Israel's marzipan museum

We visit a nutty Israeli museum — dedicated to almond sweets


By Nathan Jeffay, April 23, 2009
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Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, moulded in marzipan

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, moulded in marzipan

When Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni missed out on becoming Israel’s prime minister a few weeks ago, there was another lesser-known honour that slipped through her fingers — the chance to have her likeness shaped out of marzipan.

Israel has its own take on Madame Tussauds but, in line with the fressing culture of the Jewish state, the models are edible. Prime ministers — as well as many other well-known figures — are recreated in consumable form.

They are found in what must be Israel’s most niche attraction, the Marzipan Museum. It is located in the Lower Galilee village of Kfar Tavor. There, a marzipan Benjamin Netanyahu already exists, as he has been prime minister before. He can be found alongside David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and other former premiers.

It is not only politicians who grace the display cases there. You will find Elvis Presley, Harry Potter, the Children of Israel leaving Egypt and the nativity scene (made, like all the other models, from kosher marzipan).

The models are the final component of a tour of the Marzipan Museum, during which visitors find out all about the production process for marzipan and the story of how early Zionists started growing almonds in the very village where the museum is located. There are windows to peer in to the tiny onsite factory which makes the marzipan.

The museum is well off the beaten track for most English visitors to Israel but there is, in fact, a strong English connection — it owes its existence to London simchahs.

Gillian Peled, a British teacher, settled in Israel in the early ’80s and found herself at a loose end. “I had kids and so I couldn’t go out to work,” she says. “I remembered the marzipan fruits we had at weddings in England and found that nobody was producing them here in Israel, so I started making them.”

By 1998 she had a successful business making marzipan fruits, flowers and cake decorations. But in that year, her distributor went bankrupt. A few months later she decided to establish the Marzipan Museum, and when it was set up, began making large models.

She had no formal training, so she worked out the method as she went along. She tried writing to politicians requesting their cooperation, but did not receive any positive responses, so she uses pictures of the person she is making to get the model right.

Some people are easier than others. “Menachem Begin was relatively easy to model; other people have more complicated features and are more difficult,” she says, adding that a simple model can be completed in three to four days.

When shaping people, she models the marzipan around a base of wood or polystyrene. She then colours much of the marzipan before shaping it, while details such as eyebrows are generally painted on. The secret to ensuring that the faces do not dry and crack up, she reveals, is to make a special modelling marzipan with a low glucose content.

That said, not all of her models last well, as they are subject to changes in the public mood. When she first put Yasir Arafat on display, the Oslo peace process was fresh in people’s minds. But during the Second Intifada, visitors vandalised his model — a favourite protest being to remove his ear. Ms Peled found herself constantly making new ears for the hated PLO leader, until she finally took him off display.

The beauty of marzipan, she says, is that you can add it and take it away, making for easy remodelling. The disadvantage is that the bits she takes away are very tasty. Does she eat them? “Unfortunately, yes."

    Last updated: 12:29pm, April 27 2009