HERB - Sweeteners

Kathleen Keeler kkeeler at unlserve.unl.edu
Wed Apr 11 06:09:12 PDT 2001

Beatriz asked about sweeteners

   Your article seems to cover it.  Sugar cane goes back to about 3000 BC, but
in the Old World only grew well in the Far East, so supplies reaching Europe
were limited.  The Ottoman Turks produced white sugar in the 14th C, but again,
supplies were limited--hence its place among spices or medicines.

    The beet (source of chard, beets, mangel wurzels and sugar beets!) is Period
but its sugar content at that time was about 6% (over 20% today).  It was 1747
when Andreas Margraff pointed out the sugar content of beets. Napoleon put the
money into breeding better ones.

    They certainly had honey, but bees are seasonal, you have to be judicious in
the honey you take so they can get through the long European winter...I think
even the portions of honey would be disappointing by our standards (they
certainly didn't have a beehive per person, so you're talking sharing the annual
output of a beehive with several people.)

>   Fruit as sweeteners
> The used of currents and apples in meat dishes and
> sauces would have sweetened them. It is usually seen
> in conjunction with honey or sugar.

I have been very satisfied with cooking down raisins or other fruits to add to,
say, grains as a sweetener.  Not the same as sugar, and doesn't substitute in
all contexts, but will balance sour or salty or bitter tastes.

> Molasses (British "treacle") is a by product of sugar
> refining.

In the Mediterranean region people have since ancient times collected sap from
the date palm (Phoenix datylifera), condensed it by boiling off the water.  I
imagine this continued up through Period, if you lived where dates grow.

Likewise, I can't lay my hands on the reference, but I think maple syrup was
based on tapping the sap of some European tree.  The American tree is a MUCH
better sugar source, but the technology is Period.

I gave this subject considerable thought when I taught it last month (Biological
Sciences 374, Economic Botany).  I think we moderns have hugely more sugar
available, at much lower prices, than our ancestors did, even as little as 100
years ago, and so we're eating it to excess because we can!

> Things I'm interested in finding out are: <>
> Where did the spice come from in the first place? what
> processes had it undergone?
> from seed to Harvest,
> Harvest to packaging
> who brought it ?
> How did they find out about it?
> How and in what form was it transported in ?
> Where did it end up?
> How did they use it and store it?

Answers to a bunch of those questions are in the text book I used this semester
(Economic Botany, 3rd ed., Beryl B. Simpson, & Molly C. Ogorzaly 2001)  They are
pretty uniformly careful to tell you where every plant they talk about was
domesticated and when, breeding changes, current processing methods. They don't
cover everything this list might discuss, but its a very good start.  It may
give you sticker-shock, all the textbooks for academic use seem to run about
$70, even my thin Environmental Issues text. On the other hand, text books are
written to be used by other experts teaching students--its going to be carefully
up-to-date and accurate.  I haven't found many errors, and if I had, next year
I'd use the competitor's economic botany text.

using my SCA-knowledge in my work for the first time--what fun!
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