The Invention of Marzipan

My MA (Creative Writing) thesis, a 30,000 word novella, described the invention of Marzipan in a fictional German town during a Famine in the 1400s. This paper maps its history and terrain, offering some hints as to Marzipan’s general composition and effects.

Readers familiar with William Shakespeare’s dramatic works will recall Act I, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet, wherein the first Servant, whilst clearing away plates, says:

Away with the joint stools, remove the court cubbert, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane; and as thou loves me let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell. Antony, and Potpan!

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

That this ‘piece of marchpane’, a confection known today as Marzipan—but also marci panis, march payne, martiapanes, panis marcius, marzepaines, mauthaban, marzapane, mazapán, massepain, martaban, martevaan, mawtaban, matapan, mazapan and marzapanetti—should hold such high value for a Servant clearings scraps speaks volumes about the peculiar mystery of this particular Stuffe but also the vicissitudes of human hunger.

In 1926 the German novelist and future Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann made a speech on the 700th anniversary of his home town of Lubeck, Germany, in which he too discussed Marzipan:

Now if anyone wishes to vent a little spite against me, or take a casual swipe at me, I can count on his bringing up my Luebeck origin and Luebeck marzipan. If some ill-wisher can think of nothing else, he invariably thinks of connecting me with comic marzipan and representing me as a marzipan baker. Such stuff goes by the name of literary satire. But it does not bother me … And I certainly do not feel in the least insulted about the marzipan. In the first place it is a very tasty confection, and in the second place it is anything but trivial; rather it is remarkable and, as I have said, mysterious … And if we examine this sweet more closely, this mixture of almonds, rosewater and sugar, the suspicion arises that it is originally oriental, a [Haremskonfekt] confection for the harem, and that in all probability the recipe for this barely digestible delicacy came to Luebeck from the Orient by way of Venice … And it turns out that those wits are not so wrong as they themselves think, that Death in Venice is really ‘marzipan’ although in a deeper sense than they ever meant it.

Thomas Mann, ‘Lubeck as a Way of Life and Thought’ (1926)

I discovered the text of this incredible speech serendipitously, while searching for a copy of Death In Venice in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. The speech, given on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of Luebeck’s founding, can be found in the 1980 Knopf edition of another of Mann’s novels, Buddenbrooks, which describes the daily lives of a prominent Merchant family in Luebeck. Mann’s reputation in Luebeck, it is said, suffered a downturn upon the publication of the novel, when various real-life Luebeckers recognised themselves in the book’s cast of characters.

Mann’s descriptions of the drowning city in Death In Venice were echoed by a late-20th-century historian, Peter Lauritzen, who provides the following description of the Church of the Gesuiti in Venice:

The Gesuiti’s pulpit is an elaborate confection swathed in the heavy folds of a voluminous brocade curtain . . . This white curtain decorated in a handsome green damask pattern is in fact made of marble; all of the walls of the church are covered with this same white and green imitation damask made of verde antico inlaid in slabs of white marble. The illusion is extraordinary.

Peter Lauritzen, Venice: A Thousand Years of Culture and Civilization

Mann’s creation of a triumvirate of Confections—Marzipan, Venice and Lubeck—may well have been palatable to the guests listening to his speech. This is all very well. However, Mann’s addition of a fourth characterisation of Marzipan as a Haremskonfekt, surely, would not have gone down well in Lubeck.

For it is in Lubeck—a UNESCO World Heritage city, an island in the middle of a River, quite close to the Baltic Sea—that a strange myth, concerning the invention of Marzipan, has been propagated. According to the bare bones of the story, Marzipan was invented in Lubeck in 1407 during a Famine, or Hungersnot so severe that all there was left to eat were some almonds, eggs and sugar. When these three ingredients were combined, so the story goes, Marzipan was invented, and the villagers (presumably) escaped death at the hands of the Hungersnot.

