Straight Up Sugar

So what is sugar and where does it come from? That’s a good place to begin, I think. The answer is that — at least classically — sugar is the distilled, evaporated and crystallized juice of sugarcane, a giant grass that’s native to India. There it’s thought sugarcane was cultivated starting in about 3,000 B.C..

Humans didn’t make thing we now know as “sugar” there at that time. Rather they chewed the stalks and (maybe) extracted the juice. It wasn’t until about 600 A.D. that peoples in the Indus Valley hit on the process of crystallization. They’d pulp the cane, press it to extract the maximum amount of juice, then clarify the juice by adding lime, egg white or animal blood and boiling it (this would cause a scum to rise to the top that could be skimmed off). At that point the cane juice would be boiled down to evaporate the water, then laid out in shallow pans to crystallize. The result was a slurry of crystals and a dark amber syrup: molasses.

It was a good method, yet one that was refined further as sugar and sugarcane plants were traded to the Chinese in the East and the Arabs in the West. The Abbasid Caliphate (which owned all of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain starting in about 850 A.D.) liked crystal sugar so much that they spread sugarcane and sugar making techniques all through their empire.

In the early Middle Ages they hit on a technique whereby they’d pour the crystallized sugar mixture into a tall clay cone that had a small hole at the bottom through which the molasses would escape. After a few days they’d add a plug of wet clay on the top (the wide end) that would slowly release its moisture over a period of about a week. This moisture would descend through the mass, essentially “washing” the sugar of some of the last of its molasses. The result was a light brown, conical “loaf” of sugar that looks extremely suspicious when propped up on end.

These sugar loaves remained the standard for sugar for about the next six hundred years. Indeed every “sugarloaf” mountain you come across here in the States (or indeed any other place) was named for this tall, pointed shape. How did one break up a mass of sugar of this size? Easy, with a pair of sugar “nips”…that metal device pictured at the bottom there. How else do you think?

13 thoughts on “Straight Up Sugar”

  1. Hi Joe,

    I still see cones of sugar in the hispanic grocery stores around my part of the states. It’s called Piloncillo which I think means something like little pylon. I guess if a technique works, it sticks around a long time. That’s pretty darn cool!


    1. Oh yes, loaf sugar is still made in many places around the world. Pilconcillo is a type of brown sugar that I’ll mention this week!

      – Joe

  2. Thanks, Joe, for another fascinating post! I’ve seen sugar loaves in pioneer villages, but had no idea how they were made or how far back they date! Not having the slightest amount of engineering-ish imagination myself, I am constantly amazed at the ingenuity of pre-industrial societies (as well as industrial 🙂 ).

    1. Neat! I’ve never seen that before. Now I know what I want for Christmas!

      But yes I shall talk about sugar beets. Napoleon Bonaparte is a big part of that story.

      – Joe

  3. That’s really interesting, how sugar loaves were made! They are often mentioned in Latvian literature written up to 1930ies (and named “sugar heads”). Sugar was quite expensive then, and sugar loaves were kept in locked pantry – and kids were extremely happy, if granny unlocked that pantry and gave out small piece of sugar for each, that happened no more than once a week even in wealthy households. Not like today, when kids throw a tantrum if you don’t buy them candy every time when visiting grocery shop 🙂

    1. Indeed so. I was just having such a discussion with my little ones last evening!

      Thank you for this, Antuanete!

      – Joe

    2. Sveiki, Antuanete! You wouldn’t happen to have some good recipes for Latvian cakes and pastries? For one, I’m struggling to produce a honey cake as delicious as the ones I’ve eaten in Latvia.

  4. Weren’t sugarloaves once wrapped in paper dyed with indigo? I remember reading that housewives would save the paper then steep it for the dye.

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