Sugar, briefly through the Ages
Sugar traces its history a long way back for England, the northwestern European island of people who followed their sweet tooth for centuries until sugar was established as a staple in domestic pantries. Medieval Europe passed by without much sugar usage but the most drastic changes occurred over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the successful production of sugar on the home front reduced Britain’s need for foreign imports as well as created a new sort of luxury consumption that separated the social classes in a way not dissimilar to the medieval hierarchical structure of centuries past. From sugar’s origins as an import from the Levant and from the western Mediterranean, to its colonial production in British Caribbean plantations and to cultivation on the home front, the prominence of sugar grew as more of the nation consumed it and each consumer used it more heavily.
During the Middle Ages, England was entertained by her food- those theatrical and ostentatious displays of art on the banquet tables and royal dining halls of the elite nobility. Dishes were both sculptures and games, spectacles designed to both excite yet also emphasize societal rank at the banquet hall. In a society governed by aesthetics and outward appearances, what one consumed was a large indicator of one’s rank. The more intricate a dish at a table, the more sophisticated one was. Props such as ornateness of tableware, seating placement, and theatricality of dishes were important determinants of one’s hierarchical status. Food characteristics might include colourful arrays of sauces as coatings to meat , abundant use of expensive spices, and playful dishes concocted out of trickery and mirth. Through the fun nature of such courses, one was privy to sample the foreign influences that made their mark upon British food, namely that of the Arabic stemming from Persian cuisine. The spices, colouring, and presence of dried fruits and flowers in savoury dishes were all direct influences from Arabic tastes. The presence of such dishes showcased one’s wealth and cosmopolitan status at the time. Meanwhile, the peasantry of the era made do largely on an unvaried and subsistence diet of coarse carbohydrates such as bread, bread soup, and pottage. The disparity between social classes was no more evident in the food one ate. As Spencer notes, “the significance of the feast which bound society together into an oppressive hierarchy and the intricate cuisine that expressed it was to become stronger throughout the centuries.” The sixteenth century saw the birth of the commercial and beginnings of the sugar craze that would alter England’s culture and economy.
The Crusaders introduced sugar to Europe as early as the eleventh century upon their return from their campaigns in the Holy Land. The knowledge they brought back of sugar’s remedial properties spread rapidly throughout Britain and other nations. Mintz traces sugar’s medicinal...