Thursday, 6 January 2011

A History of Marchpane: Sinful and Sweet

Whilst pottering around the kitchen today my attention was caught by Emily Williams' feature on a history of cake icing on Radio 4's Questions, Questions (currently available on iplayer here from about 15:30 minutes), which heavily featured the preparation and use of Marchpane.

I have always liked the idea of Marchpane. As a word, I first came across it when reading Rumer Godden's Tottie: The Story of a Doll's House. In The Doll's House of course, Marchpane isn't a cake. She's a doll; a wicked, beautiful femme fatale of a China Doll who turns the Plantaganet family's life upside down. The story has all the ingredients of a classic: there is loyalty betrayed, courage and disaster, played out through the beautifully drawn characters of the story. Marchpane's impact on the Plantagenets and the sisters who own them is reminiscent of C.S.Lewis' turkish delight touting White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia. She divides the family in order to rule. Marchpane's name is emblematic of what she is all about; as the eponymous Tottie says to the boy doll Apple: "Marchpane is a heavy, sweet, sticky stuff like almond icing. You very quickly have enough of it."

To me therefore Marchpane has always been redolent of delicious wickedness and deceptive beauty in a way that Marzipan, its more pedestrian sounding descendent, never has. No wonder my ears pricked up.

In British history Marchpane was a status symbol. Between the Middle Ages and the 16th Century (note the use of the name Plantagenet in Godden's story) it was the height of fashion; a culinary emblem of wealth and extravagance. It was made of three main ingredients: rose-water, ground almonds and sugar. All of them had to be imported, ensuring the dish's luxury appeal.

For the culinary artiste, Marchpane presented almost endless possibilities. It could be printed with devices, shaped in wooden moulds or even modeled into architectural shapes. The Radio 4 feature describes Queen Elizabeth I being presented with a marchpane model of St Paul's Cathedral and the creation of a Marchpane chess set (surely the perfect gift for the Duke of Villiers in Eloisa James' Desperate Duchesses series). The programme also describes a Tudor 'Sugar Banquet', something I have never heard of before. Sugar Banquets gathered maybe 8-10 people together to flirt, dally and otherwise enjoy themselves. Marchpane provided the centrepiece for such an event. In Tudor times, porcelain was a largely unknown material. Marchpane however, could be rolled thin and hardened to create a substance which was similar - but edible. Marchpane wine glasses could be supped from at a Sugar Banquet and then broken up and eaten. This was viewed as delightfully novel: the ultimate in disposable tableware.

For those who really wanted to push the boat out, Marchpane could be gilded with gold leaf. These exquisite confections were the Tudor equivalent of Almas Caviar or White Alba Truffles; the preserve of the ostentatious rich. For the less wealthy, a rose-water and sugar glaze would have to suffice.

References and Further Reading:

John Partridge's Treasury of Hidden Treasures from 1653 (available online here) gives an authentic recipe for the preparation of Marchpane.

Marvellous Marchpane by Living History Today provides an earlier recipe from Gervase Markham's The English Housewife (1615).

Laura Mason's Sugar Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets

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