Central Europe is famous for producing a delicious sweet treat that doesn’t grow in its neighbourhood: chocolate. For the true sweet-toothed connoisseur, however, there’s an even more exotic delicacy to be found in northern Germany. Since the 18th century, confectioners in Lübeck have used almond paste to produce the finest marzipan.
Once the indulgence of kings, it’s now available to everyone, and no trip to the Hanseatic city would be complete without a taste of the treat, and a visit to the attractions honouring it.
Coffee and cake with marzipan icing at Cafe Niederegger, Lübeck © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
The march of marzipan
Mystery surrounds the precise path followed by marzipan on its journey to Europe, but what is known for certain is that it originated in the Middle East, specifically Persia – modern-day Iran.
Traders most likely brought it to Italy in the Middle Ages, where it developed its European name: either becoming known as ‘March bread’, marzapane, or being named after the small boxes confectionery was presented in, mataban. For some time it was known in English as ‘marchpane’, and is referred to by this name in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Before long, marzipan had conquered taste-buds all across Europe, becoming particularly popular in the trading cities of the Hanseatic League. Lübeck, the chief city of the League, gained a particular renown for marzipan which it retains to this day.
Lübeck’s marzipan mastery
Kathrin Gaebel, from the famous marzipan manufacturer Niederegger, explains how a city in northern Germany became a byword for the treat. 'Foreigners often wonder why Lübeck became a centre of marzipan, because the original ingredients didn’t grow here,' she says. 'But Lübeck was at that period a trading hub, so we had all the ingredients here to produce it. It was trade, and the importance of Lübeck in trade, that made it possible.’
Niederegger's flagship store in Lübeck © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
The other reason Lübeck trumped its rivals in marzipan manufacture, she adds, was quality. ‘Normally when people produced marzipan in the Middle Ages, they put a lot of sugar in, and only a few almonds. By contrast, confectioners here in Lübeck said they would like to produce marzipan with a lot of almonds and only a little sugar. In the end it’s that which helped Lübeck become the main centre of marzipan in the world.’
It’s an interesting point, and one worth noting if you’re shopping for marzipan souvenirs while travelling. Lübeck Marzipan is officially no more than 30% sugar, while marzipan produced elsewhere may well have a higher proportion.
Museum of marzipan
Niederegger has played a key role in the history of Lübeck’s marzipan. Its main branch opened in 1806 next to the city’s attractive Rathaus (Town Hall), at the centre of the beautiful Unesco-listed Old Town. It’s still there today, and the top level of the building features a free museum, the Marzipan Salon.
Along the corridor leading to the main exhibition, a series of colour panels outlines the history of marzipan: from a 9th-century Persian scholar who praised its curative properties, via Crusaders returning to Europe with exotic foodstuffs, to French King Louis XIV’s banquets laden with marzipan shaped into spectacular forms. It also notes how marzipan consumption increased in the 19th century, when sugar could be processed cheaply from sugar beet.
Mind-bogglingly intricate statues made entirely from marzipan are a highlight at the Marzipan Salon © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
Past the panels, the Salon features impressive sculptures formed from marzipan: a sailing ship, for example, and two giant eggs against a wall filled with almonds.
The most impressive exhibit is a tableau presenting famous people associated with marzipan, including the Emperor Charles IV, the author Thomas Mann, and Father Christmas. The figures are life-size, standing behind a long table with captions explaining their roles. Each statue is, of course, made entirely of marzipan.
Filled with a new-found knowledge of the sweet stuff, visitors can then head to the cafe on the floor below to be filled more literally with marzipan-coated cakes and coffee. On the ground floor, the shop is stocked with the almond-based confection in a dizzying array of forms, including piglets, seals and, slightly less appealingly, beetles.
Beyond marzipan, Lübeck is a city with many other culinary delights. Among the most quirky are the candied flowers produced by local firm Evers & Tochter (eversundtochter.com). The company has no shopfront, but these unusual edible flowers are on sale at the city’s tourist office (luebeck-tourism.de) near the famous Holstentor city gate.
When you’ve had enough of sweet indulgences, there are some memorable places to have lunch or dinner too.
The most spectacular restaurant in town is Schiffergesellschaft, which has been owned by a ship captain’s guild since the 16th century. Its graceful façade hides a riotous interior, with hefty wooden models of ships hanging from the rafters above long benches lit by chandeliers. This is a great place to try local fish dishes, such as Baltic plaice.
A more contemporary place to dine is Miera, a Mediterranean-style bistro in an attractive, split-level building with tiled floors, timber tables and vases of flowers, all lit by candlelight. It’s worth ordering pasta to see the final assembly of the dish carried out before you, at a small wooden table wheeled in for the purpose.
The interior of Mediterranean-style bistro Miera © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
Before you leave town, however, you might like to pick up some local marzipan to go; especially if you told your friends and family you’d be visiting Lübeck.
'When travelling abroad I always take marzipan as a present,' says Gaebel. 'Lübeck is so related to marzipan that when you go abroad there is always someone who says, "I know that marzipan, I really love that city."'
Tim Richards visited Lübeck with assistance from the German National Tourist Office. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.