A Magical Marzipan Xmas In Lubeck

If you’re looking for a fabulous Xmas market, they don’t get much better than Lübeck in Germany. And what’s more, you get to eat the best marzipan in the world.

Serious Cake Action

‘Does it get busy in here at Christmas?” I ask indistinctly between mouthfuls of cake. My neighbour pauses in the task of putting away his own massive Torte Niederegger to reply, ‘well, put it this way, last year I came here to meet a client and it literally took me over half an hour to get through the crowds and get upstairs!’

We’re talking, and eating, in the J.G.Niederegger shop and cafe in the medieval Hanseatic port of Lübeck, often called the ‘“Venice of the Baltic”

Forget the diet

All around us locals and tourists alike are gleefully shovelling down some of the most impressive cakes I’ve ever seen, each one it seems heavily laden with fruits and creams, and nearly all featuring plenty of marzipan. And there’s a good reason for that.

If there was ever to be a marzipan capital of the world, then it would have to be Lübeck. And the finest marzipan makers here are the family Niederegger who have been blending their mix of almonds, sugar (plus a secret ingredient) since 1806.

Fast food in Lubeck

For Germans marzipan is not simply something yellow that only goes under cake icing. It’s a fine white delicacy in itself, and an absolute Xmas necessity that’s usually given as a gift in the shape of a bread, a ‘Marzipanbrot’, as well as shaped as a potato ‘Marzipankartoffeln’.

And at New Year the traditional present to share is a Glücksschwein, a “lucky pig” made of, you guessed it, marzipan.

The Niederegger shop, cafe and museum is adjacent to the ancient main square of Lübeck. It was once their main marzipan factory, but world demand meant production eventually moved to a bigger place just out of town, it’s where I head next for a marzipan master class.

Make mine Marzipan

The gift every German wants at Xmas

J.G. Niederegger himself

The plastic shutter rolls up with a cheerful clatter and there comes a sudden increase in temperature, as well as the unmistakable aroma of almonds. Suitably kitted out in white coat and hair net, and divested of my mobile phone and camera for security, I’m admitted to the magical world of marzipan making.

Marzipan’s origins are somewhat disputed, but it probably began in in Persia, its name may be a version of ‘Marco’s Pain’, or come from the Castilian mazapán. Originally it was both a luxury and a form of medicine for the elite. Today, it’s made all over the world, but Lübeck is the epicentre of quality.

Niederegger’s unique manufacturing process has remained unchanged over time since J.G .Niederegger began the business, and uses only the finest quality almonds sourced from Spain. My guide pulls a face when I ask about Californian almonds, “not bad” she admits, “but nowhere near as good.”

The real secret is quality

Very hot work

Thousands of almonds pass constantly through a device that scans, senses and rejects impurities, and then they roll under the watchful gaze of a team of women whose hands rapidly snake out to snatch up any bits of almond skin, or any less than perfect nut, that has escaped electronic scrutiny.

The almonds are washed and then ground in granite presses before the heavy, sticky, paste of sugar and almonds moves on to be ‘cooked’ in traditional copper cauldrons over gas flames.

Classic flat moulded marzipan

This all creates the sought-after flavour of Niederegger marzipan; they make it the correct way – two-thirds almonds, one -third sugar. Cheaper marzipans use much more sugar to unhealthily bulk it out, and then there is their secret ingredient.

In fact, the ingredient is not actually all that secret as it can be worked out by analysis, my guide tells me. What is kept quiet though is the source and the quantity used. That’s the bit the family keeps mum about, and they use feints and false trails to keep it securely under wraps.

Shaped and wrapped

The still hot blocks of what can now be called marzipan are allowed to cool, and then the soft, highly malleable, product is crafted into the myriad shapes and sizes that Niederegger make. They produce over 35 tons of marzipan each day, and that’s before they pick up speed for the Christmas demand.

Gift wrapped and ready

Machines shape much of it these days, but there is also a whole department of people that hand-press the marzipan into traditional flat moulds to create special designs, just as it’s been done for hundreds of years. Whole areas are also devoted to beautifully hand-packaging some of the final product, as a marzipan gift is always a much-appreciated luxury.

You’ll love these

I’m allowed to pick up as many examples as I want, and I really want them all to be honest, and we return to the factory office to try them. So many flavours to sample, as well as the joy of tasting pure marzipan shapes with nothing added or taken away, just the finest ingredients in action.

Christmas is coming

Unchanged for centuries

Back in town, my bag of marzipan purchases now safely stashed at the hotel, I wander through the hugely impressive Holstentor, one of the two remaining medieval gateways to the town. Here the cobbled, winding streets are lined with steeply gabled brick-built houses, and here are the closely grouped stunning and soaring churches whose green copper spires are visible from all directions.

An island city

In one church, the Petrikirche, there’s a lift that will take you to the top to enjoy the view across town, a view that that reveals the city’s remarkable island nature surrounded by the river and canals.

And when you tire of walking, or are simply too stuffed with cake to go on, you can take a cruise around the island on a pleasure boat that putters gently past the historic warehouse buildings.

Cruise past history

It’s these buildings, as much as anything, that give a clue to just how wealthy the city was back in the Middle Ages when it was a major trade gateway port.

In fact, apart from some unfortunate 1960s planning mistakes, and a visit from the RAF in 1942, the town has kept its mediaeval character virtually intact and it is quite charming.

In 1987 it was made a Unesco World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why the Xmas fair held here each year is regarded as magical and one of the very best.

Scouse, la?

The sailors’ rest

And so to dinner at the Schiffergesellschaft, a remarkable place where sailors once lived while waiting for the sea ice to melt after winter. It’s been here for 500 years and in the high – beamed dining hall you certainly feel the atmosphere as you sit at long wooden communal tables.

I have the Labskaus, a famous dish here, a kind of corned beef hash that’s coloured purple with beetroot and served with an egg on top. Eaten with some excellent rye bread and washed down with good German beer it’s superb. It may also be the origin of the word Scouse. Or so I am told.

Best pudding ever

Also good is the fish, a Baltic port Lübeck is well-supplied with smoked herring and other delicacies, and then I end with a Rumtopf a classic German dish made by layering red summer fruits as they come off the plants into a stone pot, each layer topped with rum.

By September, and traditionally Christmas, the pot is a gorgeous rummy, fruity delight best eaten with lots of cream.

I left the next day in rather unseasonably warm sunshine, but as winter gets a grip Lübeck will become even more impossibly pretty and Christmassy.

Picture perfect

The end of November is the best time to go to enjoy the Xmas markets before the crowds really build up, and whatever you do don’t miss that famous cake in the Niederegger Cafe. Marzipan will never taste the same again.

Fly: To Hamburg airport. Lübeck is around one hour’s drive away, or there is a regular train service

Stay: We stayed in the Radisson Blu Senator Hotel Lubeck, a very smart place perfectly positioned next to the Holstentor and with ample parking.

Discover. Visit Lübeck

Buy: Niederegger marzipan at John LewisWaitroseChocolatesDirect.co.uk, Lakeland

Christmas markets on Markt

• 26th Nov. – 30th Dec. 2018 • daily 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. • Fri./Sat. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

• 24th Dec. 2018 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

• 25th Dec. 2018 closed

• 26th Dec. 2018 1 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Christmas Market Breite Straße

• 26th Nov. – 30th Dec. 2018 • daily 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. • Fri./Sat. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

• 24th Dec. 2018 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

• 25th Dec. 2018 closed

• 26th Dec. 2018 1 p.m. – 8 p.m.

 

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