Marzipan and Lübeck go together like Shakespeare and Stratford. Today there are four marzipan manufacturers in the old German Hanseatic city. The most famous is Niederegger. The company is the epitome of the famous delicacy.
The sweet smell of almonds and chocolate is literally in the air outside its factory. Before entering the production hall everyone must disinfect their shoes and hands, wear a white coat and hairnet.
A recipe for sweet success
Inside the factory, almonds imported from Spain are steamed and shaken until the brown, thin skins fall off. Many women sit on the assembly line and remove bad or bad skinned nuts from the conveyor belt. The almonds then roll onto the mixing scale. After that everything is mixed, crushed and ground. It’s a strong business.
The basic recipe for making the raw mixture is very simple: two-thirds almonds and one-third sugar. After that, no more sugar is added to the raw mixture; many other manufactures use up to 50% sugar. Importantly, Niederegger’s products are considered “Lübecker Marzipan,” or marzipan from Lübeck, a term to indicate where they come from and one that is protected by law.
The marzipan mass ends up in one of 20 rotating copper kettles where the almond and sugar mixture is slowly roasted. One hundred kilograms of granular mass is processed at a time and heated to 90 degrees Celsius (190 degrees Fahrenheit) until the sugar crystals melt. Many of the machines here were made over 50 years ago.
“The manufacturing process has remained unchanged for a long time, there is still a lot of manual work involved,” explained Kathrin Gaebel, a company spokeswoman, during our tour.
Then the marzipan mass goes to what they call the knitting room. There is a “little secret” added to the raw dough, Gaebel said. He is not allowed to reveal any additional details, but it is probably something similar to rose water that gives marzipan its unique taste. Only six people in the company know the exact recipe. This is Niederegger’s biggest secret.
Important global connections and history
For a long time, marzipan was an expensive delicacy. That was until the turn of the 19th century when it was discovered that it could be made using beet sugar instead of the more expensive cane sugar. So places like Lübeck with its harbor and surrounding farmland have an advantage.
In Niederegger, late summer is when production peaks. While the tourists are still enjoying the Baltic Sea or the outdoor pools, everything here revolves around Christmas. In addition to 500 permanent employees, another 250 seasonal workers were added to keep up with the demand for marzipan Santa Clauses and stars.
The family business has been going on for over 200 years. In 1806, master confectioner Johann Georg Niederegger established a marzipan factory, laying the foundation for one of the most famous marzipan companies in the world.
The confectioner, born in Ulm in 1777, came to the Hanseatic city in 1800, learned how to make marzipan and developed it further. Until the 18th century, marzipan was considered an exclusive elixir in Lübeck to be used as a medicine for stomach problems or to increase potency.
At the time “only pharmacists were allowed to do it,” Gaebel said. “If you look at old recipe books, marzipan is good for a lot of things.
More secret ingredients on the way
It is now clear to nutritionists that any health benefits from marzipan come from the minerals in almonds such as calcium, potassium and magnesium. They are also rich in vitamin B, which is good for concentration. Almond oil contains polyunsaturated fatty acids that also lower cholesterol levels.
The major disadvantage of Marzipan is its fat content and tons of sugar.
Back at the factory the men shovel the solid pulp into containers where it begins to steam. Here the mass is cooled with air and nitrogen and vacuum packed into square blocks. Now the raw material is ready. The company can produce up to 30 tonnes of it on peak days.
Then it goes into cold storage. This is a maturation process where flavors can develop further. How long? Well, Kathrin Gaebel doesn’t say that. This is still a company secret.
From the cooling system, the raw marzipan mass goes to the next hall, where the machines shape it into chocolates and pies, brown bread, stollen, stars, bars and chocolate-covered cakes. Finally, it’s packed.
From exclusive attention to mass production
While most of the production processes consist of manual work, molding, chocolate coating and packaging are mostly done by machines.
For special products, there are employees on one of the upper floors who knock pieces of molds by hand and apply food coloring with brushes. Some Santas even get hand-painted mouths, hats and sacks. To apply these special touches “you need patience and a steady hand,” Gaebel says.
The confectionery is exported to more than 50 countries. However, 80% of the production remains reserved for the German-speaking market. “Marzipan originally came from the Middle East. Today it is produced mainly in Germany and Spain,” Gaebel said.
Today, around 300 different products leave the Niederegger factory every week. Annual sales are said to be over €100 million ($109 million), although no official figures are public. At the beginning of December, the Christmas production is almost finished. But Valentine’s Day and Easter are around the corner and the factory is still busy.
But no matter how beautiful the decoration, the recipe for marzipan has remained the same since the beginning of the 19th century. Perhaps surprisingly, the original recipe is even displayed in a glass at the Niederegger cafe in the city center. But don’t get any ideas – the secret ingredients are listed on the back safely out of sight.
This article was originally written in German.