Indeed, by implication, the Marzipan could be said to have saved the people of Luebeck from hunger forevermore, thus constituting a miraculous substance, not unlike the breadtree explorers dreamt of transporting across entire oceans, or manna flung down from Heaven.

Luebeck’s manufacturers of Marzipan have at various stages helped propagate the myth, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to Marzipan’s origins lying much further east: towards Persia (or even further east, in India, maybe even New Guinea) many hundreds (if not thousands) of years earlier.

Therefore for Mann to describe Marzipan, or to be exact the Marzipan made in Lubeck, as a confection originating from a Harem must have sounded completely depraved to some ears that night back in June, 1926.

Today, Lubeck’s makers of Marzipan (including the Carstens and Niederegger companies) freely admit to the improbability of the Luebeck Marzipan myth. Their company websites, which in the mid to late 1990s spoke about the Famine in Luebeck and the invention of Marzipan as though it actually happened had, by the turn of this century, been toned down somewhat:

Today, everyone agrees that Luebeck is not the origin of Marzipan. Simply the fact that within our northern climate there is, understandably, a lack of almond trees, demonstrates that this is not the place to look for its origins. Even so, due to the high level of awareness of “Luebecker Marzipan”, one is tempted to associate its origin with Luebeck … some ancient accounts state that the recipe for Marzipan came via Italy directly to a Luebeck merchant. However there are no documents or other form of proof for this or for the many anecdotes and sagas.

Carstens GmbH, ‘History of Marzipan’ (2003)


The origin of marzipan is now known to be the Orient where the delicate almond-sugar mixture was served at the Sultan’s table as the crowning of a meal. Through Arabian rule marzipan reached Spain and Portugal, and during the Crusades spread through the rest of Europe via the trading port of Venice.

Niederegger GmbH, ‘Lubeck Marzipan conquers the world’ (1999)

Some people just can’t help themselves, however. The following text from the German-language website Marzipanland has been translated using the Babelfish translation engine:

Everywhere on earth one knows Luebecker marzipan. The mad taste is simply unmistakable! There one does not think at all of the emergency situation, from the marzipan developed. There are several stories, but the probably most well-known one means that during a hunger emergency at the disposal were to the bakers of Luebeck nothing different one than almonds, sugars and rose oil, in order to protect the citizens death. From this the bakers developed “the Marcus bread”, our current Marzipan, is subject to which strict regulations and high quality requirements. Only marzipan, which consists to 60% of almonds and at the most 40% sugar, may call itself Luebecker noble edel-Marzipan.

Marzipanland, ‘Marzipan’ (2002)

In 2002 I visited Luebeck, an act which would effectively bring me full circle in my investigations into the Stuffe, a journey of some ten years now, and counting. Inside a store in the centre of Luebeck I discovered a museum dedicated to the Stuffe, featuring a table at which sat eleven statues, each composed entirely of Marzipan.

I found a Santa Claus (or Weihnachtsmann), a Nun, J.G. Niederegger (the founder of the Niederegger company), Thomas Mann himself, a Merchant (Burgermeister Jurgen Wullenwever), a Baroque novelist by the name of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, the Emperor Karl IV, his Mother Luise Charlotte, a child, an Apotheker and a Persian.

The photocopied notes accompanying the exhibit suggested that each of these figures (or figurines) had played a key role in the history and development of Marzipan, in Luebeck at least.

The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.
The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.

When I saw this astonishing scene, I experienced the kind of feeling one suspects historians seeking confirmation of inexplicable connections or correspondences must enjoy. Almost a decade before I had set out to write a novel about Marzipan, beginning with a small child sleeping inside a box.

I first read about the Luebeck Marzipan myth in 1997, using Internet search engines, drawing inferences and connections from translated materials, as well as various Cook Books, confectionery histories, books for children (including Virginia Arpadi’s delightful story of a Marzipan-coloured cat), vague hunches and a pinch of the imaginary. Here, before me, was a sixteenth Century novelist holding a strange object out in front of him, made entirely of Marzipan! What more confirmation did I need?

