Once upon a time, in the Middle Ages, a Venetian baker’s daughter was helping her father blanch and chop almonds to mix with a large portion of cake dough.
But the girl was in love and, lost in her own romantic thoughts, she used too many almonds for the small portion of cake dough. Her father was furious when he saw the mistake and cursed the waste. While cursing, he put a piece of the dough in his mouth - and became thoughtful. He had never tasted anything so delicious in his life!
The almond dough was cut into small pieces and sold with great success. After that time, he lived as a prosperous baker just by selling his sweet ’Marcus breads’, named after St Mark, the patron saint of his home town Venice. And in Latin they became known as Marci pani.
Nowdays, of course, it translates as marzipan, the ingredient of all the best celebration cakes, including wedding, Christmas and Simnel. But it has many more applications and new product development has thrown up some imaginative ideas that sit very comfortably in colourful slices, cake bars, café tarts and small hand treats.
Marzipan, of course, is famous all over Europe - indeed the world - but nowhere more so than Odense in Denmark, the birthplace of storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. It is from here that the Odense factory exclusively supplies UK ingredients company Unifine Food & Bake.
Odense Marcipan, founded in 1909, is now the world’s largest supplier, making 150 different varieties of quality marzipan. In 1961, it was appointed purveyor to the royal Danish court of Queen Margarethe, but this year it also attained BRC accreditation - essential for today’s UK commercial climate.
pastes for piping
As well as marzipan, Odense supplies Unifine with a range of pastes. These manufacturing sites are kept separate to avoid cross-contamination The pastes are made not only from almonds, but also hazelnuts used for both pastes and nougat, apricots for macaroon paste, and there is also a tasty coconut paste. Odenbake paste, for example, comprises half-almond and half-apricot. Placed straight into a piping bag (no mixing needed) it can be used to fill or top any range of cakes, pastries or tarts, but the baker can also add his own orange or lemon peel.
With eight bakers among the 160 staff, Mogens Overgaard, NPD manager at Odense, says the company’s aim is to excel in coming up with new ideas, ranging from colourful slices to eye-catching café tarts. All new recipe ideas are then supplied to customers by Unifine, and they are updated constantly, with colourful leaflets showing the finished products. Alternatively, Unifine’s own patissier and chef patissier Graham Dunton is on hand, back in Milton Keynes, to provide NPD workshops or demonstrations to individuals or teams for small or large-scale production.
Freshly baked and on show at Odense Marcipan were cake slices, which easily adapt to café tarts and keep a focus on healthy fruit inclusions, such as pear, apple, rhubarb, blueberry and raspberry. The hint of marzipan makes them more-ish and a good accompaniment to coffees and teas. But they can also be served in larger portions, as a pudding.
Overgaard comments: "Trying these products gives bakers an edge. Baked and eaten fresh, you will create a difference and people will come back for more. Odense is a brand that has really invested in marzipan and pastes, but high quality does not mean stupidly high prices. It is not a Skoda-versus-Rolls Royce difference. We understand the UK has its traditional products, but we like bakers to expand their repertoire and mirror the success that has taken place in Europe."
He adds that marzipan acts as a barrier; with an almond note, it is not always very sweet, but it depends on the blend. "You can also add colour to marzipan - the British often have yellow added for wedding cakes. Its natural colour is beige."
Simon Solway, managing director of Unifine Food & Bake Ingredients in the UK says: "We like to emphasise the quality issue with Odense marzipan. When you spend hours making a fruit cake, why spoil it by putting a cheap marzipan on top?
"Odense has been innovating for a long time and has adapted recipes for the UK market from the biggest retail customer down to the smallest craft baker. It has bought a new factory and new products are on the way. We hope customers will ask for recipes and point-of-sale material. We pride ourselves not only on top quality products but top service too - it is what we are known for."