Have you ever wondered about the history of marzipan?
Today I will introduce you to a magical wonderland, a place so magical and wonderful that IT INVENTED CANDY! Okay…it didn’t invent candy. One of its residents did. And also, not ALL candy. Just THE BEST KIND OF CANDY! To begin, it’s healthy: it’s made from almonds! So you can have your candy, and eat your omegas, too. What’s that you say? Marzipan isn’t healthy? To which I say, “hush now, you’ll disturb the woodland creatures…the delicious, delicious, woodland creatures.”
Today we’re talking Tallinn, Estonia, the home of marzipan…sort of, and only maybe sort of. Confused? Allow me to explain.
You are probably under the impression that, when the Iron Curtain fell, Estonia was engulfed in a lasting peace, and the Estonians lived happily ever after. That is totally false. In actual fact, Estonia has been fighting another war, an epic battle over who can lay claim to being the king of the marzipan candy, heir of the marzipan hog…
This ongoing and tragically under-publicized war is with Lübeck, Germany. Lübeck, as you may know, is kind of a big deal when it comes to marzipan: the Lübeck-based Niederegger confectionary has been making kittens out of almond paste since 1806. And silly old Tallin? They’ve
only been making marzipan since…also 1806. Hmmm. Marzipan is first referenced in Lübeck in 1530, which is 108 years before after its first reference in Tallinn (1422). Double Hmmm. Which brings be back to a point I’ll be covering over the next few weeks, about how the Soviets were total A-holes: besides previously documented atrocities (like preventing the good Estonian people from brewing their own beer), being behind the Iron Curtain for all those years kind of screwed Estonia in terms of becoming the European capital of marzipan, or at least sharing the title with Lübeck.
European capital, you ask? Why the modifier? Here’s the thing: Marzipan actually came from neither Estonia nor Germany. Nope. Just another classic case of Europeans taking credit for something that was ALREADY DISCOVERED (see: Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and many, many others). We actually have the Middle East (Persia) to thank for the sweet concoction. Because I’m a huge nerd, I did a LexisNexis search and found a few newspaper articles tracing the likely etymology of marzipan to one of three sources: mawtaban, an Arabic word meaning “king on a throne;” mazaban, which was the name of the boxes used to transport almonds back in the 1200s; or Maci panis, meaning St. Mark’s Bread. This last option is probably the least likely, but it has the best story: In the early 15th century, a deep freeze hit Venice, threatening the city’s residents with starvation. A baker found some almonds and sugar and combined them to make marzipan “bread,” thus saving the city from the ravages of the winter.
So what’s the moral of this story, besides “winter’s coming: stockpile candy?” There really isn’t one, other than you should really go visit Tallinn, because not only is it pretty awesome, but you’ll get to stuff your face with healthy candy.
Have you been to Tallinn? Did you stuff your face with Marzipan? Send or tweet me a picture!
Note: I would love to link to the original articles I used as sources for this post, but they’re only available behind paywalls. Because nobody likes copyright infringement, I’ve listed them here:
Boyes, R. (2005). Gatecrasher from next door spoils the marzipan party. The Times (London). December 22, 2005.
Lawrence, S. (2001). Festive feast or folly? The Times (London). December 15, 2001.
Harriman, S. (1995). Sink your teeth into Lubeck, city of marzipan and medieval spires. The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk). July 30, 1995.