01 January 2008

Daily Life: Medieval Sweets

By Carrie Lofty

I cannot think of a day without sweets. Sugar. Candy. Honey. Corn sweetener. These tasty treats invade even the most basic of foods, from bread to the recipe for KFC chicken. Science has demonstrated that the sugar we ingest is unhealthy and contributes to instances of diabetes, premature free radical cell damage, and weight gain. But we cannot get enough! In fact, I'm feeling a chocolate craving coming on right now.

But what about in medieval times? How did they satisfy their sweet tooth? After all, one of the four regions of the human tongue--the tip, where we lick ice cream or lollipops--is designed to recognize sweet tastes. It's hardwired in our DNA to like sweet things, but it wasn't always easy for humans to find.

Sugar. Seems basic enough. However, sugar use in medieval times was primarily limited to alchemy and medicine. Cane was grown and processed in China, India, and the South Seas, imported by Arab explorers and eventually cultivated during the Arabian agricultural revolution. With crusaders' travels to the Holy Land and the Moorish conquest of Iberia, sugar gradually filtered into the culture of Western Europe. Only regular travel to the Caribbean in the 17th century and the invention of better techniques for refinery brought sugar into regular consumption.

Because of its rarity, sugar was exceedingly expensive. Herbalists used sugar as a means of treating every ailment from gout to toothache (the irony!). Alchemists also used sugar in their attempts to create gold, inadvertently creating smoke bombs. My heroine, Meg, from WHAT A SCOUNDREL WANTS used this to her advantage:

"You heard the boy, Scarlet. We need sugar."

Will could not swallow the foul taste of their argument. Frustrations ground together in his throat. "I admit it. I'm lost."

"Niter, when heated and distilled, creates an acid. Combined with sugar, that acid creates smoke. A great deal of smoke." Her condescending tone reminded him far too much of Robin. "The smoke may help us if we need to get into or out of places we shouldn't be."

"You're insane," he said. "But that's not a bad idea. Where?"

"The apothecary in Keyworth, I should think."

"But sugar is expensive," Jacob said.

Meg shrugged. "He's not wrong. You'll have to steal it."
So no sugar, then. How about honey? Honey was a much more common and ancient sweetener, even depicted in Mesolithic cave paintings. Like sugar, it was believed to have medicinal qualities and was used in poultices, salves, and oral remedies. Without the steep price tag associated with cane sugar, even poorer peasants could afford honey for their homemade cures.

Honey could be collected naturally, but organized beekeeping began in Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs. Religious texts including the Bible and the Qur'an associate honey with places of redemption and happiness--a rewarding afterlife. This leads me to believe that honey, although available, was a rare treat.

Today, sugar and honey and other sweeteners are available throughout the world and at a fraction of the cost from even a century ago. We can indulge...within reason! I think I'll go have that chocolate now.

Sources: Wikipedia entries on Sugar, Honey, and Beekeeping