Almonds and sugar, simplicity and tradition. There are many theories about the origin of this sweet delicacy and some of them are more backed up by historians than others. Although it is believed to have originated in Persia (present-day Iran) and to have been introduced to Europe through the Turks, there is some dispute among a few cities over its origin – each one claims to be the marzipan’s birth place, including Lübeck, Germany; Tallinn, the capital of Estonia; Sicily, Venice and Florence, Italy … However, we may never find out where the sweet actually came from.
An almond paste was eaten during Ramadan and as an aphrodisiac as it mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights – the famous collection of Middle Eastern stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 13th century.
Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880
Yet the most recognized version of its history is from the eighth century, when Spain was under the rule of the Arabs. Once known for its tolerance, Toledo was a place where three cultures coexisted together in a perfect harmony: Christian, Jewish and Muslim. It’s said that “marzipan” comes from the Arabic term “mautha-ban”, which means “seated king” – an image that was printed onto the dough of their pastries
Late 12th – early 13th centuries, Spain. In 1195, Alfonso VIII of Castile was defeated by the Berber Almohad Muslim rulers of the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula. Then, in 1211, his powerful army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, invaded Christian territory, and captured Salvatierra Castle, the stronghold of the knights of the Order of Calatrava. The threat to the Iberian Christian kingdoms was so great that Pope Innocent III called European knights to a crusade. The Christian forces led by King Alfonso VIII of Castile went against the Almohad’s army, made up of people from the whole empire, but mostly from the African side of it. The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa took place on 16 July 1212 and was an important turning point in the medieval history of Spain.
Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa by Francisco de Paula Van Halen, 1864
One legend states that there was terrible famine after this battle: no wheat to make bread, but plenty of almonds and sugar. The nuns from the nearest to Toledo Convent of San Clemente started making a paste from these two ingredients to feed hungry people. The sweet delicacy was quite different from regular bread, but it worked for the survival time. Much later, the city has become famous for its gastronomical product – marzipan.
Mazapán is Toledo’s most famous dessert where almonds have to be at least 50% of the total weight. Under EU law, marzipan must have a minimum almond oil content of 14% and a maximum moisture content of 8.5%. Optional additional ingredients are rosewater, honey, pistachios, and sometimes hazelnut. German Lübecker Marzipan is known for its quality – it contains 66% almonds. In order to maintain quality standards, many countries regulate the percentage of almonds a recipe must have for it to be legally called “marzipan.” This discourages the use of apricot kernels as a cheap substitute for almonds.
A bowl containing several fruit-shaped marzipan pieces
Chocolate-covered marzipan and small marzipan imitations of fruits and vegetables are commonly used. It is also rolled into thin sheets and glazed for icing and wedding cakes. Sometimes it is shaped into small figures of animals as a traditional treat for New Year’s Day and Christmas.
Marzipan is your candy and your omegas, isn’t healthy?