Edible histories: sugar

Categories: History of food

From pre-historic New Guinea to the slave plantations of the Caribbean, via medieval apothecaries and extraordinary sculptures, Mark Riddaway on the history of sugar

Ascribing moral values to foodstuffs is a pointlessly reductive activity—what’s good, what’s bad, what’s ‘super’. And yet, it’s hard to avoid the fact that one particular ingredient, while it may not be fundamentally evil, often seems to be on the scene when bad things are happening.

Over the past 1,000 years, sugar has precipitated the destruction of the native populations and ancient landscapes of swathes of the Caribbean and South America. Our ever-distending demand for its uncluttered sweetness has been met by the enslavement of millions of Africans and the exploitation of their descendants. Sugar has launched us on an inexorable journey towards mass obesity, causing a global health crisis. But on the other hand—and this is important to bear in mind—it does taste amazing in cakes.

It all started innocently enough. Sugar’s story began thousands of years ago on New Guinea, where the world’s principal species of sugarcane, Saccharum officinarum, was domesticated by islanders who enjoyed chewing it for its sugary juice. From there, its cultivation spread slowly west and north. A second species, Saccharum barberi, thinner and less juicy than its now dominant cousin, was domesticated in northern India and appeared in some of the oldest Sanskrit texts. The Mahabhasya of Patanjali, written in the 2nd century BC, mentioned the use of sugar (or, far more likely, unprocessed sugarcane juice) to flavour rice pudding, barley meal and fermented drinks.

It was in India, too, that Europeans first encountered sugarcane. Nearchus, who commanded Alexander the Great’s fleet after the Greek invasion of India in the early 4th century BC, reported that its “reeds yield honey, although there are no bees”.

Dark, sticky liquid
Turning this ‘honey’ into sugar requires the cane to be chopped or shredded immediately after being cut, then pounded, pressed, ground or soaked to extract the juice. This is then heated, causing water to evaporate and sucrose crystals to emerge from the supersaturated solution. The dark, sticky liquid left behind is molasses, an important ingredient in its own right, known here as treacle (slightly refined, it can be turned into golden syrup, first sold in 1885).

The precise genesis of this process remains somewhat mysterious. All we know for sure is that sugar was being made in India by the 5th century CE, when a text by the Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa mentioned sugarcane, molasses and a lump of sugar in a bowl.

India and Persia were the first great heartlands of sugar production, and the Chinese were also early to the party, but the real engine of its proliferation was the rapid expansion of the early Muslim caliphates in the two centuries after the birth of Islam. There is an old adage that ‘sugar followed the Koran’. Sugarcane demands vast quantities of water, and processing it is similarly demanding of labour and machinery, so its widespread propagation required a culture with a thirst for scientific knowledge, an aptitude for irrigation, and a determination to force new systems of agriculture onto old civilisations—all of which those early Islamic conquerors had in spades.

It was they who turned Egypt into the source of the world’s most famous sugar, and it was they who brought production to Europe: there are records of sugar being exported from Muslim Sicily from around 900, and production was well-established in Spain by 961. Small quantities of sugar were brought from the Islamic world to Christian Europe by Venetian merchants, but it was only after the first crusade set off for the Holy Land in 1095 that the continent’s exposure to this remarkable sweetener began to widen.

Creeping dogs
The crusade drew thousands of Europeans to the Levant, where they encountered (and then brutalised) cultures in which sugarcane was a major crop. The chronicle of Albert of Aix described how Syrians “sucked little honeyed reeds, found in plenty throughout the plains, which they called ‘zucre’.” The European knights, who spent large parts of their campaign on the verge of starvation, were “greatly refreshed” by these reeds during the sieges of Albara, Ma’arra and Arqa. (At the latter, their hunger was so great, “the Christians did not shrink from eating not only killed Turks or Saracens, but even creeping dogs,” wrote Albert, so sugar was definitely a treat).

They also saw sugar being processed: “At harvest time, the natives crush the ripe crop in little mortars, putting the filtered sap into their utensils until it curdles and hardens with the appearance of snow or white salt.”

Those Europeans who stayed put after the success of the crusade took over the established sugarcane plantations along the coast. In 1124, in exchange for its military assistance to the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, the Republic of Venice gained control of Tyre, the Levant’s most important centre of sugar making, and hence became both the main producer of and the dominant merchant for the sugar that began to slowly flow into Europe.

Surprisingly, given what we know now, sugar was considered a health food. Arabic pharmacology was a highly developed pursuit, and sugar featured prominently in its armoury, to be applied as a rub or consumed as a medicine (which, while useless, would at least have tasted nice). In Europe, too, sugar became a product for the apothecary, as much as for the kitchen.

Widely lauded
The 13th century theologian St Thomas Aquinas decreed that spiced sugars counted as a medicine rather than a food, and hence were exempt from the restrictions of fast days. Sugary foods were widely lauded—in Le Viandier de Taillevent, a 14th century French cookbook, a recipe for fish spiced with cumin ends with the instruction: “For invalids, you need some sugar in it.”

