First of all, I love sweets! Yes, I’ve said it. Candy, chocolates, pastry, cakes, pies and tarts! I do not discriminate. There’s hardly a bakery, patisserie, Godiva, Lindt or Ghirardelli shop I haven’t been into. Whenever I travel, I am immediately and irresistibly drawn to specialty confection and pastry shops. Our recent trip to Spain satisfied all those desires.
Here in the states, most people think of marzipan, if they’ve even heard of it at all, as those small candy confections molded and colored to look like miniature fruit, usually only available around the holidays and sold in specialty shops. In Great Britain and Europe, there’s a broader view and range of marzipan which includes using marzipan as fondant to cover cakes, as well as a filling in tarts and pies. While in Spain, I was quite surprised to learn that not only was marzipan invented there (sorry Italy), but there are confectionery shops dedicated to making and, of course, selling marzipan. I don’t know why this surprised and fascinated me, but it did.
Here in the northeast, along the seashore, we have specialty candy shops which sell ‘salt water taffy’. This sweet, boiled and pulled taffy (which my dentist will no longer let me eat) is generally made in large copper kettles in full view of the public. Candy stores and gift shops up and down the coast sell this sweet confection, in individually-wrapped pieces, from large bins to tourists who try to choose between the many different flavors. Ergo marzipan!
If you’re not familiar with marzipan, it is a sweet, thick paste made from ground almonds and sugar, commonly referred to as a ‘sweetmeat’. And as with all great things, who invented it is up for debate. The Italians say it was invented in Sicily. Spain claims it was invented in Spain. Greece takes credit for it, as well as Germany and the Middle East. After being in the small village of Toledo, Spain, I think I now have the whole story.
Spain was settled by the Romans, but during the 5th century the Visigoths conquered the Romans and took over the kingdom. The Visigoths established the village of Toledo as their capital. It was a turbulent time. Hostilities were everywhere … between the Catholics, the Aryans and the Arabs, who were now moving in. By the end of the 6th century, the Arabs had successfully taken over and drove the Visigoths from Toledo. The Arabs settled into this peninsula bringing with them, among many other foods, almonds, asparagus, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries and olives. None of these foods had been known to the Europeans before this time.
Southern Spain flourished. Wealth was being generated by the now rich and fertile farmlands. Irrigation systems were developed. Dams were built. Windmills were constructed. And Jews, Christians, and Muslims all lived together peacefully. But nothing is forever. Christian forces started moving down from the north and captured this area in 1085. The battles took years and dried up all the food sources.
There was widespread famine everywhere. It was devastating. The wheat fields and storerooms were gone and with no wheat to make bread, what would the people eat? What Toledo still had stored, however, was sugar and almonds. The nuns from the Convent of San Clemente, in an effort to come up with something to feed the starving population, created a paste combining these two ingredients, sugar and almonds. Some historians claim eggs were added to it, others claim ground chicken meat was added to it, but the fact that a paste using these ingredients was fed to the people and kept them from starving to death.
Is it possible the nuns could have had prior knowledge about mixing these ingredients? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that a paste made from ground almonds and eaten during Ramadan is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, written around the 8th or 9th century. Because of its extensive cultural heritage, Toledo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. And with such a fascinating and rich heritage, you’ll find nuns from the many Convents in Toledo still making this very popular confection today. Should you be fortunate enough to travel to this fascinating little town of Toledo, you can actually take a marzipan making class, which I wish we had time to do. Definitely with our next visit!
Marzipan which literally translates as March Bread is a sweet, nutty confection known and enjoyed all over the world. Italy, of course, is a large producer, as is Germany and the Middle East, but to proudly wear the D.O. (designation of origin) stamp assigned by the Mazapán de Toledo Counsel, the marzipan must be made in Toledo and contain at least 50% almonds.
Although we didn’t take the marzipan cooking class, we certainly did purchase and sample as much as we could. Marzipan shops line every street in this quaint town. Creamy in texture, rich in flavor, from simple bite-sized pieces to large impressive sculpted designs … none of those fussy little imitation fruits … this was the best marzipan I have ever had. But now that we’re home and all the marzipan is gone, you know I’m going to try making it myself. How difficult could it be?
This is a recipe I found online. Now to go shopping …
- 2 cups finely ground blanched almonds, or almond flour
- 2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 egg white
- 1 tsp pure almond extract
In a food processor blend together the almonds and sifted sugar.
Stir together the honey, egg white and almond extract.
With the food processor turned on, slowly add the honey mixture in a slow stream.
When all of the honey has been added the marzipan should hold together, like play dough.
If it is a little too dry add more honey a tablespoon at a time.
Form the marzipan into a log and cut it into two or three portions, wrapping each one tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to use. Will last two to three weeks.