Undoubtedly, we all have a penchant for sweets. Be it chocolate, baked goods, or candy, few things can brighten our disposition quite like a sweet. Unlike chocolate, which was a Mesoamerican product unknown to Europeans until the Age of Discovery, and sweet baked goods like fruit cakes, which had been a European tradition since ancient times, today’s sweet word is more of an enigma. Though marzipan has a devout following across Europe, and multiple uses in the British kitchen and local production is of over 20,000 tones annually, there are a lot of basics about the word marzipan that are surprisingly unclear.
Looking at the name itself, we currently use the German marzipan, which has largely replaced the original English marchpane, which was a derivative of the Italian marzapane, meaning “March bread.” Previous to the 1500s, things get confusing. On one hand, if the origin is considered to be Latin and Greek, then it could stem from the Latin martius panis, meaning “sweet pastry of March,” with panis being a Latinized version of the Greek word for pastry. On the other hand, if the origin is the Arabic word mawthābān, meaning “king who sits still,” the name is derived from a jewellery/keepsake box that at one point contained the almond-flavoured confection. Additionally, there is also a Persian explanation, linking the position of a Sassanid Persian border commander, Marzban, with our sweet treat.
Just as confusing as the original name is the way in which it entered Europe. The most logical point is with an origination in Persia and an European introduction to Western Europe via the Turks, who were notable for producing marzipan in Edirne. There is also another story from the same time period (if not slightly earlier) that describes a speciality of Toledo, Spain being Postre Regio, which was actually marzipan.
Marzipan – a German word?
Though we may not know where the word or the actual product originated, we do have a better idea of when it entered the English language. The first known (using the English marchpayne) usage occurs in 1494, in Robert Fabyan’s work, Fabyan’s Chronicles, where he writes of “A marchpayne garnished with diverse figures of angels.” The first known usage in English of the German word marzipan happened almost 5 decades later in 1542, in Erasmus’ Apophthegmatum opus.
Aside from the sweeter meanings, modern times have also seen other uses, such as the concept of hiding a cake blemish in a layer of marzipan, adapted by the Hansard transcripts of the House of Commons, where it was noted in 1945 that, “You only have to look at the fretful fronts stretching along the great roads leading from London—belonging to what I think one cynic called the ‘marzipan period’—to see the monstrous crimes committed against aesthetics by..speculators.”
Personally, we prefer the sweet definition, even if not certain where it came from.