Rise of the European Sweet Tooth

Muslim Arabs dominated the sugar industry for roughly 700 years. As their Caliphate expanded, so did the geographical range of their favorite grass. Muslims planted sugarcane on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in the Tigris-Euphrates Delta, in Palestine, the Nile Delta, on the islands of Cyprus, Crete and Sicily, and in southern Spain. Anywhere, in short, where they could supply it with the water it needed to thrive. For indeed sugarcane is an extremely thirsty plant. Arabs may thrive in the desert, but sugar, being tropical, needs water, water, water.

This map does a good job of showing the distribution of sugarcane during the period. Notice anything about the locations of these growing regions? None of them were in Christian-controlled Europe. That left sweet-lovers in the northern hemisphere mostly out in the cold, as it were. For European Christians and Muslim Arabs didn’t get along terribly well in those days. Which meant that when Europeans wanted sugar, they had to contend with bees.

In truth few Europeans of the period had any concept of sugar from plants. Granulated sugar did come into Europe in dribs and drabs during the Middle Ages, but for the most part this mysterious “sweet salt” was just an expensive novelty. That started to change when the Normans — fresh from their conquest of England in 1066 — took Sicily from the Arabs in 1091. Among the spoils were the Sicilian sugar plantations, which, you know, was nice.

The ensuing centuries saw ongoing war between East and West in the form of the Crusades, but that didn’t stop the sugar trade which thrived around the Mediterranean, especially in places like Sicily and among the powerful Italian city-states. Sugar began flowing into Europe in increasing quantities. So much so that when the Age of Discovery started in about 1450, sugarcane topped the list of crops that Europeans transplanted to the New World.

The Spaniards and the Portuguese, who already had experience growing, harvesting and processing sugar, were the first to set up plantations in the Caribbean. Other colonial powers followed suit, and within just a few decades Northern Europe had secured its own supply of the sweet stuff, completely independent of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Of course because the growing and processing of sugar was an extremely labor and fuel-intensive process, these developments led to widespread slavery, deforestation and human misery. But why focus on the negatives?

3 thoughts on “Rise of the European Sweet Tooth”

  1. But… it also led to cake. So… yeah… I think it’s a pretty fair trade-off. No?

  2. All is well, Chana, thanks…hehe.

    That’s not a bad idea. My wife loves to make granola. I never really thought about it, but maybe I should!

    – Joe

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