A Brief History of Marzipan

I began writing the story of Marzipan: a Confection in the mid-1990s, the first results of which were published as the prose piece ‘A Brief History of Marzipan’ (New England Review, UNE) in 1999. I've re-posted it here for posterity. Or something.


In 18- the French poet and philosopher Francois de P- described Marzipan (long may its resins perfume these pages!) as a ‘barbarous relic’ of imperial colonisation that had ‘utterly undermined’ diplomatic and trade relationships across the globe. Commonly denounced today as a ‘sordid’ hallucinogenic drug with few (if any) medical applications, pure Marzipan is becoming increasingly difficult to find and even harder to duplicate. Few modern scholars are familiar with its History, though they pride themselves on their ability to reel off an incredible number of dates, creeds and manifestoes from other Histories, both religious and political.

Amongst this civic paraphernalia, Marzipan squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction; like its familiars – those historical characters who manipulated, counterfeited and deregulated it. Relics of this miraculous substance are rumoured to lie, buried and silent, beneath us, a series of bombs that shall one day go off. Until such a time, this Recipe for Marzipan shall have to suffice. As ye will hopefully come to appreciate, while de P- may have been right about Marzipan’s shady reputation in the colonial eras, there yet remain some practical uses to which Marzipan can be put, at little or no expense to any, for the enjoyment and edification of all.


Though much of History is anecdotal, one thing we know for sure is that the great scientist and explorer Captain Cook discovered the island continent of Ahem in the year 1769. The exact sequence of events is blurred, however it seems certain that this discovery acted as an imperial order, or command, whose spirit would one day be reflected in the national anthem of said continent, “Advance, Ahem, It’s Bare” (see sep. entry). For Cook also made a second discovery — namely, that Ahem was a wild and inhospitable country, conveniently devoid of inhabitants, save one — his doppelganger, the elusive Captain Terrence Nullius.

Despite its great aura and obvious floral and faunal diversity, Cook refused to believe that Ahem might indeed be the Great Southern Land (that fabled Terra Australis explorers from all over Europe had long been searching for), choosing instead to name it in honour of the Great Excuse Me. Historians writing in eras less enlightened than our own have claimed that Cook was actually thinking of ‘a hem’, as in a border or rim, when he named the disappearing continent; this and other fallacious rumours have contributed to a revisionist version of history, in which Cook supposedly had no real idea what he was doing in the Newer World.

To which aye respond: not so. Cook was born at a time convenient enough for him to have learnt a great deal about the geography of the world — both from those brave few who reappeared over the horizon and the letters, journals and relics of those who had not, perhaps, been so fortunate as to return — and ancient enough for him to have learnt his trade, or at least the basics of it, aboard the ships that took coal to Whitby. May it give us strength in these times of political strain that Marzipan was discovered by him!

The Discovery of Marzipan

I mean, probably discovered by Captain Cook, in Ahem, during his first voyage there in 1769. For although Cook later swore, under great duress, that he had found the Marzipan in the ground, he was unable (or unwilling) to reveal the exact location of the X-spot where he had ‘found’ it.

Cook was so stubborn, in fact, that when asked whether he had conducted scientific analysis upon the Marzipan, he replied (somewhat facetiously) that he was an explorer, not a scientist. We now know that he knew full well Marzipan was (and still is) composed of almonds, eggs and sugar, plus a fourth element of unknown (possibly alien) origin. All the Jesuits could torture out of Cook on that sad occasion in Venice in 1797 was that although he had discovered both the Marzipan and an island continent, both these wondrous objects had since been dispersed, by a variety of means he again refused to elaborate upon.

Instead of deflating his Inquisitors’ interest, as Cook had hoped, this delectable rumour inflated and inflated, until it resembled (in size, at least) that giant Balloon which had disrupted those astronomical and meteorological forecasts of his back in Tahiti. It seems, in hindsight, that Cook might have been better off not saying anything at all about Ahem and the Marzipan when he arrived in Venice – for then, ironically, Ahem might not have been rediscovered and we might know more about the initial colonisation and destruction of said country.

Indeed, many more of Ahem’s singular charms might have endured had Cook not bothered to discover the Marzipan there in the first place. Regardless of the what-ifs, however, we can say with confidence that had it not been for the timely intervention of the Society of Cook, all that we take for granted today in the way of historical information might well have been lost.

The Cuckoos

In 1778, a Society dedicated to preserving the great store of knowledge Captain Cook (following in the footsteps of Marco Polo) brought back from China was established, inducting its first members, in a series of clandestine ceremonies in Venice, under the banner of the Society of Cook, or colloquially, the ‘Cuckoos’.

This absurd nom-de-plume has, unfortunately, stuck to the saintly Brotherhood, who of course endure it to this day with the utmost humility. It should be remembered at all times that Cook too was labelled insane and a pretender up until 1828, when his discoveries were verified by a second uncovering of Marzipan in Dulton, in the Land of Eggs.

