marzipan pig

Origin of the Marzipan Pig

In Candy by Skjalden

The marzipan pig is a cherished Christmas confection with deep roots in Northern Europe. This treat has brightened the holiday season for over a century. In Scandinavia, a marzipan pig is often given as a gift to the person who finds the hidden almond in the Risalamande on Christmas Eve. In Germany, it’s known as Glücksschwein and is given to bring good luck for the New Year.

During World War II, when almonds were scarce, Northern Europeans crafted these pigs from potatoes. Though less tasty, they kept spirits high and cleverly disguised their simple origins when hung on Christmas trees.

The Historical Roots of Marzipan

Marzipan is a confection primarily made from sugar and ground almonds. It is believed to have originated in the Persian Empire during the 6th century. Historical records suggest that marzipan was first made as a luxury sweet, favored by royalty and the wealthy. The high cost of almonds and sugar made it exclusive. The art of making marzipan likely spread to the Byzantine Empire through trade, where elites also cherished it.

By the time of the Crusades in the 12th century, Europeans were introduced to marzipan. It quickly became a favored delicacy among the Crusaders. Those returning from the Crusades brought the knowledge and appreciation of this sweet treat back home, weaving it into their local culinary traditions.

However, the exact origin of marzipan is still widely debated. Various European regions claim its invention, each with unique narratives and historical contexts. In Spain, especially in Toledo, legend has it that marzipan was invented during a famine in the 11th century. Nuns are said to have made a bread substitute from almonds and sugar to feed the local population, showcasing the ingenuity and resilience of the people.

Marzipan’s Evolution and Cultural Significance

In Italy, a story from Venice tells of marzipan’s accidental creation by a baker’s daughter who mixed too many almonds with sugar and water. This tale highlights the serendipitous nature of many culinary discoveries.

In Germany, the birth of marzipan is credited to a 17th-century chef named Frantz Marcip. He reportedly made it for a noble feast, marking marzipan’s status as a celebratory food designed to impress guests.

These stories from Spain, Italy, and Germany not only narrate the invention of marzipan but also underscore its deep cultural significance across Europe. Marzipan’s enduring popularity, enriched with unique regional flavors and stories, underlines its vital role in Europe’s culinary heritage.

viking pig

Cultural Significance of the Pig in Northern Europe

In Northern Europe, the pig has long been a central figure in societal traditions and festivities, revered not just for its role as a food source but also for its symbolic importance. It has been integral to Yule celebrations since their inception, and the pig’s prominence in these festivities can be traced back to the Viking Age, a period when it was not only a staple in diets but also a symbol of prosperity and feasting.

This deep cultural reverence is encapsulated in the regional myths and sagas where pigs hold a place of honor. Among the most famous of these tales is the story of Sæhrímnir, the magical pig of Valhalla. According to legend, Sæhrímnir is cooked each night and eaten by the warriors of Valhalla, only to be revived each day to provide sustenance again. This endless cycle of renewal and nourishment makes Sæhrímnir a powerful symbol of abundance and festivity, mirroring the never-ending cycle of life and death that was a central theme in Norse mythology.

Moreover, the pig’s role extends beyond the mythical and into the very fabric of ancient ceremonies and rites. Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were often used in sacrificial rituals, their offerings intended to appease various deities and ensure bountiful harvests or success in battle. The practice of feasting on pork during major festivities, therefore, may have been partly derived from these ancient rites, imbuing the act with a sense of sacred continuity.

In modern times, while the religious connotations may have diminished, the tradition of celebrating with pork dishes during major holidays like Christmas continues in many Northern European countries. This enduring tradition not only honors the historical significance of the pig but also reinforces the animal’s role as a link between the past and the present, between the sacred and the communal.

Aalborg Chokoladen Marsipangris
Aalborg Chokoladen – Marsipangris

Why is it called Marzipan?

The name “marzipan” is similar across many European languages:

  • Danish – Marcipan
  • Swedish – Marsipan
  • German – Marzipan
  • English – Marzipan
  • Italian – Marzapane
  • Spanish – Mazapá
  • Russian – Марципан

These similarities hint at a common origin. Historically, marzipan was a luxury item, often sold in small, ornate boxes. These boxes sometimes featured a coin design. Many came from Venice, a key trade center for almonds and sugar, the main ingredients in marzipan.

One popular coin was the “Mautheban,” known for its image of Christ on a throne. Vendors in Venice used this coin’s image on the boxes. Over time, people linked the term “marzipan” with these coin-decorated packages.

Some think the name marzipan could have come from “Marci Panis,” meaning “bread of St. Mark.” St. Mark is Venice’s patron saint. The term likely changed over time to become the word we use today.

marzipan pig

Marzipan Ingredients and Benefits

Marzipan mainly consists of three ingredients: sugar, almonds, and a bit of rose water. The unique flavor comes from bitter almonds, which make up about 4-6% of every marzipan bar. When making a marzipan pig, you have two choices: pure marzipan or marzipan for baking. Most people prefer pure marzipan, as no baking is needed.

Interestingly, marzipan also has health benefits. It can help with constipation in small amounts. Historically, marzipan was so valuable that it was sold in pharmacies alongside wine, liquor, and spices. It was considered a luxury item, affordable only by the upper class. This treat has a rich history, both as a delicious ingredient and a cherished remedy.

Choosing and Making the Best Marzipan Pig

To start making a marzipan pig, first, get some marzipan. You can make it yourself or buy it ready-made. There are many brands available, so choose your favorite. I recommend “Odense Marcipan,” as it consistently delivers great quality without any odd aftertaste.

Once you have your marzipan, there are two ways to shape your pig. You can mold it with your hands or use a marzipan pig mold, available online. Here’s a quick guide to hand-forming one:

  • Prepare the Marzipan: Cut 500 grams of marzipan into smaller pieces.
  • Shape the Body: Roll some marzipan into a ball the size of a golf ball.
  • Make the Feet: Roll four smaller balls for the feet.
  • Form the Nose: Roll a tiny ball, flatten it, and punch two small holes in it.
  • Create the Tail: Roll a long piece of marzipan, tapering at one end.
  • Add the Ears: Shape two small pieces of marzipan into ears.
  • Now, assemble these parts to form your pig. For a festive touch, dip the lower part of the pig into melted chocolate. This simple process lets you create a delightful marzipan pig, perfect for Christmas celebrations.