When it wasn’t being eaten as a medicine, sugar was being used as a spice. The binary categorisation of foods as either sweet or savoury is remarkably recent. In medieval Europe, sugar was a cripplingly expensive import, more often used as a flavouring than a foundation, added sparingly to meat, fish or vegetable dishes—reminiscent of how palm sugar or jaggery might be used in Asia today. Sweet baked treats and fruit comfits were also quickly established as vessels for sugar, but the concept of the ‘dessert’ would take centuries to coalesce.

In early European cookbooks, sugar often appeared alongside pepper, ginger, mace, saffron and cloves—other costly spices. A good example of a recipe that jars with modern sensibilities is ‘connynges [rabbits] in gravy’, from the 14th century royal recipe collection The Forme of Cury. The cook is told to “smyte” the rabbits to pieces (an instruction sadly under-employed in today’s cookbooks), then cook them in broth with blanched almonds: “Do therinne sugur and powdour gynger and boyle it and the flessh therwith. Flour it with sugur and with powdour gynger and serve forth.” Sugared rabbit sounds terrible, but only because sugar these days is measured in tablespoons rather than pinches.

One of the defining qualities of sugar is the ease with which it can be used to create solid, durable shapes. Sugar pastes and marzipans were being used in elaborate displays by wealthy Muslims by the 11th century. In Europe, sugar sculptures known as ‘subtleties’ (ironically, as subtlety was rarely one of their qualities) became a fixture of banquets, served between courses to elicit awe or amusement. When Henry VI was crowned at Westminster in 1429, his coronation feast was punctuated by complex subtleties, featuring likenesses of saints, kings and emperors, designed to communicate the power and legitimacy of the new monarch.

Sugar paste artistry
These displays reached comical levels of ambition. Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1684), included an astonishing tableau of sugar paste artistry: a ship, a castle, a stag that bleeds wine when an arrow is removed from its side, cannons loaded with gunpowder, pies from which live frogs and birds emerge, egg shells filled with sugary water to be tossed around by the diners, all designed to “make the ladies to skip and shreek”.

By the time Robert May was filling candy stags with claret, production of the sugar consumed in Europe had shifted dramatically in both manner and location. After 1291, when Saladin drove the Christian settlers out of the Levant, the Venetians looked to rescue their grip on the sugar trade by planting sugar on Cyprus and Crete. Sugar production also continued in Sicily.

In the 15th century, when the rising powers of Portugal and Spain began to push their vessels out into the Atlantic, then south along the African coastline, they planted sugarcane on many of the islands they captured along the way—Madeira, the Canary Islands, São Tomé, Príncipe. Only in some did it prosper, but their success was sufficient to shift the axis of sugar production westwards. By the end of the century, Madeira was the most prolific supplier of sugarcane to Europe. It was here on the Atlantic islands that the economic model that would come to dominate production first evolved: sugar’s rapacious need for labour was met with the enslavement of Africans.

In 1493, on his second Atlantic crossing, Christopher Columbus carried with him sugarcane from the Spanish Canary Islands. The Spanish were the first to successfully grow sugar in the Americas—on Santa Domingo—and they were the first to ship slaves across the ocean to work their sugar plantations, but it was the Portuguese who turned Brazil into the world’s biggest exporter of sugar and its most ravenous consumer of shackled, brutalised Africans.

Pure white powders
The first cargoes of Brazilian sugar landed in Europe in 1519, and by the end of the century it was arriving in vast quantities, much of it carried by the Dutch, who refined it in Antwerp and Amsterdam to create the pure white powders most highly valued by Europeans.

The English soon got in on the act, as both a producer of sugar and a major participant in the slave trade. Barbados was settled in 1627, Jamaica was captured from the Spanish in 1655, and huge plantations were established on both. In 1660, England imported around 1,000 hogsheads of sugar; by 1730, the number had swelled to over 100,000. For the next three centuries, the British Empire met its own insatiable demand for sugar and, alongside France, dominated the supply to the rest of northern Europe.

The English love of sugar was famous. As early as the 1590s, Paul Hentzner, a German visitor to the court of Elizabeth I, had been struck by the Queen’s black teeth, “a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar”. As cheap Caribbean sugar flooded the country, having a sweet tooth (and bad dental hygiene) became an intrinsic part of the national identity. What had once been reserved for royalty was soon central to the diet of every Briton, regardless of income—sweetened tea was the fuel of the poor, bread and jam among their primary forms of sustenance.

The gradual abolition of slavery by western powers in the 19th century changed the nature of sugar production, although exploitation remained rife. Other sources of sugar also emerged. The extraction of sucrose from beets was pioneered in Prussia in the mid-18th century and perfected in France, sparked by the devastation of the French Caribbean sugar industry during a succession of slave uprisings. Faced with the prospect of Britain monopolising the Atlantic trade, Napoleon poured money into the creation of beet sugar factories. Other countries that lacked a presence in the Caribbean—Germany, Russia, Turkey, the USA—followed suit. Around 20 per cent of the world’s sugar now comes from beets.

What hasn’t changed is the world’s ever-growing appetite. Sugar consumption continues to rise, particularly in areas of great poverty—just as British workers were once sustained by sugary tea, the poor today are flooded with sugary fizz that offers a calorific high and a nutritional vacuum. Obesity is now a worldwide epidemic. Sugar is still making cakes taste nice—but still wreaking havoc wherever it goes.