There are some words in the English language that have shifted repeatedly through time, geography and meaning to reach us in their present form. Marzipan may have had the most interesting journey of all. It may be a derivative of marchpane meaning March bread or St Mark’s bread. Or it could be a corruption of the Burmese city Martaban whose name was applied to a distinctive large jar used to store sweets for export.
But the most fascinating theory relates it to the Arabic word mauthaban which apparently translates to ‘the king who sits still.’ This was a mocking reference by medieval Saracens to the image of Christ seated on a throne which was engraved on some European coins in the twelfth century. The word travelled back to Venice with returning crusaders, applied first to a Venetian coin (the grosso), then to the decorated box they were stored in. Later, these boxes were used to store confectionary and marizpan’s meaning jumped back inside the box and attached itself to the almond-based sweet.
Originally the name of an Italian noble family, Frangipani is derived from the phrase frangere il pane, the breakers of bread, from an ancestor who distributed bread to the poor during a famine. Frangipani can refer either to a flowering tree, the Plumeria, native to south America or to an almond-based sweet filling for pies and tarts.
The Frangipani tree has spread throughout the tropical regions of the world due to the beauty of its flowers and scent (in many parts of south-east Asia, it is associated with graveyards, ghosts and vampires).
In the sixteenth century, Muzio Frangipani created a perfume for gloves. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the flowers of the Frangipani were used to create this perfume or whether the tree was named after the perfume due to a similarity in scent.
The perfume inspired Parisian pastry cooks to create a dessert made of almonds to which they applied the same name.