Ancient history

How sugar became irresistible

The widespread use of sugar or honey gave a sweet and sour taste to many dishes of the Middle Ages. Miniature from the Book of King Modus and Queen Ratio, 14th century • WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

In 1099, when the Crusaders who had arrived in Palestine to retake the Holy Land were approaching Jerusalem, they discovered plains where "canes full of honey" grew, a plant they did not know and thanks to which they were able to alleviate hunger. which had been bothering them for weeks. This is how the episode is reported by Foucher de Chartres, chronicler of the first crusade, echoing a famous passage from the Bible telling how the Israelite army commanded by Jonathan, son of Saul, arrived in a forest where " there was so much honey that it seemed to spring from the ground” (Book of Samuel I 14, 25).

The Crusades introduced sugar to Europe

The "honey cane" was actually sugar cane, a product consumed in India for two millennia. Its culture had spread in Asia and, through the intermediary of the Muslims, had arrived as far as northern Africa and al-Andalus. The techniques that made it possible to transform cane juice into crystals, developed in India since the V e century, facilitated its transport, which allowed its consumption to grow. But it was the Crusades that definitively introduced this product to Christian Europe, soon to be known by its Arabic name:sukkar , sugar.

Despite everything, the consumption of sugar did not immediately become popular. Like any imported product, sugar was expensive and, for a long time, it was only within the reach of a few purses. Honey had been the main ingredient with which to sweeten dishes since antiquity, and remained so throughout most of the Middle Ages, both in the Christian and Muslim worlds. With honey, sauces, drinks and desserts were prepared. It was also used for medicinal purposes, to make syrups and ointments. Thus, sugar has never succeeded in completely replacing honey. Especially since some regions also had other sweetening products, such as date honey and must (grape juice).

Chicken breast with sugar

Sweeteners were important in medieval gastronomy. Honey and sugar were used in pastries – made from flour, eggs, fats, cheeses and dried fruits, and sometimes seasoned with spices – as well as in meat recipes. Blancmange, one of the most popular dishes of medieval cuisine, was made with hen or chicken breast, rice flour, almond milk and sugar, and flavored with rose or orange blossom. Whether in Christian, Muslim or Jewish cuisine, honey was added to most stews and stews, and often to bread dough.

During the Middle Ages, the use of sugar became popular, and it became more and more common to mix it with honey. The sauces, almost always sweet and sour (which combined ingredients such as onion, gooseberry, egg, beer or wine), were frequently embellished with ginger, cinnamon, pepper, salt and sugar. This kind of preparation accompanied beef, pork, mutton, poultry, certain fish and even oysters.

A rare and expensive product

One may wonder at the use of sugar in dishes today considered “salty” rather than “sweet”, but it must be taken into account that this distinction was not so clear cut for a medieval palate. It should also be understood that sugar was used in these recipes as a condiment, like a spice. It attenuated acid or bitter flavors, sometimes very pronounced in meats preserved for months without refrigeration. At the same time, it compensated for the tastes of other spices. Added to all this was the fact that it was easy to store. Its use in jams, marmalades, syrups or jellies – which were also used to preserve other foods – was however more limited, given its relatively high value until the 16th th century.

Like ginger, rhubarb or cinnamon, sugar came mainly from the East, which made it an exotic food, used in small quantities. Besides molasses and brown sugar, there were different grades of sugar, distinguished by their tones which depended on the degree of refining. By simple logic, the whiter the sugar, the purer it was, and therefore the more expensive it was. Dishes like blancmange, which we have already mentioned, based part of their prestige on this color. For large celebrations, figures were made of sugar mixed with almonds, rice and perfumed water. Some testimonies also prove that Christians knew about marzipan at least since the end of the 12th th century.

King Sheep versus King Honey

A luxury item, sugar represented a factor of social differentiation. An Arabic text from the 15th th century, the Kitab al-harb , recounts a battle between the foods eaten by the rich and those available to the poor. The armies of the powerful King Sheep, formed by different meats, refined breads and rice, fight against the troops of King Honey, which include milk and its derivatives, butter, vegetables and pickles. Le Sucre, placed among the poor in charge of drinks, complains of being just intended for medicine. He ended up deserting to give the victory to King Mouton, who offered to put him in charge of the pastries and won the battle, protected "by a breastplate of hard white sugar".

The late introduction of the use of sugar in the kitchen, especially in the humblest homes, was due as much to its high price as to the slow evolution of diets. All sugars were not considered to be of the same quality, because as its consumption spread, the types of products diversified. Production also had an influence:cane could only be grown in certain places, such as Sicily or the south of the Iberian Peninsula, or imported already processed from northern Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

Sugar wins the battle

Not all regions of Europe therefore had the same access to this product, and the use of sugar became widespread in certain geographical areas earlier than in others. It is only from the XV e century that sugar became a common product in almost all of Europe. At this time the cultivation of cane began in the Atlantic islands (Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands), which the Castilians and Portuguese then began to occupy permanently, shortly before America became the main production center.

From the XVI th century, it is sugar that wins the old battle against honey. In Protestant countries, honey production declined after the dissolution of the monasteries, which were major beekeeping centers in the Middle Ages. Gradually, the price of sugar fell and its consumption increased significantly:in the 16th century century, for example, it is multiplied by 18. Its gastronomic use has also changed:instead of adding it to main dishes as a condiment to counterbalance acid flavors, it is now used in entremets and desserts, or to sweeten coffee and tea, fashionable drinks from the 17th th century. Thus, what in the Middle Ages was an exotic condiment, used with moderation because of its price, ended up achieving a primacy that it still retains today.

Find out more
Sugar, a bittersweet story E. Abbott, Fides, 2009.

Good for digestion and lungs?
In antiquity, authors such as Dioscorides and Galen attributed medicinal properties to sugar. Muslim doctors took up this idea, which they passed on to the Christian West. It was based on the belief that health was based on the balance of four humors:hot, dry, cold and wet. Sugar was highly prized because it was both hot and moist. It was therefore thought to act as a diuretic and digestive, and to cure lung ailments, although its abuse could have side effects. In the 13 th century, the Spanish doctor Arnaud de Villeneuve compiled many recipes that incorporated sugar by exploiting its therapeutic or dietary virtues, including a purified sugar syrup with egg white.

Cane to sugar cube
The sugar refineries of the Atlantic islands and then of America settled near the fields in which the cane was cultivated and harvested. They included the millstones that pressed the cane to extract the juice. This was then cooked in cauldrons and the resulting substance was poured into molds for the sugar to crystallize. If, in the first refineries, worked as many employees as slaves, it was the latter who made those in America work.