Even though the spice trade between the Middle East and India dates back more than 4,000 years, sugar didn’t make it into the mix of traded goods until much later. People knew about sugarcane; the prophet Jeremiah wrote of “sweet cane from a distant land.” But it just didn’t make it to Europe from Asia until the 1100s. When it hit, it came in slowly and was hugely expensive, but it was instantly popular with people who could afford it, and became a way people could show off their wealth (other than the usual palaces and fancy clothes).
People figured out pretty quickly that a lot of sugar rotted your teeth. However, because only the rich could afford sugar, it became a status symbol. In the 1500s, as sugar began to trickle into England from the newly discovered and planted islands in the Caribbean, the teeth of more and more wealthy people were endangered.
However, because people knew you had to be rich to have rotting teeth, people who couldn’t afford sugar actually started cosmetically blackening their teeth, so they would look wealthy.
Kind of a contrast to today, where wealth means having perfect teeth, even if they’re not the ones you were born with.
Years ago, when I was working for Kraft Foods, a business trip took me to Montreal, which just happened to be the home town of my boss. He told me there were two things I had to hunt down: smoked meat and sugar pie. He didn’t know how little encouragement it took to get me to try new foods. I found both local specialties, and managed to indulge in them more than once—both on that first trip and on subsequent trips to Québec Province.
Sugar pie is a traditional confection almost as old as Québec itself. As with all venerable recipes, there are myriad versions, mostly reflecting what might have been available at different times and places. The version I have developed incorporates the most widely and consistently documented ingredients and produces a pie that reflects the taste and texture of the best sugar pies I had in Canada. Despite its name, it is, surprisingly, not overly sweet. It might be described as something like pecan pie without the pecans—and yet, because there is no corn syrup (as there is in pecan pie), sugar pie is not quite as sweet as pecan pie. Enjoy. Continue reading
Sugar Cane Juice Stand, India
The previous six posts have featured chocolate, coffee, and tea. While these three came from different continents—North America, Africa, and Asia, respectively—they all became popular in Europe around the same time—the 1600s. With the use of chocolate, coffee, and tea growing and spreading rapidly, there was an even more rapidly increasing demand for one more item—sugar. Sugar had been around for a while by the time it was being sought to sweeten this caffeinated trio, but more was needed. And while there were other sources of sweetness around, when speaking of sugar, most people were and are thinking of sugar from sugarcane.
Sugarcane has an often vague and definitely checkered past. Because there is now no wild sugarcane growing anywhere in the world, it is hard to pinpoint its place of origin, but most scholars think it originated in India, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. From there, once its sweet secrets were discovered, it spread rapidly to Malaysia, Indonesia, Indochina, and southern China. Continue reading