Sugar

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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.

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22 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century

22 responses to “Sugar

  1. When I was a kid (that’s back in prehistory), the dominant American sugar company advertised that its sugar was “pure cane sugar.” Or possible “the only pure cane sugar.” As if that was inherently better. I was grown before I bothered to ask myself if I could tell the difference. The answer was no.

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  2. Sweet shops! I had no idea they went back so far in Europe. I wonder if they had the same enchanting smell of boiled sugar the few surviving shops that make their own tablet have today?

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    • I know. I was surprised. I immediately thought boiled sweets, but I’m not sure that they were. I only found one reference to them. I can’t imagine how expensive the sweets must have been, but there’s a lovely picture (which I shouldn’t use) of a man handing over a cone (possibly paper) of sweets to a customer.

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  3. Speaking of pictures, where was the medieval event you tweeted those fascinating photos from?

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  4. Proud and happy to have been born in the 20th century.

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  5. Interesting to see the worm turn. Now books are written with titles like Sweet Poison. Too much of a good thing? Thanks for this post, April. I found it fascinating to know something of the history.

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  6. Interesting April as Turkey has indeed embraced sugar into their diets in large quantities to the extent of having a major problem with diabetes! The people centuries ago worked the energy off, this century we have become reliant on modern societies time savers, and many of us have become fat and lazy. To put it bluntly!

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  7. Fascinating, as usual. I’ve often wondered how people first discovered things like how to refine sugar. Was it accident, a process of trial and error, or scientific application? Probably a bit of all three, I suppose!

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    • Thank you. I had a similar question yesterday when someone told me how ink was made in the Middle Ages. It’s not the most obvious of processes, but I suppose you start with something basic and then improve it either by accident or by thinking about solutions.

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  8. This was such an interesting post, April. I knew that sugar used to be expensive and that it was once used as medicine, but I had no idea that there were sweetshops in some fourteenth century towns. That’s fascinating. Don’t you wish we could visit one of them and try some of their treats?

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