ON POWDERED SUGAR

by Dame Alys Katharine (Elise Fleming)

Originally written in 1988; published in Tournaments Illuminated, Issue 91, Summer AS XXIV (1989)

"But," asked the Mistress of the Cooks' Guild, "is powdered sugar 'period'?" I certainly hoped so, for I had just begun to do calligraphy and illumination - on cakes instead of paper. "See if you can find some documentation," she finished.

"And what color was it?" added another cook as he exited the meeting. "They didn't have white sugar then, did they?" And so began my quest for powdered sugar documentation.

Nearchus, a member of Alexander the Great's invading army in 325 B.C., is credited with recording the growth of sugar cane in the Punjab area of Western India. It is the first definite date given for sugar's existence, along with a mention of sugar being used for rice pudding in India. (1) Besides sweetening foods, sugar was believed to have medicinal properties. It "... increases semen, purges intestines, promotes nutrition and corpulency and excites the phlegm." (2)

Moving eastward, sugar cane appeared in China about 100 B.C. The Chinese apparently learned to manufacture sugar about 640 A.D. Around the 8th century, sugar cane moved farther east into Japan. (3) Apparently, there was no sugar in the Near East during ancient times, nor in Egypt, Greece or Rome during the early period, although Pliny the Elder had heard of "honey from reeds" as did the physician Galen who remarked that it was "not so sweet as our honey." (4)

Sugar is recorded in Arabian Nights around the middle of the 8th century. The Arabs, through their conquests, brought sugar into the Mediterranean territories of Syria, Cyprus, Crete, Egypt, Morocco, Sicily and Spain. (5) By the middle of the 8th century, Egypt was regularly producing sugar, a favorite food of the rich and the poor, eaten in large amounts. (6) The sugar was sometimes molded and made into fancy statues.

The crusaders were introduced to sugar during their fight for the Holy Land. Sugar was used as a novel Christmas gift by Christian Sicilians to Norman friends. (7) At the siege of Acre, sugar was used as an emergency ration by the hungry inhabitants. In 1099, the Crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem supported sugar cane cultivation, and in 1187, a large amount of sugar was part of Saladin's booty when he recaptured Jerusalem. (8)

From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Egyptian sugar was the preferred kind with Venice serving as the middleman. Common in Italy and Spain, sugar remained a luxury in more northern European countries for many years. Henry the Navigator had sugar cane sent to Madeira Island in the early 15th century from Sicily. Madeiran sugar arrived in Bristol, England, in 1456 and for more than the next 100 years, the Portuguese dominated the sugar market.

Bristol remained the port of entry from the Canary Islands through Henry VIII's reign. By the 16th century, Antwerp became a major refining center, importing crude sugar from Lisbon. After Antwerp was captured by the Duke of Alva in 1567, the refining switched to Amsterdam. (9)

The price of sugar reflected this growing availability as sugar moved from the Arabian countries to Portuguese control and into the Netherlands. From 1259 to 1470, the average retail price was about 17 pence per pound. L.A.G. Strong states that this was the 1954 equivalent of £2-3. Around 1480 the price dropped to 8 pence; in 1490 it went down to 6 pence; in 1500 to 4 pence; and 1510 to around 3 pence. (10)

The color of sugar apparently depended on where it came from and, of course, the type of refining process used. The Egyptians had an efficient method for obtaining rather white sugar, modern notions to the contrary. An early 15th-century Arabian traveler named Nuwari recorded this description according to Strong:

"After the cane had been cut into small pieces, it was placed in rush baskets and crushed under a mill stone. The juice was caught, and the canes re-crushed by a roller. The two qualities of juice were then mixed and strained into a boiler and, after an interval, were re-strained through a woolen material and boiled again. The liquid was then poured off into earthenware moulds, in the bottom of which were holes plugged with canes. The syrup drained away, and the residue, when as dry and as white as possible, was brought back to the boiling room, dissolved in water and clean milk, and boiled. This process was sometimes repeated several times and by it "the whitest and purest sugar was obtained." (11)

Aykroyd describes another method used to clarify and purify sugar to the desired whiteness:

"The sugar refineries which multiplied in Europe from the 14th century onward were technically quite efficient. The liberal use of bullock's blood to coagulate and remove impurities was a common part of the process, as was the practice known as 'claying'. In claying, the boiled syrup was allowed to crystallize in conical moulds from which the uncrystallized liquor was drained through a hole in the pointed end. A mixture of clay and water was then poured in and allowed to percolate through the crystals, carrying with it the remaining molasses and other matter. The 'sugar-loaves' which emerged when the mould was broken were reasonably white." (12)

The highest quality of sugar, according to Strong , was mucchera sugar, shaped in pyramid loaves and double-refined. It was reserved for the Sultan of Egypt. Bambillonia or Cairene sugar was much like mucchera, a little less refined, but more available. Caffetino sugar came in two kinds, one similar to bambillonia and the other formed into large cones with round tops. Frequently the centers were not completely cured.

Muscovado or musciatta came in loaves weighing up to seven pounds. They were rounded at the top and were easy to break into smaller chunks. Damaschino sugar was either flat or pointed. It was considered the least valuable, presumably because it crumbled easily, leading to more waste.

Sugar crystals came from loaves that fell apart. It was, according to Strong, sometimes called "powdered sugar" and was used for packing between loaves during transport. Finally came candy, molasses, and syrups as the last forms of sugar. (13)

Oh, dear! So the reference to powdered sugar could mean just sugar crystals, and not at all like what modern cooks refer to as powdered sugar. But sugar that was white could be obtained, as well as sugar of varying shades of brown or beige. Was there not any truly "powdered" sugar?

Since my persona is from sometime in the 13th century of England, I was particularly interested in sugar's use in that period. In 1226, Henry III asked the Mayor of Winchester if he would be able to send him three pounds of sugar "if so much could be got." (14)

Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and wife of Simon de Montfort, listed sugar in her household accounts. She purchased loaves of sugar as well as flavored sugars. Spices such as mace were added, with the most expensive flavors being rose and violet.

"Besides spices the less expensive varieties of sugar had to be pounded. Sugar was normally reckoned on the spice account because it was an expensive addition to the medieval diet. It used to be thought that sugar was unknown until later in the Middle Ages, and that only honey was employed for sweetening; but a close study of the accounts shows that sugar was in continuous use in wealthy households by the middle of the 13th century. The Countess's account mentions both ordinary sugar, which may be presumed to be the less expensive loaf type, and powdered white sugar ... Over the whole of seven months of the account only some 55 pounds are reckoned. (15)

The Countess used "powdered sugar" and sugar had to be pounded. "Ground sugar" is referred to in the untranslated sections of Manuscrito Anonimo (13th-century Andalusian) from a Spanish translation by Ambrosio Huici Miranda, pp. 208, 211, 214. It is written as azúcar molido and polvo refinado de azúcar, which translates to "refined sugar dust".

If white sugar were indeed available as is indicated, and if it were pounded as spices were ground and pounded, what would be the result? Experimentation with white sugar crystals and mortar and pestle produced a product that looked and almost felt like current confectioner's (powdered) sugar. The more grinding, the finer the sugar crystals became.

A truly fine powder took a great deal of grinding, but there was little difficulty obtaining manual labor for the kitchen in the Middle Ages, although powdered sugar would probably not have been used in the quantity used on today's cakes. But just to be on the safe side, I put at least one dot of icing on each cake. Even if the cake was not "in period," it was a "period" cake!


Footnotes

  1. Strong, L.A.G.; The Story of Sugar; George Weudenfield and Nicholson, London, 1954
  2. Strong, page 48.
  3. Strong, page 50.
  4. Aykroyd, W.R.; The Story of Sugar; Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1967; page 12
  5. Strong, page 50.
  6. Strong, page 50.
  7. Strong, page 63
  8. Aykroyd, page 13.
  9. Aykroyd, page 16.
  10. Strong, page 59.
  11. Strong, page 59.
  12. Aykroyd, page 17.
  13. Strong, pages 60-61.
  14. Aykroyd, page 25.
  15. Labarge, Margaret Wade; A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century; Barnes and Noble, New York, 1965.


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