Under normal circumstances, this tableau alone might have proved sufficient stimulus for a writer wishing to reconstruct the events surrounding the fabled invention of Marzipan in Luebeck, substituting this table of statues for the presumed star or stars of such an historical drama — that is, the real inventors of Marzipan, who may well have been Dutch invaders, Venetian monks, a wily Apotheker, a snow storm, a well-fed Merchant or some desperate Bakers.

The accumulated knowledge with which I arrived in Luebeck however constituted an accumulation of fragments, sinews and bones. Here, finally, positioned behind a long flat table, was a set of bodies within which to insert the few historical fragments I had found, like relics of saints embedded in plaster.

Furthermore, inside the Marienkirche in the centre of Luebeck I experienced the full majesty of the Gothic culture in both architecture and painting which has produced such extraordinary monuments as the reconstructed Totentanz (‘dance of death’), an elaborate stained glass tapestry of skeletons and townsfolk engaged in not so much a dance as a grim tug of war, alternating panels in which either the villagers or the skeletons have the upper hand. At its base, the glass panels burn red, with the famous Luebeck spires engulfed in flames. Meanwhile, two of the skeletons kneel in prayer over the baby Jesus.

All of these scenes, tableaux, snippets of information and direct experiences informed, to some degree, my master’s thesis. It acknowledges the many stories about Marzipan propagated in other parts of the world. It nods its head at the island of Sicily, where Almonds have a rich and deep connection with that sandy piece of earth. It extends a hand of faith to the Orders of Nuns throughout Europe whose clandestine manufacture of Marzipan continued almost without pause throughout the Middle Ages, due in part to St Thomas Aquinas’ famous dictum that the ingestion of this exquisite Confection did not break the fast.

Nevertheless, even St Thomas would have resigned himself to the inevitability of secrecy surrounding the exact details of the Nuns’ exact Recipes for Marzipan, and would surely have noted also the practice within such orders of hiding such Recipes inside the mind of the Mother Superior, to be passed on only at the instant before death, via the ears of her successor.

In my Confection, Marzipan is assumed to be composed of three basic ingredients: Eggs, Almonds and Sugar. Some recipes substitute honey or rosewater for sugar, egg whites for eggs – but it is the Almond that gives Marzipan both its bittersweet taste and its creamy colour.

Marzipan is remembered differently elsewhere. Charles Butler’s The History of Bees contains the following recipe for Marchpane:

Marchpane may be made after this manner. Boil and clarify by it self, so much Honey as you think meet; when it is cold; take to every pound of Honey the white of an Egg, and beat them together in a basin, till they be incorporate together, and wax white: and when you have boiled it again two or three walms upon a fire of coals, continually stirring it: then put to it such quantity of blanched Almonds or Nut-kernels stamped, as shall make it of a just consistency: and after a walm or two more, when it is well mixed, pour it out upon a Table, and make up your marchpane. Afterward you may ice it with Rose-water and sugar. This is good for the Consumption.

Charles Butler, The History of Bees (1634)

Fourteen years later, in 1648, poet Robert Herrick immortalised the Stuffe in verse:

This day my Julia thou must make
For mistress Bride, the wedding Cake:
Knead but the Dow and it will be
To paste of Almonds turned by thee:
Or kisser it thou, but once or twice,
And for the Bride-Cake there’ll be Spice.

Robert Herrick, ‘The Bride Cake‘ (1648)

Although the authenticity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Romanoff is highly questionable, one also notes with interest according to that unverified collection of his sketches and recipes that Marchpane was sculpted by (let’s call him) Leonardo into bricks and used as foundation stones for his elaborate models.

Interestingly, though the Marzipan he used was made by the Sisters of Santa Corona, Leonardo believed that only a man could be a confectioner, ‘on account a woman’s frame is unsuited to lifting great weights of Marzipan’. He supposedly went on to list the pre-requisites for attaining the station of Confectioner:

Secondly, he should be clean and clear-skinned—for little is so off-putting to those about to eat his creations as a spotted Confectioner, or one with long hairs which may have transferred themselves from his body into his confection. Thirdly, he should have studied in architecture. For without a true knowledge of weights and stresses he cannot create confections which will stand on their own and not be liable to subsidence or even total collapse.

