Mazapán, Marzipan - Not Christmas Without ItSunday, December 11, 2011
|Toledo by the Tagus, 1985|
Our guide to our family, Rosemary and our two teenager daughters Ale and Hilary, trip to Spain in 1985 was almost a success because of our constant guide and companion, James A. Michener’s 1968 thick book on Spain, Iberia. If it was not all a complete success is that I still did not know that you don’t take teenagers to museums and galleries without some sort of carrot to entice them. All they really wanted to do was to make eyes to the handsome bellboys of the hotels, particularly those in our Madrid hotel. And then they wanted to go shopping. Art, history and the beautiful Spanish landscape was of no interest to them.
We did manage to arrive to one of the most beautiful cities in the world. That is Toledo. I was amazed to see one late evening from a vantage point similar to that of El Greco’s that his colours, deep purples and blues, in his famous landscape of Toledo by the River Tagus was not all his imagination.
Since I have always been a fan of good mazapán (Spanish meaning bread dough, but our name for marzipan) I took note of Michener’s advice and we visited Rodrigo Martínez’s marzipan factory. I bought several boxes including some where the marzipans were shaped like different kinds of bread of the sweet kind.
Until a few years ago I could purchase in Vancouver El Almendro (the almond tree) marzipans from Spain. This is no more and I must content myself with the German kind which Mr. Rodrigo Martínez would not approve for its too generous sugar content and the fact that the almond side of it contains pits not all from the almond but from the apricot. This is sometimes called persipan.
|Oebel Christmas Stollen|
Christmas would never be Christmas to a Latin without that marzipan. This year the German variety will have to do. But I plan to make my enquiries and see if I can order some of the real stuff from Toledo well in advance to next year’s Christmas.
Whenever I do eat good marzipan it automatically transports me to that magical landscape we saw in 1985 and I feel content.
|From Paris to Cadiz|
Peter Owen Limited 1958
From Paris to Cadiz, Alexandre Dumas, translation by A.E. Murch
From James A. Michener's Iberia:
Right across the street, at Calle de Santo Tomé, 5, stood an element of the tourist industry which had always fascinated me, the marzipan factory of Rodrigo Martínez, who ran the big retail shop on the Zocodover where trays of marzipan in various shapes have seduced generations of travellers. In Spain this delicacy is called mazapán and has many distinctive qualities which differentiate it from brands sold elsewhere in the world. Señor Martínez was a small, conservative man in his fifties, cautious in all he did and said, and quite unable to understand why a stranger would be interested in anything so Spanish as a mazapán factory. Gingerly, as if I were a commercial spy, he released one bit of information after another in what was one of the most painstaking interviews I have ever conducted.
‘If it weren’t for the oil contained in the seed kernel of the almonds,’ he began in the middle, ‘mazapán’ would last indefinitely, like the dried meat they chop up in northern countries.’ I must have shown my bewilderment as such a beginning, for he added slowly, ‘You’re probably like all other strangers and think that we get our almonds from Andalucía in the south. But we don’t. The almonds that do grow down there aren’t very good. We get ours from orchards along the Mediterranean coast. South of Valencia. Some of the best almonds in the world and to my taste much better than those grown in Arab countries. More consistent. Almonds and oranges grow in the same kind of soil and the same climate, so they compete.’
He must have concluded that that was all I needed to know about mazapán because he stopped. After some moments of silence he added cautiously, ‘If you did want to make mazapán you’d get the best almonds you could find and dip them in boiling water, then run them through this friction machine, which scrapes off the skin. Look at that pile of skins. It has no commercial use whatever, doesn’t even burn well. When the almonds are clean and shining white you move them over to this machine, but be careful to set the grinding wheels fairly far apart. Into the hopper you put one part almonds, one part cane sugar, and this machine breaks the almonds into pieces and mixes the sugar with them. Almonds cost about eighty-five cents a pound and sugar about ten cents a pound, so you can see that there’s a great temptation to put in a lot of sugar and a little almond, but that makes wretched mazapán. Watch out for the man who puts in less than half almonds. You now throw the whole mass back into the grinder, but this time you set the wheels very close together, so that the almonds are pulverized. Then you press the paste into forms and bake it in a moderate oven for fifteen minutes, take it out, paint it with a glaze of water and sugar and finish it off for another ten minutes to give that lovely brownish crust. That’s the best mazapán you can get in the world.’
