Pairing Italian marzipan with tea
The reflection of sunlight on water makes me squint. The air smells good, but I can’t detect what it is. The bright yellow, orange and red foliage pops against the deep blue, cloudless sky. I spot a handful of fallen leaves floating, catching the late afternoon sun rays, peacefully flowing away with the current. I am in awe like a little kid, as if I’m seeing all this for the first time. I’m grateful I have my camera with me, even if my back is sore from carrying around the backpack with all the lenses.
Fall is an enchanted season and I was lucky enough to be in Europe for two weeks and got to experience it again after a long time. I was way less thrilled when I got home after my trip and had to edit the 877 pictures I took! I visited Munich, Germany, and then Italy, Genoa and Venice (mainly) plus two quick stops in Milan and Trieste. It was awesome. I realized I learned a very important lesson, solo traveling can be therapeutic. And while it was not a solo trip per se, I had a handful of days all to myself. I learned to get comfortable with discomfort, like eating at a restaurant by myself. It became a wandering meditation, I felt incredibly present and alert and I had a lot of fun. It felt very empowering.
As always, I was looking for tea, sometimes actively, sometimes less so and I did find it, in Germany and in Italy. Along the way, I found something I didn’t expect. Enchanted places, straight out of fairy tales, so beautiful they were almost surreal. Like this garden in the heart of Milan. It’s not open to the public but you can peek through the gate and marvel at the unexpected. Flamingos. It could be the perfect backdrop for an Alice in Wonderland themed tea party.
Right around the corner from the flamingo garden, I was about to experience even more magic. Have you ever come across Italian marzipan? These realistic-looking hand-shaped and hand-painted fruits made of almond paste are known as frutta martorana and are originally from Sicily. Right around the corner from the flamingo garden, I found Pasticceria Freni, a bakery that has been making marzipan fruits since 1914.
I joined Carlo Freni, co-owner and great grandson of the original founder of the bakery, for a cup of tea and a chat about Italian marzipan. Yes, you read that right, Carlo is a tea lover, what a surprise! It must be a sign. Carlo told me that at the beginning of the 20th century, after a devastating earthquake struck Messina, Sicily, Carlo’s great grandfather, who was a tailor, moved to Milan to start fresh. But being an immigrant from Southern Italy and working as a tailor was not profitable, so in 1914 he opened the very first Sicilian confectionery shop in Northern Italy. Back then, introducing marzipan confections to Northern Italians was a challenge, because they were used to Austrian and French confectionery, rich in butter, eggs and whipped cream.
It is believed that these fruit-shaped marzipan confections were invented in the 12th century by the nuns of La Martorana, a monastery in Palermo, Sicily. Allegedly, the nuns decided to sculpt fruits from marzipan and hang them from their empty trees to impress the visiting archbishop or king. Almond paste, originally a mixture of almonds, honey or raw cane sugar and egg whites, was brought to Sicily by the Arabs before the year 1000. Almonds and sugar were expensive raw materials that only monasteries and courts could afford. At some point, marzipan was even used as a currency, which reminded me of tea, which was also used as a currency and of its ties with religion and royalty.
The process to produce frutta martorana takes 1 week from the beginning to the end. It is a small-batch production. It takes 2 days to make the almond paste, which is then wrapped in a plastic envelope so it doesn’t dry out. Then it is shaped by hand, but some pieces require a mold. After shaping, there’s an additional drying phase that takes a couple of days. The marzipan fruits should be soft and tender, but they have to develop a dry skin on the outside, which allows for the color to be applied. The pigments are all-natural powders and are mixed with water and ethanol, then applied. Ethanol evaporates and strips water away with it, leaving the pigment on the surface. The colors are applied layer after layer over the course of 2-3 days. Finally, the pieces are glazed using shellac.
What do these colorful marzipan fruits taste like? The only flavoring used is vanilla, so they taste sweet, almond-y with a hint of vanilla. Regardless the shape, all fruits taste the same, the apple doesn’t taste like apple! Their consistency is soft, slightly chewy, with a little firmness that gives way to a melt in your mouth sensation. As it turns out, they pair beautifully with tea. At first, I thought a Darjeeling first flush would be a great match, but its wonderfully delicate notes were overpowered by the marzipan sweetness. Don’t despair, I did find a perfect match! I paired it with Golden Monkey, a very complex black tea from the Fujian province of China. It’s full of fuzzy golden tips and the dry leaves smell like Sacher Torte, the Austrian chocolate cake with apricot filling (I swear!). It’s full bodied, sweet and fruity and has a lingering aftertaste. This pairing is truly one that works perfectly, by mellowing out the intense sweetness of the marzipan and highlighting the subtle aroma notes of the tea. Wow! Have you ever had Italian marzipan?
A heartfelt thank you to Carlo Freni for giving me his insightful perspective on the world of Italian marzipan confections.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this blog post. I was not paid to mention or review any product or services.