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A taste of Lubeck, the ‘splendidly Willy Wonka-esque’ German city that is famous for its marzipan

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Lubeck is legendary for several things: its seven spires and its former status because the capital of the Hanseatic League. After which there’s marzipan. More specifically Lubecker Marzipan, which is, like Champagne and Gouda cheese, EU’s list of foods with protected designation of geographical origin.

The jury’s out on its origins; some consider it dates back to the 1400s, when failed harvests prompted bakers to make use of almonds to make a bread generally known as marci panis (bread of St Mark). Others indicate that the almond-based sweets which once arrived here from Asia on merchants’ sailing ships were adorned with the image of a ruler. And in Arabic, ‘mauthaban’ means ‘sitting king’.

Either way, almonds, most of which got here from the Far East, were never in brief supply in Lubeck, a UNESCO-listed city full of half-timbered former merchants’ houses. Even the poor lived well here, on account of the assumption that philanthropy would smooth wealthy traders’ passage to heaven. 

Fittingly, one in every of the marzipan sculptures displayed at Niederegger’s flagship store (a sickly sweet tribute to the world’s oldest marzipan brand), depicts Lubeck’s Holsten Gate, a gothic tower which dates back to the 1400s. Today, it houses a museum which explores Lubeck’s Hanseatic history, and exhibits include collection boxes once found outside the town’s quite a few guilds.

Nutty but nice: Tamara Hinson explores Lubeck, a German city that is famed for its Lubecker Marzipan, typically constructed from sugar and almonds, with rosewater providing floral notes

The Niederegger marzipan brand was founded by confectioner Johann Georg Niederegger in 1806, and stays within the hands of his descendants. Simnel cakes look quite plain after a visit to its store, opposite the thirteenth-century Lubecker Rathaus, the gothic townhall through which Hanseatic League members once met.

Niederegger’s flagship store is inside a constructing which comprises the Niederegger café and its marzipan museum. In the bottom floor boutique, supermarket-style shelves heave with marzipan oranges, apples and onions. There are rows of marzipan dinosaurs next to fleets of marzipan sports cars and packets of marzipan tea. Seasonal sculptures are Niederegger’s speciality (on the time of my visit, the centrepiece is a military supersized Easter bunnies), although essentially the most elaborate sculpture is a bust of Johann Georg Niederegger.

It’s all splendidly Willy Wonka-esque. Over a slice of the café’s legendary marzipan cake, Niederegger’s Kathrin Gaebel reveals that previous marzipan sculptures have included a Big Ben, a reproduction of Cologne’s cathedral and marzipan sushi sculptures for a music festival. Kathrin explains that marzipan’s key ingredients are sugar and almonds, with rosewater providing floral notes. The almonds should provide the taste, but their high price means many brands rely heavily on sugar.

The Niederegger flagship store, which contains the Niederegger cafe and its marzipan museum

The Niederegger flagship store, which comprises the Niederegger cafe and its marzipan museum

One of the marzipan sculptures displayed at marzipan brand Niederegger’s flagship store depicts Lubeck’s Holsten Gate tower The non-marzipan Holsten Gate, a gothic tower that dates back to the 1400s

One in every of the marzipan sculptures (left) displayed at marzipan brand Niederegger’s flagship store depicts Lubeck’s Holsten Gate (right), a gothic tower that dates back to the 1400s 

‘Almonds are expensive, so there’s way more sugar in low-cost marzipan,’ says Kathrin. ‘EU guidance states that Lubecker marzipan should have a set ratio between almonds and sugar, and with ours, the taste is unquestionably right down to the almonds.’ 

Kathrin adds that she repeatedly meets visitors who say they don’t like marzipan’s cloying sweetness, just for them to vary their mind once they’ve tried marzipan made by EU-certified producers, all of whom should be based in Lubeck.

That said, I’m still sceptical about a number of the flavours (300 and counting) made by Niederegger. ‘Every 12 months we create a special flavour,’ says Kathrin. ‘We’ve done a cola and whisky version, and we also tried a chocolate marzipan, nevertheless it didn’t work. We recently produced a salted cashew marzipan which was delicious, and this 12 months, we’ve done a caramel version, which was lovely.’ 

Sweet treats in the Niederegger shop. Tamara writes of the store: 'There are rows of marzipan dinosaurs next to fleets of marzipan sports cars and packets of marzipan tea... all wonderfully Willy Wonka-esque'

Sweet treats within the Niederegger shop. Tamara writes of the shop: ‘There are rows of marzipan dinosaurs next to fleets of marzipan sports cars and packets of marzipan tea… all splendidly Willy Wonka-esque’

TRAVEL FACTS 

Easyjet has return flights from London Gatwick to Hamburg (an hour’s train ride from Lubeck) from £21.99 a method (easyjet.com). Lubeck’s Motel One has rooms from £65 per night (motel-one.com). To search out out more about Niederegger, visit niederegger.de/marzipan.

 

She adds that the Niederegger factory, just outside Lubeck, churns out 30 tonnes of marzipan every single day, and ships products worldwide. The largest markets include the UK, Australia and China.

Walking through Niederegger’s marzipan museum, one floor up from the café, provides a unbelievable insight not only into marzipan but into Lubeck’s history. The night before, I’d dined on the nearby Schiffergesellschaft, a beer hall and restaurant which dates back to the 1500s and was once a seafarers’ guildhall. 

During storms, seafarers would hunker down here, passing time by making wood models of ships, lots of which now dangle from the beer hall’s ceiling. They bear a startling resemblance to the model ship which takes pride of place in Niederegger’s museum, although there’s one major difference – this one (right right down to the sails and portholes) is constructed from marzipan.

My favourite sculpture within the museum has an uncanny resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – a row of life-sized busts depicting figures who played a job in each Lubeck’s and marzipan’s past, including a nun (marzipan was one in every of the few foods they might eat when fasting) a pharmacist (within the 800s, influential Persian physician Rhazes extolled the medicinal qualities of almond-based concoctions) and Emperor Charles IV, who declared Lubeck one in every of the Roman Empire’s Five Glories.

Visitors can join for Niederegger’s marzipan tasting masterclasses, sampling six marzipans and 6 wines. These include Lubecker Rotspon wine, one other Lubeck speciality – a wine imported from Bordeaux and aged in Lubeck (the tradition dates back to the fourteenth century, when bottles were loaded onto Lubeck-bound ships). 

There are also marzipan-making masterclasses, during which visitors use a 3D printer to make bespoke creations. Whether Johann Georg Niederegger would approve stays to be seen, although I believe he would. 

My personal line within the sand, nonetheless, is the marzipan pasta I spot in a close-by souvenir shop. 

But cola and whisky marzipan? Sign me up.

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