Remarkable & Mysterious: The Botany of Christmas

The translucent colours characterising the saturation of glacé fruits with sugar describe the beauty, texture, scent and taste of fresh fruit – albeit saturated with sugar. In contrast the life-like colours and shapes characterising marzipan fruits caricature the fresh fruits they represent; regardless of faithful imitation, the texture, scent and taste of marzipan fruits give no hint of the fruit itself. While neither glacé fruits nor marzipan can claim the miracle or the powerful symbolism owned by the poinsettia gracing the same Christmas table, they’ve more than earned their place as edible table decorations. Last Christmas I explored glacé fruits – marzipan and the almonds that form the marzipan deserve the same attention.

Most marzipan is made from sweet almonds although pistachios make a fine marzipan and even peach and apricot kernels are used. The characteristic strong bitter almond taste of the latter, and of wild almonds, indicates the presence of amygdalin (a precursor for prussic acid or hydrogen cyanide), which has to be detoxified before the kernels can be used. While marzipan might lack powerful symbolism and miracle, the almond can hold its own. In the Bible `… the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.’ In some traditions Aaron’s rod bore sweet almonds on one side and bitter almonds on the other – if the Israelites followed the path of the Lord sweet almonds would predominate – if they were to forsake the path of the Lord bitter almonds would be the only produce.

The selection of sweet almonds for cultivation is celebrated as one of the earliest tree domestications. Sweet almonds are found in archaeological sites in Numaria (Jordan) from 5000 years before present and later in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Almonds perhaps originated in Armenia and Azerbaijan but were already native to the Middle East as far as the Indus before being widely distributed through cultivation across the Mediterranean and North Africa.

The origins of marzipan are likely in the first millennium and depended on access to a reasonable abundance of sugar, although honey was a likely early ingredient. Chaucer’s doctor knew Islamic medical luminaries including ‘ Razis’ – Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al -Razi (850-935) who lived and worked in Persia as a clinician in the early loth century and provides an early record of marzipan and its reputed curative qualities.

The extreme art of marzipan sotelties (or subtleties) is apparent by Shakespeare’s time in Europe but I’ll leave that exploration to a food writer. Nobel laureate Thomas Mann was a Lübecker – a citizen of the German town as famed for its marzipan as for its author (Mann is sculpted as a life size marzipan sotelty in the Lübeck marzipan museum). Mann observed of both marzipan and the critics who had compared his work to marzipan, “… it is remarkable and, as I have said, mysterious … And if we examine this sweet more closely, this mixture of almonds, rosewater and sugar, the suspicion arises that it is originally oriental, a confection for the harem, and that in all probability the recipe for this barely digestible delicacy came to Lübeck from the Orient by way of Venice … And it turns out that those wits are not so wrong as they themselves think, that Death in Venice is really `marzipan’ although in a deeper sense than they ever meant it.”

Almonds are closely related to plums, peaches and apricots. If you have one in your garden you’ll delight in the sublime late winter blossoms and, assuming there’s another tree somewhere in the neighbourhood and bees pollinate the flowers, you can expectantly follow the fruits until close to ripeness in January. Just as the hulls begin to split to reveal the nuts, sulphur crested cockatoos are likely to appear for their only visit to your suburb for the year and strip the tree. Perhaps the almond tree is worth netting after all.

While some stone fruits in Australia have suffered grievously from a market that supports cheap imported fruit there has been a significant increase of almond orchards here. In the past decade orchards have expanded from around 6000 to 30,000 hectares and Australia is destined to become the second largest producer after California (with 81 percent of the world’s crop Australia is not destined to supplant California any time soon). If you are going to plant a tree (or an orchard) best wait until winter.

At Christmas you might reflect that Christian iconography utilises almond branches as a symbol of the virgin birth of Jesus and as a symbol of Mary. The symbolism resonates with the Hebrew Bible’s characterisation of the almond, likely reflecting its early flowering, as a symbol of watchfulness and promise.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 2 December 2013.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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