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A - 6 : A Lump of Honey for a Para

The use of sugar in food is so widespread today that we have to carefully read the nutrition labels to make sure that we do not consume too much of it. We now find it even in pasta sauce, low fat yoghurts and pretzels!

The Juicey Sugar Plant from New Guinea


But sugar found its place late on our menu. The sugar cane plant comes originally from New Guinea, a tropically hot and wet place at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Sun and water is what sugar cane needs to grow. The native population chewed sugar cane to get access to the sweet juice.

The Migration of Sugar from Asia to Europe - The Spanish brought it also to America


From New Guinea sugar cane spread to southern China and India, where people figured out how to squeeze the cane and boil and condense the juice into brown crystals. By 600 BC, it had reached Persia where Emperor Darius famously compared it to honey without bees. The production of crystalline sugar was very labour intensive which made it a expensive. It was used for medical purposes only.


It was well known by the Romans as well. Pliny the Elder described sugar as a kind of honey coming in lumps the size of hazelnuts. He also mentioned that is was used for medical purposes only. It puzzles us today that sugar was used as medicine. But a glass of sugar water provided a boost of energy that no other food could. That sugar had no healing power was only discovered later.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Arabs continued to grow sugar cane and brought it to wherever they went. Sugar cane fields were planted in Egypt, Cyprus, Sicily and southern Spain.

Remember these Sugar Cones from my Grandparents Shop - Sugar was sold like this to 1960


Around 1000 AD, the Arabs discovered a method to make pure, white, crystalline sugar. By pouring condensed sugar juice into earthen cones with a small whole at the end, they let gravity work. The white sugar crystals are slightly lighter than molasses thus float to the top whilst the molasses drips out at the bottom. After several cycles of topping up, the result is a crispy white sugar cone or sugarloaf . Sugar was sold in sugar-cone form when I was still a kid. Maybe you remember it as well.


The Venetians were eager buyers of sugar cones and owned at one time sugar plantations near the Lebanese town of Tyre. But with Ottoman Turkey growing ever more powerful, they were forced to give it up and buy sugar from the Turkish Merchants. Sugar was about as expensive as nutmeg and thus a good business. Every Venetian ship carried sugarloafs in their cargo bay.

Egyptian Beauty Treatment with Sugar Cream - Wonder how this worked!


Sugar was not only used as medicine. We know from hyroglyphs that noble Egyptian women used a cream made of sugar, water and lime for epilation. To my knowledge, this beauty treatment has not survived the passage of time. (Jenny says that this technique is still in use!)

Sugar went mainstream with the discovery of the new world. Columbus brought sugar cane plants to the Caribbean which had the ideal climate. But sugar cane required a big labour force which the small native population of Indians could not supply - they had been decimated by European infectious diseases. Thus the sad story of African slavery started where innocent people were captured or purchased and shipped in millions to the Caribbean and northern Brazil to work in sugar plantations - many to face certain death. It was this cheap labour which made sugar affordable for the emerging middle class in Europe.

Working as a Slave on a Sugar Plantation in the 18th Century was hell - Black Workers were treated worse than Cattle - one of the more horrid Chapters in Human History


Sugar, coffee, tea and chocolate consumption combined in the 18th century throughout Europe and produced new consumer culture. One of them was the Afternoon Tea Ceremony (High Tea) in England which is unthinkable without sugar.

Afternoon Tea - nobody wanted to know how Sugar was produced - far too gruesome


But the use of sugar spread further. With the industrial revolution, sugar became essential to keep people awake during the very long working hours in textile factories. Tea breaks were an ideal way to giving everybody a quick break and energy boost.


Working Class Ladies having a Coppa during the Afternoon Break


It is thus not surprising that British Paratroopers during WW2 insisted on their tea break - to the amazement of their American fellow soldiers.

British Paratroopers having their tea break during WW2 - Americans found it ridiculous


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