Señor Martínez was still suspicious, but he asked softly, ‘Would you care to see what we do for Christmas?’ I tried to show the enthusiasm I was feeling, and he brought down from a high shelf a set of empty circular boxes covered with bright decorations. ‘Into the round boxes we coil long lengths of mazapán made into the shape of eels. They have scales of sugar, eyes of candy, and are filled with crystallized cherries, candied sweet potato, apricot jam and sweetened egg yolks. This big box sells for about four dollars, and lots of children think that the thing inside is a real serpent, but of course it’s only mazapán. I supply stores all over Spain and some in América del Norte, too.’
I said that I was especially fond of marzipan and frequently bought small samples in America, at which his face took the glazed look that overtakes a Frenchman when you praise California wine. ‘I’m afraid that in América del Norte you’ve never tasted real mazapán. Friends have sent me samples and it’s mostly sugar. Very bad. But wait a minute. In Mexico City there’s a man who learned how to make mazapán here in Toledo. During the Crusade [Spanish Civil War] he was on the other side, and when peace came he didn’t want to live in Spain any longer, so he went to Mexico.’ He paused, evidently remembering his long-absent friend, exiled from Toledo by the Civil War. I have heard some very good things about the quality of mazapán he’s making in Mexico, but I’m sure you don’t get any of it in New York.’
The interview had ended, and I was about to leave when I saw a sign which read: ‘Exquisite paste for making the classic almond soup, in packages of any weight, eighty-seven cents a pound.’ ‘Is that how you make almond soup?’ I asked with some excitement. ‘Do you know our great almond soup?’ he asked, his face brightening. ‘I was introduced to it the other day. Best soup I ever tasted. Like angel wings.’ He became positively animated and said, ‘Even better, We make a paste…’ as if he could not believe my sincerity, he asked, ‘Do you really like almond soup? Norteamericanos don’t usually like it. It’s the French who know something good when they taste it.’ I assured Señor Martínez that from the first moment I had tasted this delicious soup, fragrant and heavy with flavour, I had delighted in it. ‘The first bowlful they gave me had a rose petal floating in it. One rose petal deep red against snowy white.’ He realized I knew what I was talking about and said, ‘We don’t use rose petals much anymore. But we make this paste. You take two hundred grams of the paste and one liter of very cold rich milk. You add a little handful of sweet buscuits well flavoured and a small touch of carnela.’ I asked him what carnela was, thinking he must mean caramelo. No, he meant carnela. Everybody knew what carnela was, but my dictionary didn’t give the word so I didn’t find out. ‘You must put these together and beat them thoroughly. Then serve ice-cold…of it’s Christmas, when we use almond soup lot, you can heat it. Like our sign says, it’s classic.
As we talked we were surrounded by trays full of marzipan, some plain some shaped in little cups and filled with apricot jam, and now Don Rodrigo offered me samples, delighted to have found someone who appreciated his art. As I ate he said, ‘After the battle of Navas de Tolosa in the year 1212 there was a famine in many parts of Spain, so the monks of San Clemente convent here in Toledo, developed the secret upon which our industry is founded. How to crush almonds so they will stay good to eat four or five months. We sent our paste throughout Spain and that’s how Toledo became famous for this delicacy. The secret? Well when I was telling you how to make mazapán ….the wheels and the sugar and the hot water….well, I didn’t tell you everything.’
Much later, when I happened to have a bowl of almond soup in Madrid, the host sprinkled it with cinnamon. ‘Canela, he said. ‘The final touch.’
From Iberia by James A. Michener, 1968