Tag Archives: Sidney

Marchpane Part 1: History and background

My first food experiment is marchpane, these days more commonly known as marzipan. I’m hoping to get hold of more books and resources as I go along, but for now I only have a few things at my disposal – a couple of original texts from EEBO and a lovely little book about “Banquetting Stuffe” editing by C. Anne Wilson. I thought starting with marchpane would be a good introduction as it is quite a common food mentioned in a lot of Early Modern literature, it’s something we are familiar with today, and also it seems (fingers crossed) like it might not be too difficult to make, nor the ingredients too difficult to get hold of.

First, let’s look at a definition from the OED:

marchpane, n. and adj.

Pronunciation:  Brit. /ˈmɑːtʃpeɪn/ , U.S. /ˈmɑrtʃˌpeɪn/

Forms:  marchepane, marche payn, marche payne, marche peyne, march pain… 

Etymology:  Italian marzapane or German †martzepan 

Now arch. and hist.

 1. n Originally: a flat disc of marzipan mounted on wafers and usually decorated with motifs made from similar paste or other materials (by the 18th cent. often iced with sugar and mounted on a rich fruit cake, esp. a bridecake). Subsequently: a cake or sweet made of marzipan; Now hist. 

Just speculating here, but presumably the “pane” or “pan” indicates the etymology has something to do with bread. Any marzipan I have ever eaten has certainly been of a bread-like colour, and like bread it was certainly a versatile substance. Marchpane was used as it is today to make edible models which could be quite realistic. In fact, in Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney seems to consider marchpane more lifelike than life itself, so to emphasise the perfect beauty of flesh he compares it to the sculpted food:

But back vnto her back, my Muse,
Where Ledas swanne his feathers mewes,
Along whose ridge such bones are met,
Like comfits round in marchpane set. 

I suppose the “you’re so beautiful you look like a work of art” is fairly ubiquitous, but doesn’t “you’re so beautiful you look like food made to look like a work of art” just give it an extra level?

Sweets like marchpane could be a token of affection. Peter Brears, in my treasured “Banqetting Stuffe” book (which is actually a collection of lectures from a symposium in the 1980’s) describes how Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers would present her with sculpted marchpanes – from chessboards to miniature castles to scale models of St Paul’s! I bet the chessboard guy felt a bit upstaged. And in Shakespeare we can see how sweets like marchpane were, like an Early Modern equivalent of your last rolo, something to be sought after and saved as a treat (or maybe given to a couple of girls you fancy):

1 Servingman: Away with the joint-stools, remove the court cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane, and as thou love me, let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell

Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 Scene 5

Finally, here’s one more literary mention of marchpane, and weirdly this was the one that made me think about making it in the first place. In Middleton’s The Witch, foods, particularly sweet ones, have a slightly more sinister role. The Witch is, I think, an under-read play, to me it is particularly interesting because it is just so hung up on the idea that eating and luxury are very dangerous things. There are plenty of examples, such as the part where Francisca, an unmarried woman, blames her unwanted pregnancy on the fact that her secret lover wooed her with foods such as “wine, chewets and currant-custards”, leading to my favourite line “I may curse those egg-pies”. As for marchpane, and this is where it gets a little bit icky, Hecate (the titular witch) trades a love potion (also a kind of dangerous food, I suppose) for “a toad in marchpane”, something wicked and witch-like innocuously hidden in something tasty and appealing. See, sweets don’t just make your teeth rot, they are actually a path to the dark side.

If you are brave enough to continue after that, then carry on to part 2 for the (toad-free) recipe.

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