It seems that sugar is blamed for every human ailment these days, and indeed some call it ‘the Sweet Poison.’ There certainly seems to be increasing scientific evidence for some of its harmful effects, although the issue seems to be the sheer quantity that is consumed rather than an intrinsic harm.
One form of sugar was suspected of being poisonous over three hundred years ago too, although the evidence is anecdotal, and the context very specific. The story appears in the resource which gave us Friday’s story on Tonquin Eggs - A Collection of Several Relations & Treatises Singular and Curious (1680) by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. In the chapter on The Commodities of the Dominions of the Great Mogul, the author has this to say:
Powder’d sugar is brought in great quantities out of the Kingdom of Bengala; is causes also a very great Trade at Ougeli, Patna, Daca, and other places. I have been told it for a very great certainty, be several ancient people in Bengala, that Sugar being kept thirty years becomes absolute poison, and there is no Venom more dangerous, or that sooner works its effect. Loaf sugar is also made at Amadabat, where they are perfectly skill’d in refining it; for which reason it is calle’d Sugar Royal. These Sugar Loaves usually weigh from eight to ten pound.
I have never come across this belief before, and hope to have time in the future to investigate it. It is a pity that the writer does not give any explanation for the belief, so perhaps none was communicated to him. I am pretty sure sugar cannot become harmful no matter how long it is kept – nor can I think of any reason that sugar would be kept so long in any case. Perhaps some sugar manufacturer or supplier perpetrated the idea in order to protect his stores from theft? If anyone has any ideas, I would love to hear them.
For the early seventeenth century British/European perspective on sugar, here are the words of the famous horticulturalist John Gerard from his book The Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1636:
Of Sugar Cane.
Sugar Cane is a pleasant and profitable Reed, hauing long stalkes seuen or eight foot high, ioynted or kneed like vnto the great Cane; the leaues come forth of euerie joynt on euery side of the stalke one, like vnto wings, long, narrow, and sharpe pointed. The Cane it selfe, or stalke is not hollow as other Canes or Reeds are, but full, and stuffed with a spongeous substance in taste exceeding sweet. The root is great and long, creeping along within the vpper crust of the earth, which is likewise sweet and pleasant, but lesse hard or woody than other Canes or Reeds; from the which there doth shoot forth many yong siens, which are cut away from the maine or mother plant, because they should not draw away the nourishment from the old stocke, and so get vnto themselues a little moisture, or else some substance not much worth, and cause the stocke to be barren, and themselues little the better; which shoots do serue for plants to set abroad for encrease.
Arundo Saccharina. Sugar Cane.
The Sugar Cane groweth in many parts of Eu∣rope at this day, as in Spaine, Portugal, Olbia, and in Prouence. It groweth also in Barbarie, generally almost euery where in the Canarie Islands, and in those of Madera, in the East and West Indies, and many other places. My selfe did plant some shoots thereof in my garden, and some in Flanders did the like: but the coldnesse of our clymate made an end of mine, and I thinke the Flemings will haue the like profit of their labour.
This Cane is planted at any time of the yeare in those hot countries where it doth naturally grow, by reason they 〈◊〉 no frosts to hurt the yong shoots at their first planting.
The Latines haue called this plant Arundo Saccharina, with this additament, Indica, because it was first knowne or brought from India. Of some it is called Calamus Saccharatus: in English Sugar Cane: in Dutch Suyickerriedt.
The Nature and vertues.
The Sugar or juice of this Reed is of a temperate qualitie; it drieth and cleanseth the stomacke, maketh smooth the roughnesse of the brest and lungs, cleareth the voice, and putteth away hoarsenesse, the cough, and all sournesse and bitternesse, as Isaac saith in Dictis.
Of the iuyce of this Reed is made the most pleasant and profitable sweet, called Sugar, whereof is made infinite confections, confectures, syrups, and such like, as also preseruing and conseruing of sundry fruits, herbes, and flowers, as Roses, Violets, Rosemary flowers, and such like, which still retaine with them the name of Sugar, as Sugar Roset, Sugar violet, &c. The which to write of would require a peculiar volume, and not pertinent vnto this historie, for that it is not my purpose to make of my booke a Confectionarie, a Sugar Bakers furnace, a Gentlewomans preseruing pan, nor yet an Apothecaries shop or Dispensatorie; but onely to touch the chiefest matter that I purposed to handle in the beginning, that is, the nature, properties, and descriptions of plants. Notwithstanding I thinke it not amisse to shew vnto you the ordering of these reeds
when they be new gathered, as I receiued it from the mouth of an Indian my seruant: he saith, They cut them in small pieces, and put them into a trough made of one whole tree, wherein they put a great stone in manner of a mill-stone, whereunto they tie a horse, buffle, or some other beast which draweth it round: in which trough they put those pieces of Canes, and so crush and grind them as we do the barkes of trees for Tanners, or apples for Cyder. But in some places they vse a great wheele, wherein slaues do tread and walke as dogs do in turning the spit: and some others do feed as it were the bottome of the said wheele, wherein are some sharpe or hard things which do cut and crush the Canes into powder. And some likewise haue found the inuention to turne the wheele with water workes, as we do our iron mills. The Canes being thus brought into dust or powder, they put them into great cauldrons with a little water, where they boyle vntill there be no more sweetnesse left in the crushed reeds. Then doe they straine them through mats and such like things, and put the liquor to boyle againe vnto the consistence of honey, which being cold is like vnto sand both in shew and handling, but somewhat softer; and so afterward it is car∣ried into all parts of Europe, where it is by the Sugar Bakers artificially purged and purged to that whitenesse as we see.
As the recipe for the day, I give you a lovely seventeenth century recipe which required a lot of sugar: it is from A Book of Fruits and Flowers, published in London in 1653
To Preserve all kinde of Flowers in the Spanish Candy in Wedges.
Take Violets, Cowslips, or any other kinde of Flowers, pick them, and temper them with the pap of two roasted Apples, and a drop or two of Verjuice, and a graine of Muske, then take halfe a pound of fine hard Sugar, boyle it to the height of Manus Christi*, then mix them together, and pour it on a wet Pye plate, then cut it it in Wedges before it be through cold, gild it, and so you may box it, and keep it all the year. It is a fine sort of Banquetting stuffe, and newly used, your Manus Christi must boyle a good while and be kept with good stirring.
*Manus Christi: (lit. ‘Hand of Christ’) - a sugar syrup or cordial used for medicinal purposes, particularly as a tonic or restorative.