Sweet Romance; Marzipan in the Regency Era
"Here is some of the nicest sweetmeat I ever ate in my life" –Sense and Sensibility.
In my latest work-in-progress, a sequel to Sense and Sensibility called A Return to Norland, my heroine’s suitor, Mr Ambrose, gives a dinner in honour of Margaret Dashwood, at which she sees a most elaborate table centerpiece made entirely of ice and marzipan trees and birds. Now, I wasn’t entirely making this up as elaborate table centrepieces were quite common in the upper classes when the host wished to give his or her guests a sense of his wealth and importance. What was the significance of sugar in the regency era, and how did marzipan play a part in this?
Sweets, or sweetmeats as they were commonly called, were definitely a part of regency life—and enjoyed as much as we enjoy them today. However, sugar in the Regency era was a lot more expensive than it is today—so much so that it was kept under lock and key along with the alcohol and other luxury items, in most households. The consumption of sweets was seen then as a sign of wealth, for those households that could afford the extra sugar for cook to make them.
That being said, in the regency era, if you were fortunate enough to be attending a dinner party given by one of your middle to upper class acquaintances, you might well see displayed on the table some of these sweet temptations: sugar plums (small, round sweets made of hardened sugar and flavoured with spices, dried fruit, and nuts) comfits (sugar-coated seeds or nuts, often flavoured with anise or caraway) Candied citrus peel, Turkish delight, and Marzipan.
Now when I was a little kid, I remember that my grandmother was very fond of marzipan and she often brought some when she came to stay. It was also my mother’s favourite, and so as a child I developed a liking for the almond-based sugary treat. Let’s look more into what it is and why it was so enjoyed.
Marzipan is a confection made from ground almonds and sugar. Its history can be traced back to ancient times, with evidence of marzipan-like sweets being made in Persia as early as the 7th century. The use of almonds in sweet dishes was popular in medieval Europe, particularly in the Middle East and in areas of Spain and Italy.
The origin of the name ‘marzipan’ is uncertain, but it is believed to come from the Arabic word ‘mawthaban’, which means ‘a food made of almonds.’ The ‘pan’ part of marzipan also reminds me of the word ‘bread’ since ‘pan’ means ‘bread’ in several languages. Perhaps it was called ‘marzi-pan’ as in a ‘sweet-bread’. At any rate, marzipan became popular in Europe during the Renaissance, and it was particularly favoured by royalty and the aristocracy. It was used to make elaborate decorations for feasts and special occasions, and it was often shaped into intricate figures like fruits, birds and animals, and hand painted.
During the 18th century, marzipan became more widely available and was enjoyed by people from all social classes. We can learn a little about marzipan as a status symbol in this period, in how it is mentioned in literature of the day. As exemplified in the quote beginning this blog, Austen and her contemporaries mention marzipan as quite a sought-after sweet…in Chapter 24 of Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings offers a distraught Marianne some marzipan in the hopes that the delicious treat will distract her from her broken heart….as if marzipan could replace Willoughby! Below are some other quotes from literature of the day:
In Austen's novel Emma, Mrs Weston prepares a dessert that includes ‘cakes, creams, and iced sweetmeats,’ including ‘a dish of fine marzipan’ (Chapter 42). Maria Edgeworth's novel Belinda, incudes a scene where people are served a dessert that includes ‘cakes, creams, jellies, and marzipan’ at a dinner party (Chapter 17). And in Fanny Burney's novel Evelina, Captain Mirvan offers the beautiful young Evelina some marzipan, saying ‘Let me persuade you to take a bit of this marzipan; you'll find it exceeding good’ (Volume 1, Letter 26). So we can see that to serve marzipan was seen as a sign of refinement and status, mostly because the sugar to make it was so expensive, and therefore was a popular dish in the Regency and Georgian upper classes.
These sweets would have also represented a certain amount of creativity and imagination, as the marzipan was regularly sculpted into animals, people, castles or any other achievable shape. After their creation, these marzipan sweets were put on display as a centerpiece to a dinner party, or on a dessert table, just as they are in A Return to Norland.
As for the taste of marzipan, if you have never eaten it yourself, it was often flavoured with rosewater, orange blossom water, or other fruit essences. It’s not difficult to make, actually, and if you’d like to try your hand, it’s not very expensive to make either. Rosewater is an easy flavour to buy or you can try other fruit essences. Here is an original recipe from "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy" by Hannah Glasse, which was a popular cookbook in the Georgian era:
Georgian-era Marzipan Recipe:
•1 lb. of ground almonds
•1 lb. of sugar
•1/2 pint of rosewater
•3 egg whites
•1/2 tsp. of orange flower water
1.In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground almonds and sugar.
2.Add the rosewater to the bowl and mix well until a smooth paste forms.
3.In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff and frothy.
4.Add the beaten egg whites to the almond mixture and stir until well combined.
5.Add the orange flower water and mix well.
6.Knead the mixture until it becomes smooth and pliable, adding more rosewater if needed to achieve the desired consistency.
7.Roll the marzipan into small balls or shape it into decorative figures as desired.
Note: This recipe is meant to be a guide, as measurements and techniques varied widely during the Georgian era. You may need to adjust the amounts of ingredients or cooking times based on your own experience and preference. Enjoy!