Hunting Down the Elusive Marzipan

25 Feb

This is an old vignette I wrote for my travel writing class two years ago. You can’t go wrong with the classics…

Taormina in the morning—beautiful. Dogs walked obediently with their owners, stores prepared for another busy day, and possible mobsters strutted around with their gorgeous girlfriends. It was the last day of our trip in Sicily, and I had only eaten a few marzipans during the entire trip. The sugary soft dessert had somehow eluded me during the eight or so days we traveled around. How could this have happened? It’s Italy, the alleged birthplace of the marzipan. I had been busy with other things all week, but I had still kept my eye out for a shop selling marzipan and hadn’t seen too much. And to think I was told it was flowing through the streets like gelato. Though I scoured the countryside, in the end all I found were three small shops to get my marzipan fix.

I’d had the dessert in the past, usually from Mike’s Pastry in the North End or some cheap supermarket attempt if my mom had brought it home. Going from American marzipan to Italian marzipan is like going from Tee-ball in your backyard to the majors. It’s just a whole different game. The bakers need to make sure they have an almond oil content of 14%, otherwise they’d be breaking European Union Laws. Apparently marzipan is big business in Europe. These bakers are more like artists than anything else. Each marzipan looks good enough to be on a fruit stand, and with as many options as there are fruits, that’s a whole lot of almond paste to be ingesting. Unfortunately, as I soon discovered, they look a lot better than they taste, especially when you continually eat them. As Chaz noted, they’re good to have once every two years, not two a day for a week.

I started the hunt in Èrice, where legend had it that the “Marzipan Lady” had the best marzipan in the island. Following Karen and Rick, I stepped into a little shop which would otherwise go unnoticed, were it not for the enormous sign outside shouting, “Pasticceria Maria.” With three small tables in the back and a seemingly friendly staff, I thought this might be a good place to ask a few questions. Rosa was going to translate for me, but at the last minute I was informed that the clerk spoke English, so Rosa went off to do Rosa things. Seconds later I realized the shopkeeper’s knowledge of English consisted of orders and commands that a clerk would need to deal with tourists. With the help of Taormina—the girl, not the town—I found out that the marzipans take three months to make. Amazing, but I guess it’s a testament to the fact that nothing worthwhile comes easy. How much would you charge for three months’ worth of work? The Marzipan Lady only charged one euro for her sweat and tears.
There are a couple of ways to make the sweets. Commonly, they are used as filling in chocolates, but even more so as the small imitations of fruits and vegetables that most people have come to associate it with. I decided to try a pear. For some reason, when I can’t speak the language and the clerk is waiting for me I get nervous and ask for the first thing I see. It didn’t disappoint though. The pear marzipan was to be the best one I ate the entire trip, but at that point I was still ignorant to that fact.

Cut to Cefalu and the courtyard by some really old and beautiful church. Rosa is talking about this particular church’s history, and that’s great and all, but I’ve seen 200 churches already, it’s day five, and I’ve only had one marzipan. There’s Café Pasticceria Ca Martorana on my right, and a corner store on my left. Having eaten some horrible pizza at Ca Martorana the night before, I went to check out the store. €6.50 for packaged almond dough. Nuts to that. Back to Ca Martorana and the €1.50 marzipan. I was hoping the watermelon and strawberry would be better than the pizza. I was hoping they would be better than the Marzipan Lady. I thought you couldn’t get bad food in Italy. I was wrong. They were hard, far too sugary and sweet. I almost fell into diabetic shock. I was really getting frustrated now. Not only was marzipan far and few, but it wasn’t even that good. On top of all that I felt like my arteries were ready to explode. Also, I was keeping myself from trying other treats like cannoli or gelato. If I’d had any more sugar I’m sure they would have had to rush me to the hospital. I’m willing to bet one marzipan could plug a hole in a ship, and back to back dough balls surely were going to make me suffer down the line. I was beginning to think this was the worst assignment I’d ever had.

Back to the morning activities of Taormina—the town, not the girl. Do or die time, no more procrastination. I didn’t have time to think about the fact that it was ten in the morning and I was eating dessert. Marzipan is traditionally eaten at Christmas or Carnivale, but all I had to celebrate was spring break. Chaz, Justin, and Frank were my partners in crime as I strolled down the street looking for the pastry shop. Then I see him. He’s smiling down at me like some golden god saying “Yes, my son, this is the place.” The picture of Michael Douglas is pinned up next to other celebrities who’d eaten at Bar Pasticceria La Casa Del Cannolo Siciliano. Well, if it’s good enough for Michael Douglas, it’s good enough for me. If the name on the outside wasn’t enough of a mouthful, the food on the inside certainly was. Rows of treats stretched as far back as possible, in every color and every variety. In the worst possible Italian I could muster I said something along the lines of, “Vorrei…uhh, that one.” Frank just smiled and asked the clerk for a couple of marzipan. What a guy.

We left the shop quickly and went to a quiet spot to eat. Sitting by a bubbling fountain I opened the bag and took a look. Chaz pointed out that the sugar was so thick you could see it glistening in the sun. One was a tomato, and the other was a long green thing. I thought celery, but Frank thought radish. I gave some to all the guys to share, and we dug in. All the hype for nothing. Just another thick, tart dessert. The mission was over.
I was very disappointed as I sat there next to the fountain thinking. The whole week I had gone around trying to find the perfect marzipan, but in the end I found that they all tasted the same. It was just a bland, dry mixture that didn’t do much to win me over. While they looked perfect and could beat any in America any day of the week, they still weren’t friendly to the taste buds. Though I felt incomplete, I knew I had walked away with some knowledge. It is far better to have tried Sicilian marzipan and been disappointed than to not have tried any at all. At least this way I won’t waste any more money on it at home.

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