Not many people know about Lübeck, the small German city that's the sweet spot of all of Europe—literally.
Lübeck's been the world capital of marzipan for hundreds of years now. Today it's home to four big manufacturers, including the famous Niederegger, shipping to 40 countries worldwide. Founded in 1806, the small confectionery quickly started making marzipan for the rich and powerful, from Russia's tsar to the last German emperor.
Today the factory in Lübeck churns out 30 kilograms of lush candy every day, in over 300 mouth-watering assortments—marzipan in dark chocolate, marzipan in milk chocolate, marzipan with pistachio, you get the idea. And I got to see it all on an exclusive factory tour.
Full disclosure: Calling me a "candy junkie" would be an understatement. After moving to Germany, I lost control on cake. Last Christmas, I feasted on so many of Niederegger's marzipan potatoes (balls dusted with chocolate), it's shameful to talk about.
So you can imagine the euphoria I experienced walking in. I had the stupid grin and sweaty palms of Charlie Bucket at the chocolate factory.
I was met not by Willy Wonka, but Niederegger's spokesperson Kathrin Gaebel, who immediately handed over a gigantic white coat and a hairnet. I exchanged my rings for gloves, and my pen for one without breakable parts. We shuffled into the raw processing facility, where production starts every day with just two ingredients: almonds and sugar.
Legend has it that in 1407, famine swept through Lübeck and residents ground up almond and sugar to make marcis panis, a paste formed into the shape of loaves of bread. However, history shows that marzipan was used medicinally in Germany during medieval times, which means it also could've come from Asia.
Still, the age-old recipe (however age-old that may be) has always stayed simple—albeit these days, expedited by technology.
First, the almonds are soaked in a giant vat of hot water for three to four hours, until the skin slowly peels off. Afterwards, the nuts are scanned with a high-tech laser that detects leftover bits of skin, and deformed color and shape. Finally, the batch is approved with a human pair of eyes. "No machine is ever as good as people," according to Gaebel.
Next, the almonds are crushed up into tiny pieces. While some marzipan-makers prefer to pulverize them, Niederegger's always gone for a slightly toothier texture.
Afterwards, the final ingredient is added in, white sugar "from the region," said Gaebel. "The same stuff you would bake at home with." The combined smell reminded me of candied almonds, another treat that's ubiquitous in Germany around Christmastime.
Traditionally, almond paste is made with two-thirds almonds and a third sugar. Niederegger's final product is just that, no extra sugar whatsoever. That is, however, an exception among marzipan-makers—some add as much as 50 percent more sugar to the paste, cutting costs although sacrificing quality and taste.
The mixture is thrown into a massive open pot and stirred over flame, the hardest part so far. The perfect temperature is as hot as the marzipan can get without burning, creating a thick and gooey consistency. Since no two batches of nuts are alike, it can be different every time.
Confectioners are always allowed to taste to make sure they're getting it right—but Gaebel said barely anyone does anymore. "Eating marzipan every day can get exhausting."
Sure, whatever you say.
The fresh sweets are then taken out, cooled off, and packaged into 16-kilogram blocks. It looks doughy inside metal tubs, like bread that's about to be baked.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where the real fun—and you could also say, the real artistry—begins.
A small-scale confectioner in Lübeck told me that his family used to shape marzipan around the dinner table by hand. Obviously, factory machinery has replaced a lot of handiwork—but definitely not as much as you'd expect.
Moulds are used to create various three-dimensional shapes, everything from battleships to dogs, lobsters, and pigs, the most traditional marzipan figures. Some moulds are machine-operated, but many aren't. That's why there's an entire floor of factory workers expertly pushing and scraping almond paste into the moulds themselves. It's intricate work, and at the end nary a crook or crevice can remain.
Afterward, the shapes are colored with paintbrushes by hand. Christmas production was well underway, as Santas got adorned with red hats and noses, and wreaths decked out in multi-colored leaves and ornaments. The animals, like horses and pigs, were spray-painted with base color first, and then delicately accented with brush strokes for fur or little eyeballs.
All around, there were groups of ladies sitting around food color palettes, brush between thumb and index finger, chatting and laughing. If Santa had a modern-day workshop, this would be it.
We hopped onto the next floor, and my stomach started to rumble, catching the overwhelming smells of chocolate and sugar. This was where all the bite-sized pieces—including my favorite marzipan potatoes!—were wiggling down various conveyor belts.
It was ridiculously hot inside from vats of melted chocolate, and I started sweating profusely under by white coat. Machines spat out marzipan rectangles, then coated them in chocolate from the bottom to top. They glistened as they came out, before being cooled off in another machine.
Gaebel plucked marzipan and nougat straight off the conveyor belt for us to taste. The chocolate was just barely hard, with a lingering warmth that really accentuated the chewy sweetness inside.
On the way out, my tour guide told me about some of the challenges facing Niederegger these days (which, by the way, is now a seventh-generation family business). Over the last few years, the price of almonds has skyrocketed thanks to increased demand and poor weather conditions in areas (California, for example) where nuts are produced. Niederegger's prices have also gone up slightly. If the trend continues, it will definitely make high-quality marzipan—without buckets of sugar or even artificial sweeteners—harder to come by in the future.
Knowing this, I seized the moment and grabbed a couple more sweets from the waiting room before leaving. Feeling like Charlie going in, it just wouldn't be right not to be an Oompa Loompa on the way out.