I believer I’ve mentioned it before, but it is worth repeating – given my druthers, I prefer marzipan and nougat to most tradition candies out there. The question I have is “Why?”
As I’ve already talked about nougat, let’s venture a bit into the marzipan side of the equation.
Marzipan is one of those treats that have likely been around for quite some time, but under different names. It has been called pasta reale in Sicily, a concoction of nothing more than a paste of sugar, almonds, and egg whites. The name itself? No one really knows for sure. There are several theories out there, some more likely than others, but none of them definitive. The one that strikes me as most likely comes from from the Arabic “maŝsipan”. Karen Hess, in describing Marzipan in her book Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats explains the evidence as follows:
…Amado Alonso in Revisto Fillgia Hisoanica…cites the appearance of an Arab word massipan, designating the confecion, in a twelfth-century manuscript of Cordoba by Ben Quzman. (The Arab ŝ sound is an explosive one rather like ch, that would account for the marchpane and marzipan forms.)
The thing here is that if we tie the history of marzipan to the Arabs (and I believe we should), then the time and place when marzipan actually first appears in history becomes that much more difficult to place. It does make it easier to place when it appears in Europe though; this would likely be along with the Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean in the eighth and ninth centuries.
I’m okay with this lack of evidence, as it lends to the air of mystery surrounding the confection. It’s one of those treats that at home equally by itself, especially when it’s sculpted by the Sicilians into fantastically real shapes such as pears, apples, and prickly pears, or if it’s coated with chocolate, or used as a cake topping as the Germans tend to do.
Perhaps this is the reason why I like the treat as much as I do. It’s partly because of the exotic nature of the confection. We here in the States are aware of marzipan, but it’s hardly a confection we long for. But in Europe? In Europe, it not only has a place upon the shelves today, but it has historical significance throughout the continent.