Lübeck (Germany) (AFP) - Germans believe no Christmas is complete without marzipan, the mouth-watering treat made of sugar and crushed almonds that dates back to the Middle Ages.
But market pressures are driving innovation of the beloved holiday tradition -- not least in Luebeck, the charming port city in northern Germany that is arguably the world capital of marzipan.
Marzipan "has a frumpy, slightly dowdy image," said Janine Judetzki, a spokeswoman for the German marzipan firm Lemke.
"We are anxious to make the image a bit younger and also cater to other target groups."
The delicacy was, according to Luebeck lore, invented in the 15th century and has been savoured by Prussian emperors and praised by cherished writers such as local son Thomas Mann, whose visage carved in marzipan can be seen at a museum on the city's high street.
However, the rising price of almonds has also put a strain on the venerable family businesses that make the product, several of which have gone bankrupt in the past few years.
The Luebeck firm Niederegger, founded in 1806, is one of the oldest German candy companies and occupies a central place in the city, where its products are sold on seemingly every corner.
Part of marzipan's charm is that it can be formed into countless shapes such as snowmen, Christmas trees and pigs.The industry is in the process of widening the variety further in order to remain competitive.
Two years ago, Niederegger launched a successful line of marzipan for men called "Man Stuff" in which the marzipan is tinged with "bitter" flavours like cashews and whiskey and comes in virile packaging like toolboxes.
- Eight generations -
"Women buy marzipan, but men also like to eat it," Kathrin Gaebel, a Niederegger spokeswoman, explained in the company's bustling factory, where smashed almonds are caramelised in copper pots at a temperature kept secret.
The company even installed a 3-D printer to make little marzipan figures in its packed store in downtown Luebeck, though the machine cannot replicate the delicate shapes crafted in the factory, where replicas of fruit and animals are handmade to order.
Niederegger hopes that such changes may help expand its sales, 60 percent of which occur around Christmas.
Two sisters, Antonie Strait and Theresa Mehrens-Strait, now run the company as the eighth generation of the Niederegger family.
But rising costs of nuts have made their work difficult.
"The hazelnut industry and almond industry have both been suffering," Marcia Mogelonsky, a food specialist at the market research firm Mintel, told AFP.
When the cost of almonds rises, as it does after periods of drought in California, the company must bear far higher costs.
"When you think that we have 2/3 almonds and only 1/3 sugar, you have to think that the price (of the marzipan) would need to double at least," when the cost of almonds quadruples, said Gaebel.
Niederegger refuses to further sweeten its marzipan, even though doing so could cut costs and attract more customers abroad, who currently account for only 20 percent of sales.
- Gift for children -
Marzipan from Luebeck is protected by the European Union under the same category as Czech beer and French poultry, and companies must adhere to strict rules about the contents of the almond paste.
The rising price of foodstuffs has affected all of the German sweets industry with sales stagnating for the past several years.
But they especially hurt small companies like Niederegger, which employs around 750 people.
Last year the state of Schleswig-Holstein gave Niederegger and another local marzipan company 885,000 euros ($1.04 million) to help promote new and quicker forms of production.
Traditional companies need support to be competitive worldwide, said Harald Haase, spokesman for the regional economy ministry.
A number of small confectionery companies in Germany have been sold to larger corporations or are bankrupt, according to business newspaper Handelsblatt.
Gaebel declined to comment on Niederegger's profits but said "we are lucky that we are a family company."
Starting in January Niederegger will sell an ice cream line throughout Germany and the company, which said it develops 15 new products a year, has experimented with new flavours such as cheesecake and maple syrup.
And despite all the innovation, when it comes to marzipan it may just be its central place in German culture that helps it survive.
"As a child, you get it as a gift," said Eva Mura, another Niederegger spokeswoman.,"and you give it to children as a gift."