?, Codex Romanoff

The confectioner finally speaks of his confections thusly:

I have noted, sadly, that my Lord Lodovico and his court digest the carvings I give to them to the last crumb and now I am set to find some other substance their palates shall less appreciate that my works may survive.

?, Codex Romanoff

This leads so-called Leonardo to speculate on a form of the Marzipan which his audience would not be tempted to eat. A mixture so bitter-tasting that after even the smallest nibble, the offender would be forced to put any further thought of ingestion out of his mind. One could speculate upon many ingredients for such a Confection, which would not constitute Marzipan per se but some derivative or substitute substance (e.g. persipan, a Confection containing not almonds but peach kernels).

The adaptability of Marzipan to the confectionary and decorative arts is well-documented, in both modern day and historical Cook Books. According to a source identified only as ‘Dr Cabanes’ in the Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique, the author Balzac was also reputed to have written endorsements for the Stuffe on the streets of Paris:

In 1884 a rumour began to circulate that the author of la Comedie humaine (BALZAC) had set himself up as a confectioner. No one talked of anything else on the stock exchange, in the foyer of the opera, at the [theatre] and in all the cafes on the Paris boulevardes. Several thousand copies of a curious circular [exhorting its readers to frequent a particular shop selling Issoudon Marzipan, and also containing what purported to be an extract from one of Balzac’s novels] had just made their appearance in Paris . . . This circular bore no signature, and it was inferred that it came from the pen of Balzac or that of a friend, editor or colleague. No one else had ever thought of the idea of launching a confectioner’s shop with a paragraph from a novel. After making inquiries it was discovered that Balzac, though he did not go to the length of taking a hand in the work, patronised the confectioner’s shop in the rue Vivienne.

Montagne, P., Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique (1960)

In Persia the use of Marzipan or Marzipan-like substances (in some places called Mawtaban, or King on a Throne) has been constant in wedding ceremonies and other occasions relating to fertility and prosperity. Venice, at the cross-roads between Europe and the Middle East, was naturally one of the places in which Marzipan initially became available. The situation was similar further west in Verona, if Romeo and Juliet is anything to go by.

Meanwhile in Luebeck, also known as the Venice of the North, a trading town through which all manner of goods, including boxes of what the Venetians called St Mark’s Bread (Marci Panis), must have passed — in Luebeck it seems, there was a Famine … or the Marzipan ran out … or an invasion …

One final item in the exhibition I saw that day in Luebeck was a Marzipan globe of the world, placed on the table in front of the statues. The dull sheen of its surface bore no marks indicating landmasses or national borders — just a smooth, unwrinkled sand-coloured expanse, upon which the viewers themselves could draw imaginary empires. Such a premise might have infuriated an historical character such as Clemens von Metternich, philosopher-King of the Hapsburg Empire in the time of Napoleon, who wrote in his memoirs:

I was born to make history not to write novels and if I guess correctly this is because I know. Invention is the enemy of history which knows only discoveries, and only that which exists can be discovered.

Clemens von Metternich, Memoirs (Volume VII)

While not exactly a metaphor for my own work, the Marzipan globe reminded me that some myths still have the ability to outlive their inventors, discoverers, manufacturers and archivists.

Marzipan is far more complex than the myth invented in Luebeck would have one think. It squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction. Further vestiges of this miraculous Stuffe, including Relics, lie ever beneath us, and shall one day be discovered again.

The fact that it still exists makes my task as a modern day confectioner (in Leonardo’s terms anyway) that much easier. I look forward to sharing the results of my recipes with you.

This piece was originally presented at the University of Melbourne, as part of the Department of English and Cultural Studies’ Secrecy Colloquium (2003), and later published in the refereed journal Antithesis (2004).

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