Marvellous Marchpane (marzipan)
Have you ever given a thought to that rich gooey layer nestled between the actual Christmas cake and the decorative icing that coats it? Nowadays it no longer has its original importance, sitting centre stage as a statement of wealth, and for most of us it simply comes in a plastic coated pack, used without thinking. However, its antecedents go back to the Romans who made a confection of almonds and egg whites, and it reached its zenith in the late Middle Ages and the sixteenth century before losing its role as a status piece at the banquet.
Marchpane relied principally on three ingredients: almonds, shelled and ground very fine, sugar and rose water – all of which were imported at great expense. All of them are easily obtained today, but back in the Middle Ages there was not only the prohibitive cost of the ingredients but the time involved, firstly in preparing them for use as the almonds had to be shelled and then, like the hard crystalline sugar, pounded in a mortar till they powdered. As if this was not enough to impress guests, special occasions might call for the marchpane to be decorated, in part at least, with gold leaf.
Almonds were used fairly widely in medieval cuisine. For those who could afford them, a milk was made by steeping ground almonds in water and this was used to make sauces during the times when dairy produce was forbidden by the church such as during Lent or Advent. They were also used whole in savoury dishes, and sliced as decoration. Sugar, though known to the Romans who despised it for its lack of flavour, was unknown in this country until the Crusades, when the first reference is made to it in 1099. The crusaders that came home brought with them the tastes and samples of the exotic ingredients they had sampled in the Middle East. A refinery was soon established in Venice, but the cost of importing the hard shiny sugar cones to England put it well beyond the reach of all but the very few, who saw it as a digestive medicine and consumed it at the end of a meal to close the stomach.
Gervase Markham first published ‘The English Housewife’ in 1615, so this is technically later than Tudor, but he gives detailed instructions on how a marchpane should be made, and I’m quoting from the McGill-Queens’s University Press edtion of 1986, ed. Michael Best.
“To make the best marchpane, take the best Jordan almonds and blanch them in warm water, then put them into a stone mortar, and with a wooden pestle beat them to pap, then take of the finest refined sugar well searced, and with it, and damask rose-water, beat it to a good stiff paste, allowing almost to every Jordan almond three spoonful of sugar. Then when it is brought thus to a paste, lay it upon a fair table, and, strewing searced sugar under it, mould it like leaven; then with a rolling pin roll it forth, and lay it upon wafers washed with rose water, then pinch it about the sides, and put it into whatever form you please; then strew searced sugar all overit, which done wash it over with rose-water and sugar mixed together, for that will make the ice, then adorn it with comfits, gilding, or whatsoever devices you please, and so set it into a hot stove and there bake it crispy and so serve it forth. Some use to mix with the paste cinnamon and ginger finely searced, but I refer that to your particular taste.
Searced = well sieved. Leaven =raw bread dough. Comfits were small sugar coated seeds of digestive herbs such as fennel or caraway. The addition of other spices alters the colour significantly. It’s better to use pounded cinnamon etc to make mock cinnamon quills which look deceptively like the real ones.
A note of warning here: once made and cooked the marchpane seems almost indestructible. The one in the photo is quite well travelled, but unless it gets damp there is nothing in it to decay. So to translate all the above into a simple form for today.
Use half the weight of sugar to that of ground almonds. (I.E. 8oz ground almonds means using about 4oz of caster sugar). Add a generous tablespoonful or 3 teaspoonsful of culinary rose water and work together with fingers or a fork into a stiff paste. Add more rose water, if needed drop by drop. As the almonds become moistened and warm they will release their oil so don’t overdo the rose water to start with. Saving a small amount of the dough, roll out most of it on cooking parchment or greasproof paper into a circle just under half an inch (or 5mm) thick. Pattern the edges by crimping or pressing in a fork handle.
Slip the marchpane into a cool oven; not more than 150c or gas mark 2 for about 15 minutes. If it shows signs of browning, turn down the heat further. Then leave it for another 10-15 minutes to finish off in the oven, with the heat turned off and the door ajar so that it dries thoroughly without colouring. Whilst it is cooking, roll out the reseved dough quite thinly and cut it into patterns (hearts, flowers, crowns etc) and make a thin icing by dripping rose water into icing sugar until it makes a runny paste. Brush the icing quickly over the marchpane and attach the decoration shapes, and allow the marchpane icing to dry hard and glossy in the remaining warmth from the oven.
A more modern and seasonal German variation I came across used Kirsch instead of rose water, and the marchpane was shaped in small individual moulds before being dried in the oven or under the grill where the tops were allowed to just brown lightly as part of the decoration.
Although some gifts were exchanged at Christmas, the focus was on the religious celebration of the birth of Christ. More gifts were exchanged to mark the New Year. This year I made a marchpane for a Queen – Anne Boleyn. The combination of costly ingredients, time consuming, fiddly preparation and decoration and the possibilities for visual symbolism and flattery made marchpane a perfect gift.
The decoration shows her badge of a falcon grasping a sceptre, standing on a sprouting stump, surrounded by quatrefoils in green with overlaid gilding for the house of Tudor, and red hearts. This is not a recreation of a known piece, but an illustration of how symbolism was used and its importance. The falcon indicates the intention to defeat prey and hold power; the sprouting stump is a reference to new growth (or beginnings), and the hearts are for love eternal. the marchpane has been surrounded by fresh rosemary. Again this has sigificance as it conveys memory or staying close in someone’s affections as well as serving the intensely practical purpose of repelling any stray flies that survived the cold weather and cold halls.
Just as the plays of William Shakespeare and the paintings of the period often made no concession to historical dress of previous times, so these wise men look very much more Tudor than biblical.
At present they are in the uncoloured state, which shows off the fabulous traditional moulds I was lucky enough to buy at TORM. They will be coloured and gilded, as the feast of Christmas traditionally extended through to Candlemas on 2nd February which marked Christ’s presentation in the temple. Given the weather we’ve had in England in the run up to Christmas, it’s not difficult to see why in the past, guests came for the Christmas season rather than for a few days.
For anyone interested in the background to Tudor food and the development of the sugar banquet in the 16th century, there is a new article on the site, entitled Mind your Manners- a look at late Medieval and Tudor mealtimes.