Saturday, 19 April 2008
On reflection, I would definitely have to include Almonds in my Desert Island 'Eight Top Foodstuffs'. Increasingly, I find they feature in my cooking: roast with paprika and coarse salt, to serve with aperitifs; slivered and sprinkled between sheets of phyllo pastry when making tart shells (the almonds give a good crunch to the shell, and the flavour of almonds goes with absolutely everything, from cheese to chocolate to shellfish...) ; as the basis for praline, and every dessert that stems from that; and increasingly, as the predominant ingredient within marzipan, which is creeping ever more frequently into my kitchen, these days - most recently, as the secret layer of extra flavour concealed within rich fruit cake. Marzipan combines particularly well with fruit of any kind, and for years I've been using discs of the stuff as the base for a simple apple tart, where the marriage of the concentrated flavour of slices of roast apple with the intense almond sweetness of marzipan is incomparable!
It's one of the few foodstuffs that can readily be traced back effectively unchanged for the last millenium, so it certainly presses all the buttons concerned with 'food from times past' that so often give particular foodstuffs or finished dishes that extra element of travel-through-time and connection with other ages . Certainly, as far back as the end of the fifteenth century, it is possible in european writing to find references to marzipan as an element in most banquets and lavish feasts, where it tended to be used in its basic form, but transformed three-dimensionally into fantastic reliefs or sculptures, to be marvelled at before being eaten. Not only is it delicious, but it lends itself to being used as a kind of modelling clay, and the awe-inspiring creations from sixteenth century banquets survive today in a simplified form as marzipan sweets, shaped and painted with food-colouring to look like pieces of fruit, or in other more unfortunately kitsch 'works of art' .
Frustratingly, the origins of the stuff are impossible to pin down, and - depending on your preferred reference source - it came originally either from Persia, or from China, or from the Arabs. Take your pick. There appear to be references to something like marzipan being around in Toledo, in the tenth or eleventh centuries - when Spain was firmly in the control of the Moors - so that would tie in with an Arab provenance, maybe.....The Romans definitely didn't have marzipan - we can state this both on the basis of the roman food writers whom we are still able to consult, but more fundamentally because they couldn't have had marzipan, since they didn't have refined sugar (but relied instead on honey as a sweetening agent in cooking). That last point rather begs the question about when refined sugar itself first appeared, and this again is a rather vague area of knowledge - the OED first cites references in English to refined sugar at the start of the fifteenth century, although the Arabs, at some point between the eighth and twelfth centuries A.D., appear to have imported the knowledge of the process of refining sugar from India, where the practice can be dated back to the eighth century B.C. So, again, the idea of marzipan first having appeared in Europe in tenth century Spain is entirely possible.
And frankly, for the purposes of 'did you know?' dinner table conversation, that's probably quite sufficient for our needs....
In trying to track down its earliest manifestation, though, I was fascinated to come across a reference from Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C (he of the famous oath) which was for a cough cure, in which all sorts of beneficial (but not necessarily delicious) things were wrapped inside a coating made from pounded almonds combined with honey. Who would have thought that the spoonful of sugar had been helping the medicine to go down all that time ago.....or that Mary Poppins was only one stage removed from Classical Greece!
Gorgonzola and Cherry Tomato Tarts, in Puff Pastry Shells.
Blanquette d'Agneau; steamed Purple-Sprouting Broccoli.
Baked Apples, with Hazelnut-Ratafia stuffing