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A sweet story

Sweetness before sugar

In over thousands of years, we have enjoyed the taste of sweetness, both in Europe and in the rest of the world. Before sugar became widely known, our ancestors ate honey and dates, which they also used for sweetening their food. This can be seen from writings and reliefs from ancient cultivations around the Mediterranean Sea.

Honey is the oldest sweetener we know of. We know this from the discovery of 12,000 year-old cave paintings in the Spanish Araña caves, which depict women collecting honey. The women used the honey for baking, as we still do today, and for making mead and cleansing wounds. The first type of honey our ancestors used was wild honey – collected from the wild bees’ nests. Later, people began keeping bees in beehives – as we do today.

Although sugar reached Europe around year 1100, it was not till the 18th century that sugar became a common household ingredient. Until then, sugar was reserved for the rich, who used it both as a food sweetener and as medication. 

Sugar cane originates from Pacific Islands

The first plant from which sugar was extracted was the sugar cane. The grass varieties from which the sugar cane has developed originate from a number of small islands in the Pacific Ocean – including Polynesia and Melanesia. Experts can trace the grass varieties 10,000 to 15,000 years back. They were shipped from the small islands to Indonesia, India and China some 8,000 years ago. The original grass varieties no longer exist.

How did the population utilise the sweet contents of the cane without knowing present-day sugar production methods? In India they pressed out the somewhat muddy juice from the cane or licked it as a lollipop – which is still observed in many countries. Later, they started boiling the sugar juice from the cane into crystals and, in that fashion, produced some sort of crystallised sugar.

"Reeds that make sugar without bees"

Alexander the Great is reported to have brought the sugar cane – or at any rate the story of them – back home to Greece after his conquest of India. Around 300 BC, his Admiral Nearchos sailed from the Persian Gulf through the river Indus where he saw the sugar canes stand side by side, swaying in the wind. Nearchos reached for one of the canes, tasted it and then said, ”Indian reeds that make honey without bees”.

The Arabs brought the sugar to the western part of the Mediterranean. They cultivated sugar cane in southern Spain and on Sicily after having conquered these regions. In the Middle Ages, Venice was Europe’s leading importer and exporter of sugar. The raw sugar was imported from India and refined in Venice before being exported to the rest of Europe.

The white gold

Sugar was extremely expensive and commonly referred to as ”the white gold”. The well-to-do actually stored sugar as a kind of savings measure.

There is an account of a bishop who, for many years, bought sugar from Portuguese merchants and saved it in his room. When he died, his possessions were distributed among the monks in the monastery. That also applied to the sugar, and the monks tasted it in anticipation of a great experience – but their faces twisted quite a lot. The sweet taste they had expected was bitter and not particularly pleasant. They did not know that the sugar had been transported by camel across Egypt. During transportation, the sugar had absorbed the sweat from the camel’s back, which caused the unpleasant taste. The sugar was worthless as it had lost its sweetness. 

Increasing sugar production

Sugar production increased during the late 15th century when the explorers brought the sugar cane farther to the south. Henry the Navigator brought them from Sicily to Crete, for example. The juice was extracted by means of a hand press. Later they crushed the cane in a grinding mill pulled by an animal, and finally they extracted the juice with the use of hydropower.

Colonies and cane sugar

Columbus discovered during his voyage to the New World that the Caribbean had a perfect climate for sugar cane cultivation. He had learned of sugar cane production on Madeira and brought the cane cuttings with him to America and the West Indies, where they were planted and grown on large plantations. The raw sugar was transported back to Europe where it was refined and sold. Over the following years, the increasing production volumes made sugar a more widespread commodity that was not reserved for the rich upper classes only.

During the 17th century, most European countries had colonies around the world, which enabled them to grow sugar cane themselves. A more regrettable chapter in the history of sugar is the fact that the people working on the sugar plantations were slaves, who were shipped to the colonies from Africa. 

The transition to sugar beet

During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), Napoleon blocked the sea trade routes and, thereby, prevented the raw sugar from being imported by ship. As a result, the Europeans began looking for an alternative to the sugar cane. They discovered the possibility of extracting sugar from sugar beet. The sugar content of the beet was very modest in those days, however, which prompted a rise in sugar prices.

When the war was over and the French lifted their blockade of the trade routes, we resumed imports of cane sugar. This made beet sugar production superfluous. However, this lasted only until slavery was abolished and the cheap labour disappeared around 1850 – and cane sugar prices went up anew. By that time, the sugar beet had been developed so that its sugar content matched that of the sugar cane. This marked the beginning of a completely new chapter in the history of European sugar.

Even so, more than half of the sugar produced in the world today still comes from sugar cane.