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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: August 2009




Dazzling-white sugar, ground down from huge Dutch sugar loaves … sweeter and more yielding than Venetian sugar loaves, the white gold of confectioners and pastry-cooks.

(Piero Camporesi, Exotic Brew, 157)

Sugar – a preservative, a fermenting agent, a sweetener of food and drink without changing the flavor – has revolutionized the food processing industry; and sugar cane was the most revolutionary of all plants to reach the Americas. Today sugar – actually the chemical sucrose, extracted from the cane – is the world's best-selling food, surpassing even wheat.

This giant grass with stems juicy with a sappy pulp is generally believed to be a native of New Guinea, although India and China are often put forward as alternative cradles because it was cultivated in both places in ancient times. Much later (around 500 bce) the Persians came across sugarcane growing in the Indus Valley and, although humans had doubtless coaxed sweet juice out of bits of cane by chewing on them for eons, the Indus Valley growers may have been the first to use the cane in a more sophisticated fashion by pressing it for its juice, then concentrating that juice by boiling it.

In any event, the Persians quickly adopted cane cultivation and, by the seventh century ad, had refined the process sufficiently to produce a nearly white loaf. Some of these sugar loaves entered Europe through Venice as one more spice called “white salt.”

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A Movable Feast
  • Online ISBN: 9780511512148
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