and became world famous for the higher almond content of his products and his invention of marzipan combined with chocolate; marzipan products bearing his name are still on the shelves today. A few years later, alongside Lübeck marzipan, another 'Hanseatic sweet', Königsberg marzipan, which became popular later on, appeared, with the special feature of being toasted by sudden heating and served with sugar syrup and candied fruits.
From the table of King Matthias to Szabó-Szamos products
In Hungary, the first mention of the almond and sugar speciality is from the 14th century, when it was served at the banquets of monarchs, including King Matthias, where the most famous dessert was a marzipan chessboard with brown and white fields. Master Chefs from the court of Naples, who accompanied his wife Beatrice of Aragon, could bring the delicacy to the court. Recipes for marzipan, also known as marczapan, have survived from the 16th and 17th centuries, for example in a cookbook written by Anna Bornemisza, princess of Transylvania, in 1680. It is also mentioned in Miklós Misztótfalusi Kis's Booklet for Cookery, published in 1698:
The marcafánt, or marzipan, is made like this. Soak two pounds (1 pound = ca. 0.5 kg) of marzipan in cold water in the evening, in the morning peel the skin off; in a mortar, crush a pound in it for an hour, pour rose water, that is, a mixture of rose oil and water, four or five times over it, so that its oil does not sag; break the other pound of almonds in the same way; then take a pound and a half of cane sugar, and with that also break the almonds until an egg is roasted; then make it in a copper basin, and cook it over a slow fire (... ) then put it in a pan, sprinkle with starch (...) and bake until the bottom is a little browned; take it out again, and let it bake by itself.
The history of the most famous Hungarian marzipan brand began in the 1930s at the Auguszt confectionery in Krisztina Boulevard, where Mladen Szavits, an apprentice of Serbian origin, learned the skills of making marzipan, especially marzipan roses, from a Danish master. In the 1960s, the confectioner, who later changed his name to Mátyás Szamos, started his own family manufactory making marzipan decorations, and later opened a confectionery as well. Today, there are more than twenty Szamos confectioneries and sweet shops in Hungary.
The history of Szabó Marzipán also began at this time. Károly Szabó used his experiences in Vienna and Lebanon to establish his marzipan workshop in Austria, and then in Hungary after the fall of communism. On the flyer of Károly Szabó's confectionery, he says: "I founded my marzipan factory in Puchberg in 1970, which is now one of the largest exclusively handmade confectionery businesses in Austria (...) My products still bear the style features of the homeland."
The marzipan museum in Szentendre is also linked to the work of two pioneers of Hungarian confectionery, Mátyás Szamos and Károly Szabó. In the Kopcsik Marcipánia exhibition in Eger, visitors can see the confectionery art pieces made of marzipan by master confectioner Lajos Kopcsik.
Translated by Zita Aknai