Gingerbread—why are they always men?

In a church hall transformed for the weekend into a café we ate open sandwiches on dark rye bread and shared wedges of princess cake.

I’ve recently returned from a month in London and Edinburgh. A trip originally planned for 2020 but cancelled because of  Covid. So happy to be travelling again. Part of the visit was work-related, and in Scotland my research had a definite culinary focus. Looking into, amongst other things, the provenance of a soup called Cullen skink. Back in London, my friend Jane invited us to the Swedish Christmas Fair in Marylebone. So there we were and there was that princess cake, a light-as-air sponge under a layer of pale green marzipan. Why green? The colour reminded Jane of a children’s story: The Marzipan Man. He was green, she said.

Marzipan men, gingerbread men … why are they always male? Look at their anatomy and they can be any gender. In fact, I like to think there’s something just a little a bit queer about gingerbread men. Is it worth noting that in Cockney rhyming slang ‘ginger beer’ means queer?

Gingerbreads’ origin stories are somewhat opaque, but recipes appear in early medieval cookery manuscripts. English gingerbread began its life as a paste which was used as a medical remedy, later moving to a concoction of breadcrumbs and honey. The Penguin Companion to Food tells me that different parts of the UK have—or had—their own gingerbread specialities. While guilds of gingerbread men (i.e. artisanal producers of gingerbread) emerged in a number of German and Austrian towns.

Australian gingerbread men, my partner insists, are hard-baked and biscuit-like. But the gingerbread texture I recall is softer, halfway between cake and biscuit. A more pliable, lebkuchen-like dough that can be pressed into moulds and fashioned into figures, shapes and even houses. A practice that bakers in Belgium and the Netherlands developed into a fine art.

In First Catch Your Gingerbread, Sam Bilton explores the history of this sweet and spicy treat from ancient times to the twenty-first century. What were those early gingerbreads made from? How did the arrival of treacle—and cheap sugar more generally—change gingerbread recipes? Why did the gingerbread man jump out of the tin?

For a more local account the 2014 book Ginger in Australian Food and Medicine by Leonie Ryder tracks the history and use of ginger in Australia—as both food and medicine—from 1788 to the mid-twentieth century.

Jane’s remembered Marzipan Man struck a chord. A bit of light Googling and I discovered he appeared in a kids’ book from about 1951: Toby Twirl Tales No 4 (The Sea WizardThe Marzipan Man) by Sheila Hodgetts. Yes, he is pale green like the Swedish Princess cake. I bought a copy from a second-hand bookshop in South Australia. As well as the eponymous Marzipan Man, the story contains a Toffee Apple Man, some Liquorice Men (described in terms we’d now deem racist), a Chocolate Man, Chocolate Soldiers and a Lollypop Mayor—all male of course, which brings me back to that question: why are they always men?

Gone to marzipan

It’s that time of year: bushfires, barbecues, shops window-dressed with tinsel, fairy lights and fake snow, with chocolates, glacé fruits and marzipan. It’s the season for marzipan. I’m not a fan of white icing, but a festive fruit cake without marzipan is missing something essential. And I can’t imagine Swedish princess cake without its distinctive, green-tinted coat.

The story starts in the Middle East, probably in Persia. Traders or maybe returning crusaders brought the confection west to Europe. One of marzipan’s many origin stories claims it was born in Venice during a great famine. Without flour to make bread, Venetian bakers used ​​ground almonds instead, adding sugar and honey to their dough. Presumably—despite the famine—there was no shortage of nuts or sweeteners? Or is it a case of never let logic get in way of a good legend?

Another marzipan story, very likely apocryphal, takes place during the Wars of Religion (1562-98). Huguenot leader, Gaspard II de Coligny, loved marzipan and the day before an important battle he over-indulged in his favourite delicacy. This gave him such terrible indigestion, he was unable to lead his troops, and the Protestants were defeated.

