Wednesday, 2 January 2013

That spoon full of sugar



I'm sure most of us have sampled those syrup soaked and sugary desserts from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece - the famous baklava, halva and galaktoboureko, not to mention the widespread favourite - fairy floss. Believe it or not, these sugary treats date back to the Roman era and even further - and the Roman sweet tooth was just as sugary as ours. Now you might expect all of the ancients' sugary goodness came from honey...but that's not entirely true. The fact is, crystallised sugar and syrups have been around for at least five thousand years and was common enough in the Roman world. The tall grass we call sugar cane was first cultivated around 6000BC in Papua New Guinea. By 3000BC there is evidence that cane cultivation had spread to the Indus Valley civilisation in India - where the first signs of sugar crystal manufacturing can be found. Fast forward to the Classical era and the Persians, then Alexander the Great discovered Indian sugar - the honey made without bees - and introduced sugar and sugar syrup into the Mediterranean basin. During the Roman era, the Mediterranean countries were warmer than present (by at least one degree centigrade), and after Alexander the Great sent sugar cane to Greece for cultivation, the crop soon spread to Italy and Spain where cane farming continued through the Roman era and into the Middle Ages. It was only the gradual cooling of the Northern Hemisphere after the 12th-century that saw cane cultivation collapse in Europe and sugar become the expensive luxury that it was by the time of the Renaissance...which of course leads into sugar cane's modern history now firmly focused in the Tropics and Subtropics.

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