The sweet taste

Translator: Bruce Lee

Honey and fruit for the Romans, sweet and sour cuisine Arab-Persian, tangy spicy sweet or medicinal sugar in the Middle Ages, pastry...

To sweeten foods, people have always looked for products with high sugar content: first, honey and fruit, then sugar cane, and since the 18th century, sugar beet. Scarce and expensive during the medieval period, the sugar cane of Arab origin was a drug and a luxury reserved for the elite. Then the abundant production of sugar cane in the Americas and the arrival of industrial sugar beet gradually transformed sugar into a consumer product.

The medical use of sugar in medieval Arabic pharmacopoeia gave way to the use of sugar as an energy supplement in modern sports. But the syrup and pills still exist in their two versions: a drug and a candy. Remember that Nostradamus was not only an astrologer but also a doctor who wrote a book on jams. Today, we demonize sugar as the cause for all diseases of the modern world with as little scientific objectivity as medieval cooks, dietary experts of the time, who almost always put sugar in the dishes for the sick!

The taste for sugar is not just for desserts and sweets. We love sweet dishes or sweet and sour in Roman, Arab-Persian, Arab-Andalusian, and medieval cookery. It was not until the 17th century when there was a clear difference between savory dishes of the meal and sweet dishes reserved for dessert.

For several centuries, classical French cuisine has tolerated a few recipes that dared to mix sweet and savory in the kitchen: duck à l'orange or roast pork with prunes. Currently, the sweet taste is no longer reserved only for desserts. Nouvelle cuisine and the discovery of Asian cuisines have got us used to the mixture of flavors. Senderens dared to rediscover the duck of Apicius. Marc Veyrat in Fou de saveurs, offers lamb liver with mountain pine honey and arctic char and carrots with pine honey. Alain Ducasse offers in Tradition - Evolution a Pauillac lamb on a spit, seasonal vegetables in fine pieces, bits of dried fruit. Michel Bras offers a whole roasted pigeon Kérébel spiced with juniper, pepper, orange and sugar.

Medieval gastronomy and its old mix of acidulated, sweet, and spiced can be fashionable once again.

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Sweets: sugar, syrup, jams, dragées, etc... a little history

The Romans adored the sweet taste: more than half of Apicius’ recipes contained honey or fruit! With a large percentage of sweet-and-sour recipes with the addition of vinegar or wine. We sometimes find the pairing of honey + dates (Aliter cucurbitas cum gallina: autre recette de gourdes avec poule, Apicius Livre III-IV.8), honey + apricots (Minutal ex praecoquiis: minutal d'abricots, Apicius Livre IV-III.6) or even raisins + prunes + honey (Ius in diversis avibus: sauces pour divers oiseaux, Apicius Livre VI-V.1).

Oldcook: The sweet taste - Bees of Ruchers de Véronne

Roman pastries, made from honey, are the ancestors of many current oriental pastries.

The mulsum or honeyed wine and mulsa or mead were also frequently consumed.

The bees deposit their honey in wax cells
Photo credit: Les Ruchers de Véronne (Drôme)

Arab-Persian cuisine, close and heir, in some ways, to the Roman cookery, preserve the taste for sweet or sweet-and-sour flavors. It frequently includes mixing vinegar + honey or vinegar + raisins. But a newcomer is: sugar.

Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) had already crossed the reed that gives honey without the help of bees during his conquest of India. Pliny the Elder (23-79), in his Natural History, had also described sugar: Arabia also produces sugar (saccaron), but that of India is most famous. It is a honey collected on reeds, white as gum, which breaks in the tooth, no bigger than a walnut, used only in medicine (Translation M.A. Ernout, Les Belles Lettres, 1949, Book XII § XVII). But it was not until the Middle Ages until sugar is really used in Europe.

Sugar is extracted from sugar cane (saccharum officinarum) by grinding the stem. This perennial herb (its culture lasts 5 to 6 years) of the grass family, is actually a plant of tropical and subtropical countries. Sugar cane (sarkara in Sanskrit) is native to India and China. Then it was grown in Persia, in the regions of Khuzestan and Balochistan. The Arabs developed the culture of sugar cane in the entire Middle East (Palestine, Syria, Egypt).

From the 9th century, the production of sugar cane grows in Spain (Andalusia and Valencia region) and the Mediterranean islands: Cyprus, Crete, Malta and Sicily. For nearly five centuries, Venice is the hub of sugar cane import in Europe, as it already does for spices, and refined sugar. During the Renaissance, Venice became a center of manufacture of sweets and pastries.

The cane sugar is abandoned in Andalusia at the time of the Reconquista. Sugar production increases from the 15th century, in Portugal and Aragon, with the participation of Genovesi in Portugal, Germans in the South (Great Company of Ravensburg) and the Swiss of Bern - St Gallen (company Diesbach-Watt) in Spain.

Oldcook: The sweet taste - Sugar cane

Sugar cane field in Martinique – Photo credit: OT Martinique

The expansion of sugar cane plantations is possible thanks to slave labour: in 1457, the first black slaves from Guinea are reported in a plantation of Valencia (from J. Guiral, Nice Symposium, 1982). In the 16th century, Iberian sugar production competes with production in the Canaries, pending the development of sugar cane in the Caribbean and America. Production, large-scale U.S. sugar linked to the development of slavery, brought down prices: sugar is cheaper, its consumption is becoming more widespread and allows the multiplication of pastries and sweets. The sweet taste will grow at the expense of the taste of sour / spicy / sweet and sour, characteristic of medieval cuisine.

We enter a new culinary era from the 17th century onward…

Sukkar in Arabic, became azucar in Spanish, sugar in English, zucchero in Italian which turned into sucre in French (1175, Chrétien de Troyes).

The sugar trade, a quasi-monopoly in the hands of Arabs, was considered a spice in the Middle Ages: it was also expensive and as rare like spices and it was integrated into the pharmacy and dietetics as a medieval spice. Sugar cubes did not yet exist. Until the early 20th century, sugar was then found as a sugar loaf. There are still sugar loaves in Sahelian Africa, used to sweeten mint tea.


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