Marzipan also gets served up in literature. It’s mentioned in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Act I Scene V opens with a bit of domestic business:

‘First Servant:
Away with the joint-stools, remove the
court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save
me a piece of marchpane …

And, à la recherche du massepain … Food and the rituals of the table play a large part in the work of prolific, nineteenth-century writer Honoré de Balzac. (As well as fiction, he co-edited a collection of gastronomic texts.) It was during a stay with friends that Balzac, collecting material for his 1842 novel La Rabouilleuse, discovered Issoudun’s famous marzipan:

Elle tirait d’une armoire une fiole contenant du cassis, une liqueur de ménage faite par elle, car elle en avait eu la recette de ces célèbres religieuses auxquelles on doit le «Massepain d’ Issoudun. Le gâteau d’Issoudun est l’une des plus grandes créations de la confiturerie française et qu’aucun chef d’office, cuisinier, pâtissier ou confiturier n’a pu contrefaire. M. de Rivière, ambassadeur à Constantinople, en demandait tous les ans d’énormes quantités pour le sérail de Mahmoud.

Out of copyright, La Rabouilleuse is available (in French) online. This is my translation of the above passage:

She took a flask containing her homemade blackcurrant liqueur from a cupboard; she had obtained the recipe from those famous nuns to whom we owe credit for ‘Issoudun Marzipan’. This local sweetmeat is one of the greatest creations of French confectionary and one which no chef, cook, pâtissier or confectioner has been able to copy. Monsieur de Rivière, our ambassador in Constantinople, would order enormous quantities of it every year for Mahmoud II’s harem.

Not long after the publication of Balzac’s novel, an enterprising Parisian distributed leaflets announcing that he’d opened opened a shop a selling Issoudon marzipan. His circulars  contained what purported to be an extract or endorsement from Balzac. It wasn’t, but the PR plot paid off. Rumours spread through the capital that Balzac had become a pastry chef and people flocked to the shop on rue Vivienne.

The production of this sweetness flourished across the cities and regional towns of Europe. Eventually spreading further afield to the Americas, Australasia and elsewhere.

Recipes vary. In India marzipan is sometimes made with cashew nuts which are cheaper and more readily obtained than almonds. But the majority of recipes contain three basic ingredients: almond meal, sugar and egg or egg white.

The Green and Gold Cookery Book published in Adelaide in 1923 and reprinted multiple times since, has this recipe for what it calls ‘almond icing’, a term you find in a lot of older English language cookbooks:

One lb. icing sugar, 6-8 ozs. almond meal, yolks of eggs, I tablespoon sherry or orange flower water, 2 tablespoons strained orange or lemon juice. Sift the icing sugar and add it to the almond meal. When well mixed add the yolks of the eggs, the orange flower water, or sherry, and sufficient of the fruit juice to form a firm paste. Turn onto a board well sprinkled with icing sugar and knead it thoroughly.

For me, marzipan is all about the almonds. So I don’t find fruit juice, orange flower water and sherry appealing additions.

Marzipan became a speciality of the German Baltic ports of Lübeck and Königsberg (now Kalingrad and part of Russia). As port cities they were trading hubs with ready access to the necessary ingredients. My preferred marzipan is the kind that comes from Lübeck. It’s made with more almonds, less sugar and no egg.

Yet another origin story says marzipan was invented in Lübeck at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Again during a famine when the only foodstuffs available were sugar and a handful of almonds. Another story that speaks of the hunger and scarcity that haunted medieval life.

Unlike a lot of home-made versions, German (and Danish) marzipan is generally made with the meal of sweet almonds—and a tiny amount of bitter almond, which deepens the flavour.

Almonds come in two kinds, sweet and bitter. Bitter almonds aren’t eaten like the regular nuts, they’re used as a flavouring, more like a spice. In amaretti biscuits, in amaretto liqueur and in a number of traditional dishes. In Australia we grow sweet almonds along the Murray River in Victoria and South Australia. Vast irrigated orchards of densely planted trees. Seas of blossom and stormy debates about water allocation to farmers. Long before the wellness industry seized on all things almond, thereby encouraging a thirsty monoculture, marzipan was a treat to be enjoyed on special occasions.

Botanically speaking, the almond is a peach in disguise. And bitter almonds contain a form of cyanide. Although cooking destroys the poison, the nuts’ sinister reputation persists. Fuelled in part by crime fiction. All those scenes where the detective points out the odour of bitter almonds on a murder victim’s breath.

Back to Lüback where there’s a Museum of Marzipan. Its display includes life-size figures made from marzipan, including one of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann who was apparently very fond of the confection. Madame Tussauds eat your heart out! Who wants wax figures when you can have edible ones? Now, would Thomas Mann miss a finger or two … ?