Sugar was an expensive foodstuff. Like cinnamon, cloves and saffron it was considered, and used, as a spice, but it did not travel quite as far as they did to reach England.
Sugar first came into Europe from Egypt and Syria. Crusaders brought it with them when they returned home. This was the beginning of Europe’s addiction to sugar. In the thirteenth century the Venetians and Genoese were able to set up cane plantations on Mediterranean islands, which enabled them to control the whole process of sugar production and distribution.
Once refined, sugar was formed into cone-shaped loaves. It is still sold in this way in some parts of Europe. Sugar loaves were white and brown. If the sugar was refined and pure, it was white. If it was unrefined, it was brown.
Sugar was used in sauces for what we would consider savoury food, but it was also used to make sweet confections to follow it.
Sugar was very versatile and soon came to be preferred to honey by those who could afford it. Honey could be produced anywhere in England by anyone who had a skep and the necessary skills to manage the bees. For those who had to buy their sweeteners, a pound of sugar would have cost a skilled labourer a day’s wages, four times more than a pound of honey.
In the fourteenth century some large towns in Europe had sweet shops selling expensive sweets made from melted and crystallised sugar. These were sold by weight. Again, they were something only the wealthy could afford.
Venice, as it did with spices, controlled the refining and distribution of sugar across Europe for centuries. Sugar only became affordable for the masses in the eighteenth century, when sugar cane started to be grown in the West Indies, using slave labour. In the sixteenth century it was possible to extract sugar from beetroot, but this was not done on a commercial scale until the nineteenth century.