I haven’t always love marzipan. In fact, I hated it before I even knew what it was. My first shocking bite was as a child. One morning when I got up to watch my raft of Saturday morning cartoons I spied a gorgeous wrapped hamper of sweets, shaped like fruits and brightly coloured. Shiny even. I took a bite and was horrified. What was that? The shock of my expectations of a sweet meeting a more savoury flavour, something very intense. A flavour that adults like and children don’t, well children like me at least.
Marzipan even came hidden in my treasured Christmas cake. Christmas cake made with tea, which my grandmother made for us every year, and beautiful sweet icing on top. Icing like a gentle snowy landscape, covering a shocking layer of yellow marzipan below. I would nibble the icing off, delicately remove the layer of marzipan putty and cast it aside, before devouring the cake.
You hate marzipan too? Of course you do! But we were tricked all along. Fresh artisanal marzipan is gorgeous and we have been missing out. Now that I have discovered that outside supermarket shopping aisles selling wrapped flourescent yellow marzipan, and that there is fresh marzipan. I discovered this in the marzipan shops of Berlin, and the patisseries of Puglia. Now,
Now that I have discovered artisanal marzipan from Toledo, and I am in love.
Fresh artisanal marzipan, sweet and fragrant
Marzipan is simple almond alchemy. It is an aromatic nutty paste made from almonds, sugar, honey and eggs. Delicious as is, and can be shaped into all sorts of gorgeous things. I can’t stop eating it when I get my mucky paws on it these days. I have to ration my exposure.
Toledo in Castilla La Mancha is famous for many things. Toledo itself is a UNESCO world heritage site, designated so in 1986 for it’s rich culture and extensive monuments and the historical harmonised existence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures. It is this cultural harmony that led to the adoption of marzipan into Spanish food culture. Marzipan is originally an arabic sweetmeat, brought by the moors to Spain, and to Toledo.
Toledo marzipan is not just any marzipan. It has a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), which means that Toledo marzipan has been proven to be specific to Toledo, and it is protected. Toledo marzipan as it is now is said to have been invented by the nuns of the Convent of San Clemente. In famine times it was fed to the malnourished and poor (sometimes blended with chicken breast but not after 1613 where only almonds and white sugar could be used).
Toledo marzipan now is a gorgeous fragrant thing. There are whole shops dedicated to it, exhibiting proud large marzipan sculptures of Don Quixote and the cathedral. And there is a marzipan class in an archaeological site in the centre of Toledo for obsessives like myself where you learn how to make it, and how to shape it in the traditional shapes for Toledo marzipan.
The best thing about the class is not that you are taught by a chef that has been dedicated to making marzipan everyday for 35 years. It is not that it is hands on, and you learn every detail, being painstakingly corrected on any small errors. It is not that they serve wine to accompany you on your marzipan journey. It is how entertaining and funny it is. The tiny lady who teaches the class is fierce and fearless and hilarious. You will hear No-No-No-Noooooo! And you will hear it again. And eventually a resounding YES when she is satisfied with your efforts.