Sugar, almonds, and a love for their combination in the capital of Estonia
The next time I’m not feeling well, perhaps I should take a dose or two of marzipan. At least that’s what I’m thinking after reading up on the long history of this specialty sweet in Estonia. Once trusted as a medicine, this combination of sugar and crushed almonds was prepared in the main pharmacy right in the center of the Old Town in Tallinn. After a few tastes in person, I can understand why anybody might momentarily forget their ailments due to the magic of marzipan.
As soon as we arrived in Tallinn, Estonia (via a comfortable 2.5-hour ferry from Helsinki), I understood why visitors call it a “fairytale town!!” The streets are beyond charming and there was more than enough to see during our 4-night stay. And we ate incredibly well, sampling pizza from Restoren Controvento, which we learned was the city’s oldest Italian restaurant, and ordering both savory and sweet photogenic pancakes at Kompressor. But there was one item I’d heard was a local specialty. Yes, you guessed it: marzipan.
To be honest, I didn’t feel overly enthusiastic about trying this celebrated sweet. Before our visit to Estonia, I’d tried marzipan a handful of times and enjoyed it, but often felt it was too sweet for my taste after no more than a bite or two. But like any good visitor, I read up on local specialties. When marzipan kept coming up, I knew I needed to give it another shot.
“In the 19th century, the marzipan from Tallinn gained fame and was also enjoyed by the Russian Tsar,” writes the official Visit Tallinn tourism website. “Today we enjoy it as a special sweet treat.” If you find yourself in Tallinn and craving marzipan, or even just interested in how it’s created, here are the two spots you should visit in town: Café Maiasmokk and the Marzipan Gallery (formerly known as the Marzipan Museum).
Café Maiasmokk is the oldest cafe in Tallinn (in fact, it’s the oldest cafe in all of Estonia), and it’s no surprise it’s still a thriving business once you visit. The front of the shop houses the “museum” and features live marzipan painting and a vast selection of marzipan figures and treats for purchase. (Although it feels somewhat like a candy cafe, the front shop is sometimes known as the “Kalev Marzipan Museum Room.”) But the outdoor seating and front shop alone aren’t the full cafe: a beautiful café is connected with a large assortment of pastries and hot drinks as well as a full menu. I was surprised by how reasonable the pastries were; we bought two, a sweet and savory treat, for a total of €2.40 (i.e., US $2.75).
Just up the street from Café Maiasmokk is Martsipanigalerii, or the Marzipan Gallery. Its main draw is that it houses a free gallery in the basement with scenes made from marzipan and a collection of massive figures made out of marzipan. Upstairs, they sell a wide assortment of marzipan figurines and drinks and have ample seating. Overall, it’s far more functional and far less glamorous than Maiasmokk but the marzipan itself was delicious. They had free samples of several types of marzipan when I visited; my favorites were pistachio and “Christmas,” which featured a blend of spices, including seasonal touches of cinnamon and nutmeg.
As I learned more about this history (and saw what went into beautifying) marzipan, I began to appreciate not only the taste but its creation a whole lot more. And I began to crave sugar a lot more too. I kept my eyes open throughout Tallinn for other marzipan figures around town, and kept sprinkling random sweet facts into my conversations with Sean.
For example, did you know that the quality of marzipan is based on the percentage of almonds vis-à-vis sugar? Simply put, more almonds means higher quality. The average benchmark for marzipan tends to be between ¼ to ⅓ almonds. But for the figurines above, typically they’re made using a higher percentage of sugar to help them harden faster and last longer.
And I thought I had put marzipan behind me for the day when I took my seat solo for a night out. I had a ticket for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and wandered the halls of the Opera House during intermission. But what do you think I saw inside the National Opera Estonia: a perfect replica made out of, well, marzipan.