Marzipan vs. Chocolate

marzipan fruit in sicily

Anyone that has travelled to Sicily, or in fact any of the major tourist areas of the south of Italy, will no doubt have seen the wondrous creations of marzipan fruit and other shapes that mimic the rainbow of a full crayola caddy (all 100+ colours!)

The history to these gorgeous creations stems back to the 18th century, although there are different legends that surround how and why marzipan was first created.  True to Italy, these creations are also known by different names in different regions.  Some refer to the marzipan fruit creations as ‘frutta martorana’ being the namesake of the Martorana monastery in Palermo, whereas others refer to them as ‘frutta reale’ or ‘pasta reale’, literally meaning real or royal fruit.

 

sicilian marzipan fruits

marzipan tomatoes and cherries

 

During the eighteenth century, the Martorana monasteries had a strong presence throughout Southern Europe and made and sold almond based pastries, a reflection of their Arab influence, for the purpose of giving a skill to many of the orphans they cared for and to sustain the convent and its children.  Legend also says that this was taken so seriously, it became almost a competitive sport among the nuns and orphans as one of the sole outlets of creativity for an otherwise secluded life during some very poor times.  It is believed that fruit shaped marzipan fruits first featured during the Easter season to decorate dormant fruit trees to impress a bishop visiting one season.

 

Nowadays shapes vary and include other prominent themes associated with Easter – they are rarely found outside non-tourist areas past the month of April.  Marzipan creations are traditionally given as gifts (in lieu of chocolate and Easter eggs!) and used to decorate ‘Easter bread’.

 
Aside from the history, there are two other factors that mark the merits of these artisan pastries.  One being that marzipan, when made using traditional methods is not too sweet and in fact has a low sugar to almond ratio compared to many of the commercial varieties readily found these days.  The other is the undoubted and pain staking patience and skill required to make these pieces of art by hand.  Whilst the shapes are formed using custom shaped moulds, they are individually hand painted to be as realistic as possible, a process that can take days or weeks.  A painstaking and skillful process indeed.  So while some might get the recipe and method right, they still might fail when it comes to the decorating.  After all, not all pastry chefs are born artists.

 

sicilian marzipan fruits

artisan marzipan making tools

 

As with many artisan skills, it is becoming a dying art, as the recipe and process has become commercialised with fail proof ingredients and equipment.  There are however still some patisseries carrying on the tradition, such as the Cali family patisserie pictured above and right.

 

The key to finding the real deal on your travels:  it should not be too sweet, it should look realistic in shape and colour, you shouldn’t see it after April unless it is a religious feast and it should never, ever involve chocolate.

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