Therefore to dismiss the Cuckoos as mere quacks would be to do them a great disservice, by failing to mention their years of selfless worship; their determination to disseminate Marzipan throughout the world for the sake of all mankind; and their magnificent documentation of confectionery history in The Cook Book, the first edition of which was printed in 1798, just one year after Cook’s return from China and the East.

The Cook Book

It is in The Cook Book that we find the first mention of that great island continent Ahem; of Cook’s scientific analysis of the Marzipan there in 1770; of the various other strains of Marzipan discovered in China; of Cook’s sojourns with the Emperor there in 1768 and 1771; and of his visionary adventures in India and Persia over the next twenty seven years. Aye cannot emphasise enough the importance of this source material to any examination of Cook’s Expeditionary Journals (and aye remind the astute reader of the extreme level of inconsistency between the various copies of these Journals held by interested parties).

The editors of The Cook Book decided early on to pursue a policy of constant revision and correction, thus making the publication a fascinating (if archaic) indicator of the growth of Marzipan’s influence upon world events. Students of Marzipan are especially advised to study the 1898 anniversary edition, in which can be found Fr. Joseph Reisenfall’s highly instructive retrospective, “A Century of Mistakes”.

In this article may be found the first frank discussion of Cook’s (even by then) legendary inability to make good decisions. Fr. Reisenfall correctly identifies Cook’s greatest mistake as his decision to establish the price of Marzipan as the bulwark of the international slave trade in 1805. In that year it was also Cook who suggested to the Jesuits that a day be set aside annually to conduct a re-enactment of his discovery of Marzipan, in order to kindle popular interest and, if possible, convert as many as possible to the cult of the strange stuff.

This suggestion was eagerly taken up by the Jesuits (or should aye say, Cuckoo elements within the Jesuit Order), who used their well-known powers of persuasion to make the day of observance a reality both in Venice and in the towns and cities within a one hundred and seventeen mile radius of it. Further, when Napoleon’s occupation of Venice continued unopposed (to the Republicans’ great shame), it was the Cuckoos who encouraged the people, as a gesture of defiance, to coat the walls of their churches and villas with Marzipan. Thus Venice hid its gold and silver from the prying eyes of Bonaparte’s henchman. The fame of Marzipan grew rapidly then, infused as it was with the reckless spirit of a magnificent Empire’s impending disintegration.


It was through the influence of the Cuckoos that the Republicans discovered the recipe for Persipan (long may its wonders be glazed and displayed!), another useful substance which could indeed be put to many other uses. The stuff became highly sought-after, both in the Beautiful City itself and in other ports including Calais, Naples and Lübeck. Trade lines drawn hesitantly across the continent continued confidently on, into and across the seas; foreign rulers demanded large quantities and watched with interest as their subjects scrambled for the scraps; and songs were sung in its honour from Cape Town to Montreal. At no other time in the history of the world had so many Venetians been so happy.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it must be said that these spontaneous expressions of joy were the first indicators of a malaise known today as Marzipan Psychosis, of which the great Captain was, arguably, the first (un)diagnosed case. This of course explains the rather disturbing change of pace in Cook’s Expeditionary Journals upon his reaching the River Jordan in 1788; it also explains the meticulous documentation of Cook’s withdrawal symptoms by the Jesuits in 1797 – his insomnia, the vividness with which he was able to recall his dreams and his absurd claims that he was the son of the Emperor of China. The Jesuits ended up learning a great deal about this ‘supposed’ substance from Cook, simply by administering various other drugs, the effects of which could be compared and contrasted by Cook himself at a later date, if he so wished. It was no wonder therefore that, five weeks after arriving in Venice, Cook decided on a career change and became a consultant to the Jesuit Order in Rome.

From the tragic day of Cook’s death onwards, all decisions with regards Marzipan were made by the Cuckoos themselves. So we find, in the 1835 edition of The Cook Book, the disastrous decision to raise the standard price of Marzipan from one slave to two slaves per ounce. To be fair, this resolution was based on an economic as well as a practical imperative — for, while the ingredients constituting Marzipan were by that time well-known and easy enough to reproduce, processing them to the desired consistency remained prohibitively expensive and required massive amounts of manpower. Therefore, the Cuckoos reasoned, by making Marzipan more expensive (and, by corollary, slaves less so), production would increase, thus increasing supply.

However, operators who had been manufacturing Marzipan at the old rate found that they now faced competition from new market players who, haven waited until the price rose, began to speculate heavily in Persipan, thus splitting demand. Prices sky-rocketed and violent social upheaval was of course both the logical and actual result. The effect this schism of taste was to have on the slave-trading system can be illustrated by a simple comparison between the sweet, seersucker folk tales spun by Arabian beggar men and the blander but still intriguing mythology that has grown around the so-called ‘Angel of Marzipan’, especially in the little town of Lubeck, in Germany.

In the name of Marzipan and of Persipan and of our Terror, Nullius, Ahem.

This piece was first published in New England Review (University of New England: Armidale, Australia, 1999).
Davey Dreamnation
Davey Dreamnation

Davey Dreamnation (1972–?) is an Australalian musician, vocalist, pirate and record-label owner who now lives 'in the third person'.

View his full biography.

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