[Sca-cooks] Sca-cooks Digest, Vol 8, Issue 79

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Mon Jan 1 14:04:16 PST 2007

On Jan 1, 2007, at 3:31 PM, Suey wrote:

>> Carole Smith wrote
>> I'm questioning the size spoon used here.. .
>> 	If you ask an English person for a spoon (in their kitchen) you  
>> will be handed a tablespoon.  It's larger than ours by a third.
>>    Adele de Maisieres <ladyadele at paradise.net.nz> wrote:
>>     Suey wrote:
>> Um, a teaspoon of sugar is between 4 and 5 grams.
> Reviewing my records I believe it was Robin Howe editor of Zara
> Groundes-Peace, _Mrs. Groundes-Peace's Old Cookery Notebook_ who wrote
> that ½ teaspoon of sugar per week to was given to members of the
> household which does bring us down to .237 grams or .08 ounces per  
> week

I'm not sure if the measurements being used are easily translatable  
in modern terms. Is "teaspoon" (a more or less meaningless term prior  
to the late 17th century in England) being used as a modern  
measurement based on the number of pounds of sugar being used in a  
household per year? Are we certain we know the correct relationship  
between ounces and pounds in this setting?

Are some of these household members getting none of the sugar at all  
in edible form, others more, and some of it being used for semi- 
industrial purposes such as preserving?
> as opposed to US calculations in 1971 that 28 lbs of sugar that were
> consumed per person annually

It's quite possible that 28 pounds of sugar per capita was used in  
the US in 1971, but it's different sugar, coming from many more  
sources, and being used in many more ways than it used to be. I  
expect there are some people who use gigantically higher amounts even  
than that in a year, and many, like myself, who use considerably  
less. For example, there are people whose beverage intake consists  
almost entirely of soft drinks such as Coke or Pepsi; it's quite  
possible to do that and put away a pound of sugar or more in a single  
day. But in the end, the fact that modern Americans are capable of  
consuming an astonishing amount of sugar is not, in itself, evidence  
that sugar was not consumed by the rank and file European after, say,  
the Crusades.

In fact, C. Anne Wilson refers to the sugar trade being "small but  
ever-increasing" after the 11th century.

> but I will not have access to the book
> until February to verify this.
>     Anne Wilson in _Food and Drink in Britain_ does  state somewhere
> after page 100 (again I can't verify the number at this time) that
> although Elisabeth I had all the sugar she wanted it was unknown to  
> the
> majority in England during her time.

I've got the book in front of me, and all I could find was a  
statement to the effect that in Elizabeth's reign English sugar  
consumption averaged no more than one pound per person per year, and  
that the majority of this must have gone to the wealthy classes, and  
that in the ensuing century this number rose dramatically.

One thing that it might profit us to look at is all the possible  
sources of sugar use, some of which might be missed by some bare  
secondary account  of Dame Alice's household using only a pound of  
white sugar in a year. Yes, it is conservative, and nobody is arguing  
that, I think, but it doesn't talk about how much, say, Cypriot brown  
sugar was bought, or ready-made powder blanche, or spices in confit,  
or rose or violet or barley sugar for medicinal use, but it is almost  
certainly not the only sugar they used, if they bought any at all.  
Even the recipe sources that are supposedly for royalty often include  
instructions for a final refinement of the sugar before actually  
using it.

One other thing it might be worth remembering is that not all  
medieval recipe sources are for royal households (all tend to be for  
the well-off, but not necessarily for more than the middle class),  
but you can still map out some dishes from the 14th, 15th, 16th and  
17th centuries and see how the character of the same named dishes has  
changed. For example, you may find 14th century recipes from England  
and France for preserved quinces that call for quinces and honey. The  
same recipe from the 15th century might (and in the case of this  
example, does) call for quinces, and a mixture of honey and sugar.  
Those same recipes are represented by 16th and 17th century sources,   
but they often leave out the honey entirely.

>     Terry Decker wrote: "Sugar use in general expanded during the 15th
> Century due to greater production."
>     Sugar production did expand in the 15th C with Spain's acquisition
> of the Canary Islands but I would not date the 'expansion' until the
> 17th Century when sugar plantations began to thrive in the Carribean.

I believe that you can juxtapose the [somewhat] increased  
availability and increased demand for sugar and spices in general to  
earlier than that. After all, you have to wonder why the various  
kingdoms felt it was a good investment to send expensive expeditions  
to explore the oceans looking for easy access to the Spice Islands  
and the Far East in general.

>     Laura C. Minnick wrote about "servants' allotments". Servants were
> not given luxury consumables in the Middle Ages. As a matter of fact
> there were different menus for the high table and the lower tables.
> Barajas-Benavides points out that a favored black slave was given  
> liver
> in the Alhambra while others were reduced to gruel, bread and water.
> Poor family members lived in noble households in England. They were
> given a quality of food a little above that of  servants. I would not
> have liked to be one of them in Margaret Paxton's household.
>     I do not recall that Howe or whoever does not specify how many
> members of the 'household' received sugar which could make a  
> difference
> as to that actually consumed by those at the high table for example.
>     Also it must be taken into account that surviving accounts and
> banquet recipes are from nobility who kept scribes. Their spices  
> have no
> reflection on what the populous consumed as a whole.

Why would this scanty evidence of relatively high consumption among  
the wealthy have any less reflection on total consumption for the  
general populace than the even more scanty evidence for sugar  
consumption among the less well-off? All we can really say is that  
it's probably logically unsound to assume that medieval Europeans  
consumed gigantic amounts of sugar, _or_ that they consumed only tiny  
amounts, based on the evidence the average person has access to. All  
we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that over the  
period of approximately 1100 - 1700 CE, costs tended to decrease and  
usage tended to increase, probably not on a linear scale, and  
probably in connection with various known historical events.


"S'ils n'ont pas de pain, vous fait-on dire, qu'ils  mangent de la  
brioche!" / "If there's no bread to be had, one has to say, let them  
eat cake!"
     -- attributed to an unnamed noblewoman by Jean-Jacques Rousseau,  
"Confessions", 1782

"Why don't they get new jobs if they're unhappy -- or go on Prozac?"
     -- Susan Sheybani, assistant to Bush campaign spokesman Terry  
Holt, 07/29/04

More information about the Sca-cooks mailing list