Confessions of a marzipan addict
delicious. art director Joss Bowerman goes on a trip she’ll never forget…
You’d be surprised how many marzipan-related things arrive at delicious. HQ. And when they do, everyone knows to pass them directly to me. No messing. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the stuff – to the point where I’m tempted to change my job title to art director/marzipan correspondent.
I pride myself on knowing what makes good quality marzipan, what the texture should be like and what the ratio of almonds and sugar should be. Call me sad, but the Christmas cake taste test for our December issue is the highlight of my work calendar – although I realise not everyone shares my enthusiasm. And for this year’s Easter simnel cake taste test I was in sweet almond heaven. (Note: the Marks & Spencer one was the out-and-out winner.)
So when editor Karen was invited to send one of the team to visit the world-renowned Niederegger Marzipan factory in Lübeck, northern Germany, she knew my name was on that plane ticket. Nothing would stop me – even if it snowed (which it did), even if BA cancelled loads of flights (which they did), even if it was unseasonably cold there (it was -12°C) and even if I needed thermals (which I did). Nothing was going to get in my way.
Head-turning good looks
It turns out Lübeck is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: ridiculously pretty, snow-covered and beautiful like a picture on an old-fashioned box of chocolates. How appropriate. We were taken around the town on a city tour by an eccentric character called Mr Kolassa. He had a textbook handlebar moustache and amazing stories to tell and held our interest despite the plummeting temperature. The tour ended at a restaurant called Schiffergesellschaft, which opened in the 1500s. We sat at oak banquet tables and benches, which they told us were the original ones… Could that really be true? I was happy to believe it was. The giant gold candelabra had real candles – no lightbulbs here – which only added to the cosy atmosphere.
I’d never been to Germany before and I was already dreaming about trying Wiener schnitzel in the country where it was invented. Turns out it’s huge, tender and delicious and goes brilliantly with the famous Lübeck red wine, Rotspon. Nerdy fact: it’s actually a Bordeaux wine stored and matured in Lübeck’s cellars – a tradition dating back to the early 1800s.
Back at our hotel, tummy full, I drifted off to sleep feeling like Charlie Bucket, dreaming of chocolate rivers and flavoured wallpaper…
Day in heaven
The next morning was as crisp and snowy as the day before, and I was excited. My marzipan moment was coming.
Once at the Niederegger factory we had to bundle our hair into hairnets, remove jewellery and clean our shoes before the factory tour could begin. Although the building looks small from the front, the site is huge and has room to double in size at busy times like Easter and Christmas – times when the world’s marzipan addicts all want more of the almondy stuff in their life. The factory has recently been extended to house a massive all-singing, all-dancing machine that wraps and boxes all the different kinds of marzipan Niederegger produces. Christmas is the key time of year here – as it is for cheesemakers, chocolatiers and so many other food producers. Half the year’s production is for the Christmas market alone… Germans love their marzipan.
Founded in 1806, Niederegger is rooted in tradition. It’s still a family-run company, and the commitment to quality ingredients is unwavering. The recipe has remained unaltered since it was created 200 years ago: two-thirds almonds to one-third sugar, plus a secret ingredient – all they’d tell me is that it’s similar to rosewater. Cheaper marzipans tend to have more sugar than almonds, resulting in an inferior flavour and texture. Believe me: I know.
Niederegger use only the highest quality almonds from Spain and Italy and when you walk through the factory the smell of almonds is unmistakable and almost overpoweringly tempting. We watched the nuts being washed, then peeled and sorted by hand before being crushed and combined with sugar to make a marzipan paste. That’s then heated and stirred in giant copper vessels to release just the right amount of water, and the smell was even better. Finally the top-secret ingredient is added and the marzipan is ready to be made into a myriad different shapes and products.
Art in marzipan form
On the production line it was fascinating to see the different varieties and flavours of marzipan – and (joy) they let us try some too. We had Irish Coffee, tiramisu, pistachio, pineapple and of course the classic plain – all covered in thick, quality chocolate. Niederegger makes other confectionery including truffles and nougat (more like a praline than traditional nougat), but it’s their intricately shaped marzipan figures for which they’re famous around the world. From pigs to bears, bunnies and even crocodiles (which I took home for my little ones), they’re almost too beautiful to eat and look more like something you’d put on a shelf in a child’s bedroom. Attention to detail is a primary focus, and many of the packages are hand-wrapped. All the painting is done by hand, too – that’s my job sorted for my next career.
Marzipan tea, anyone…?
The visit ended with a trip to the Niederegger factory shop where I spent a small fortune on goodies for all the people I’d (foolishly) told about the trip. And, as if our marzipan levels needed any more topping up, our trip ended in the Café Niederegger. Established in 1822, it’s an institution in Lübeck, renowned for its cakes (I had a marzipan one, naturally). There’s a marzipan museum on the top floor and a shop full of mind-boggling almondy creations. I spent a long time gazing at the 4ft marzipan bunnies at the back of the store, and although I’d bought plenty already, I couldn’t resist buying something more: marzipan tea, which I’d had upstairs in the café – it’s divine! Sadly only room in the luggage for two boxes, though…
And so, on a sugar high, my marzipan-heaven trip came to an end. I have many sweet memories to cherish. Marzipan in Lübeck is a tradition steeped in history, and it’s one all Germans treasure. Since coming home I’ve been inspired to re-create the tradition for my family and I hope I’ll carry on doing that for years to come – especially at Christmas and Easter. I don’t expect I’ll hear anyone complaining…
Where to buy special Easter marzipan