Sicilian marzipan: origins, recipe and some curiosities

by Redazione Fine Taste

When we talk about marzipan, we are generally referring to the delicious packs of almond sweets that appear on the table especially during the Christmas holidays. For us Italians, marzipan is synonymous with Sicilian dessert; in reality the alleged origins of marzipan read like a map of Europe and the Middle East.

What is Marzipan in Sicily?

Marzipan is the common name of the famous “Martorana fruit”. It is impossible not to be fascinated by these small colorful works of art, true miniature representations with an exquisitely realistic appearance of fruits such as apples, peaches, pears, bananas and cherries, strawberries, watermelon and even corn, tomatoes and peppers.

Martorana fruit, why is it called this way?

The history of martorana fruit is very fascinating.

Palermo is the home of this specialty. The nuns of the convent of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, seat of the parish of San Nicolò "dei Greci" and known as La Martorana, invented the small colored fruits in 1143.

The nuns were famous for taking care of one of the most beautiful gardens in the city, so renowned that it even intrigued the Bishop himself, who decided to go and see it for himself. The visit, however, took place in the middle of autumn, during the feast of All Saints, when the trees were bare and the garden impoverished: it was then that the nuns had the idea of ​​modeling the almond paste in the shape of fruits to offer to the Bishop.

The Bishop was so impressed by the art of "fruit" that he encouraged the nuns to continue their research and sell the marzipan creations. And voila! Martorana Fruit was born! A story so simple and funny that we choose to believe it really happened, even though many say it's a bit of an urban legend.

Even today, martorana fruit is traditionally consumed every November 1st, although it is now available in pastry shops all year round.

How is marzipan prepared?

These small delicacies are made by artisans by modeling almond paste, also called "pasta royal". To make the paste, almonds are finely ground then mixed with sugar, lemon juice. The result is a flexible and easy to shape dough from which different shapes can be created. Once the marzipan is the desired shape, the package is ready to be painted with food coloring. The result is truly remarkable.

Making these beautiful creations is quite laborious and usually takes three days. The first day is dedicated to preparing the marzipan until it reaches the necessary consistency. This is followed by shaping and sculpting the fruit and painstakingly painting the creation with a mix of food coloring and vodka. Then the marzipan fruits are left to dry. On the final day the marzipan is glazed and after the edible glaze has dried, the martorana is ready to enjoy or store in an airtight container for up to three months.

What are the origins of marzipan?

Although today marzipan treats are more typically associated with Sicily, the origins of marzipan are somewhat unclear. Marzipan is presumed to have arrived in Sicily from Spain, another country known for its almond production.

It is widely accepted that the Spanish were introduced to marzipan by visitors from Arab countries during the early part of the Middle Ages. This idea rings truer as sugar is a necessary ingredient in marzipan (both for flavor and texture), and the Arabs were the ones who introduced sugar cane to both Spain and Sicily. Almond paste was almost certainly first produced in Persia, now Turkey.

Enjoy the marzipan

If you are not familiar with marzipan the taste is simply amazing, rich in almonds and sweet, but not excessively so. The texture of marzipan is soft and creamy but crumbly at the same time. You certainly notice the presence of chopped almonds, but all in a perfect balance of flavors and textures.