If you've ever been to Germany around Christmastime, you've probably seen a marzipan pig. Giving away little porkies made of sugar and almond paste is a New Year's tradition meant for good fortune. And while it may sound a little odd to the rest of us, local history and culture explains everything.
In the German language, Schwein gehabt or "having a pig" means being lucky. It's an expression that comes from medieval times, when a farmer who had bred a lot of pigs would be having a banner year. Marzipan is a sweet delicacy that became popular in Germany around the same time, especially in the northern city of Lübeck. Once an important medieval trading town, Lübeck's become regarded over the years as one of the best places in the world to get this smooth, sugary candy.
That's how Burkhard Leu became a marzipan maker, and got into the Guinness Book for sculpting the world's largest marzipan pig. Born and raised around ten kilometers from Lübeck, Leu grew up on the stuff. His mother would bring the freshly made almond and sugar paste from out of the kitchen on a marble plate, and he spent endless hours kneading it at the dinner table.
"My specialty was the marzipan pigs," he said during a visit at his shop, Der Lübecker Marzipan Speicher. "Nobody could do them as good as I did. The next day we were at our store, and a customer came in and bought three marzipan pigs I made. I was so proud then."
Afterwards, his mother fed the rest of Leu's handiwork to the family dogs. But that still couldn't squelch his passion for working with candy. Many years later, Leu opened his riverfront confection shop. Day in and day out you'll find him standing at the front, handing out samples on a tray, always wearing his signature costume of a white chef's coat with a red tie, apron, and a lopsided hat.
The shop sells marzipan in hundreds of different shapes and sizes. Not only do they make the traditional Lübeck marzipan, but also a lesser-known recipe from the nearby town of Königsberg, where Leu's father was born. This marzipan is baked (as opposed to raw), with a crunchy exterior reminiscent of toast.
On the Marzipan Speicher's second floor, there's a mini-museum filled with Leu's framed newspaper clippings, marzipan figurines, and other memories. Nearly every article mentions Leu's magnum opus, his marzipan pig weighing a ton and five kilos. He also made the world's first and only marzipan dress, decorated with over 25,000 pralines. But as lucky as marzipan pigs are supposed to be, Leu's masterpieces don't seem to have much luck staying together.
"The pig died after six years. It just fell apart," he said. "But that's a good age for a marzipan pig, right? The dress was on display here until a woman accidentally walked into it last year. I guess she wanted to be close to it. Then we had to throw it away."
For the last 15 years, Leu's continued to make figurines every week in a "marzipan show" at the shop. He teaches visitors, young and old, how to sculpt their own pigs and roses. The marzipan maker stresses that this sculpting is not art, but a handiwork that anyone can learn to do.
"As a confectioner, you learn how to model," he explained. "There are three basic forms: a ball, a sausage form, or a roll. Out of these three forms, you can create anything you want to in the world. But don't ask me who invented it. I wasn't the guy."
A few blocks away from the Marzipan Speicher is the world-renowned Niederegger Café. Leu's shop does small production in comparison, considering Niederegger ships 30 kilograms a day to over 40 countries worldwide. The factory in Lübeck employs around 300 people, and most of the pigs are still made by hand by their artisan candy makers.
Niedregger has four different shapes of pigs, some flat and some round. The round ones are made in a hand-operated machine, eight in a row. After that, each pig is taken individually by staff and rubbed with almond oil (what the factory workers call the pigs' "back massage"), then perked up around the ears and tail with a plastic tool. They are spray-painted pink, then carefully given blue eyes by hand with a brush. Afterward, down they go through conveyor belts, one by one for packaging.
From there, they end up on tables and in gift bags around Germany. After that, sometimes they end up in stomachs, or as souvenirs and good luck charms for many years to come.
"Everybody should have some luck, shouldn't they?" said Leu from his shop, looking over at a framed photo of him quite a few years ago, standing proudly next to his mammoth, now-deceased marzipan pig. "My pig was just a bit bigger."