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Discussing: Sugar in Middle-earth

Sugar in Middle-earth

OK, all of you culinary archeologists and ancient trade route buffs, would there be sugar in Middle-earth?

It suddenly occured to me that the kind of sugar I am used to seeing in the sugar bowl or in those cute little white packets is not the kind of sugar that folks in ME would encounter. I know - I'm a little slow sometimes.

Honey would be a common sweetener. Would there be molasses? What would be the sources of sugar? Cane? Beets?

What would it look like? I assume it would be reasonably coarse and brownish in color. How would it get from one place to another?

Besides honey, what kind of alternative sweeteners would people be using? I can think of using fruit juices, perhaps.




Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

Molasses is a by product of sugar cane, so unless you can reasonably argue that they traded with a region in Middle-earth where sugar cane could be grown, that lets out molasses. Sorry.

Maple sugar would be possible, though extremely time consuming to produce. I forget the ratios, but it takes many times the amount of maple sap to produce a very small amount of maple syrup. Maple sugar would take even more. Plus it takes forever! (My Mom has done it a few times, just for family. Otherwise it wouldn't be worth all the effort.)

Fruit juices can be used with some success in certain things. It is possible to make apple sauce with little or no sugar if you use apples which are naturally sweet, for one example.

Otherwise the only viable sweetener I can think of is the old standby: honey.




Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

Interesting question, so I looked it up. According to my encyclopedia the way to extract sugar from sugar cane was discovered in India in the 4th century. The method was further refined in Arabia, and got to Europe by the time of the crusades (sometime between the 11th and 13th century). The word 'sugar' stems from arabian 'sukkar'.

The method how to extract sugar from sugar beets was discovered in 1747 (from someone named A.S. Marggraf).

Sugar Cane grows in tropical or subtropical climate, nowadays in Brasilia, Cuba, India, Australia, Mexico, Thailand and China. The plants need steady temperatures between 25 and 28 degrees Celsius (no, I will not figure out how much this is in Fahrenheit ... its quite warm) and plenty of rain during the summer. Sugar beet on the other hand, grows in Central Europe, whereas sugar maple which is needed to produce maple sirup is not common in Central Europe, but in North America. Since Tolkien's World was based on England and Central Europe, I doubt that sugar maple would be found anywhere in the known parts of Middle Earth.

That leaves honey as a sweetener or extremely reduced apple juice (which is used as a substitute for sugar in wholefoods).


fliewatuet (the botanically clueless, but proud owner of a fifteen-part encyclopedia )



Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

Is it legitimate to say that, if JRRT can import potatoes from the New World, that sugar maples might also make an appearance?

Sugar beets sound like they might be a possibility, but not a very good one, since the product is in the region but not the process. Did people use sugar beets as sweetening agents before they could actually extract sugar from them? I have no idea of how naturally sweet an unprocessed beet would be.

So, hmm, sugar from cane *might* exist, but would be a rare commodity especially given times of war, because of having to import it throguh war zones. Sort of like rare spices and herbs. People would know about it, but it wouldn't be common.

Honey and fruit juices are going to be the primary culprits here. OK.

Sigh. Major freaking re-writes.....





Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

subtropical climate, nowadays in Brasilia

Just for the sake of being absolutely correct, since we're talking on encyclopedia basis, the correct is Brazil.

Brazil = country, Brasília = capital.

No sugar cane is grown in Brasília, actually nothing by corrupt politicians is grown there. The sugar cane growing is way up North (Brazil is bigger than you imagine).



Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

Unfortunately, my encyclopedia is not in english, and though I checked most of the names, that one slipped my notice. Sorry.

As for New World plants growing in the Old World. I agree that Tolkien 'imported' New World plants in Middle Earth, but potatoes e.g. are cultivated throughout Central Europe, sugar maple may only be found in botanical gardens as far as I know.





Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

Well, actually, the presence of "New World" plants in ME makes logical sense given the different history of Arda. Remember, originally the Valar set up shop in Middle-earth, making all kinds of species once they evicted Morgoth and got the plate tectonics settled down. He later sneaked in and started polluting and mutating, and it took them a while to figure out that it wasn't something they'd done wrong, and by that point he'd managed to destroy their energy sources, cause catastrophic landmass rearrangement again, and they were obliged to decamp, leaving behind a partial setup for ecosystems which then continued to develop partly as planned, and partly under the mutating influences of the Enemy.

But the Valar started over again in Aman, and every natural species (ie, not things like Dragons which were bioengineered by Morgoth) is there, including things that don't exist in ME any more. And then the Noldor went back to ME, and it's highlylikely that they took with them at least some seeds of things; and it's a certainty that they after gave lots of them to the Numenoreans, since all of Numenor was a project of Aman. And the Numenoreans proceded to take things to ME as well. Hence galenas making it up to the Shire, and athelas to Eriador, and mallorns to Middle-earth -- there are a number of viable paths for any non-continental plant to be in ME.

-It could have been created by Yavanna in the beginning and survived the many catastrophes, undoubtedly becoming a different type in the process, as American and European Birches are different.

-It could have been brought [back] to ME from Aman by the Return and survived by transplantation (ie taken over the Blue Mountains by Galadriel et al pre War of Wrath).

-It could have been brought to ME via Numenor from Aman and spread by transplantation and natural means through the continent.

It's actually possible, in fact, for some, or even all of these things to have happened to any given plant, and for the same species to have gone extinct in ME several times and been reintroduced. This seems to be the history of the potato, in ME, which was known in Beleriand (UT, Narn) and a carefully-kept secret among the Petty-Dwarves, which would mean that it preceded the Noldolante. Did it survive the War of Wrath?

I doubt it myself, given that it was extremely rare according to Mim, and he was afraid that if Men knew about it they'd wipe the species out by overcollection. My guess is that it was reintroduced by the Numenoreans, who had gotten it from Yavanna's new stock in Aman from the Elven mariners. Since, without intervention, many species of plants remain severely localized, especially if transplanted to a not-completely hospitable zone, it makes sense that they'd be found in and around places of former Numenorean colonies, the way I've found non-native ornamentals in deep woods that once were farms.

So it's completely plausible as well as possible that sugar cane was a cash crop in Middle-earth, without any plotholes. (Just as it's even possible that athelas was in fact around in FA-ME.)

As far as the effort involved in processing it, that's one major issue in the use of refined sugar. Another is durability: white sugar doesn't stand damp nearly as well as frex demerara sugar, the quartzlike brown form sold in the US under the brand name "Sugar in the Raw." And soft brown sugar tends to dry up into rocks - molasses actually a more efficient way of using it for cooking, in my experience. My medieval cookbooks say that sugar, because of its imported nature, was classed as a spice, and sold in bricks (the way tea used to be.) This would solve the lumping problem in the "if you can't beat em, join em' way -- but would add yet another level of labor in now busting it off and grinding it up again.

White sugar, like white flour, was very much a prestige thing historically: it meant more work, therefore more money, in the places where it was served. Maple sugar is actually wierd in the processing energy equation (I live in the heart of the maple economy) - there isn't as much work involved as it would seem, because a lot of it is just letting it happen. There is a lot of heat energy required in slow-cooking it, but since there are automatically going to be a lot of other trees around also where maples flourish, fuel isn't an issue. What is risky is the fact that it takes such a lot of the raw sap to generate the final products, and trees are not consistent in their yield: how much sap, how sweet it is, and how long of a flow you get until it goes bitter, depends on factors of the weather throughout the winter and spring. Some years are bumper, some are dismal. This causes the massive price fluctuations.

Honey has the advantage of staying good for a long time: it can actually dry up into crystals and be reconstituted without too much trouble. It also has a long tradition, I don't know how valid, of being a health food, and although beekeeping isn't always a good economic investment, being somewhat risky, for home production in a pre-supermarket era, it was (again according to my medieval cookbooks) something that just about any household could raise themselves. It's still the most popular sweetener in parts of the world for these reasons.



Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

Whew, I am relieved to hear you say that sugar was a possibility in ME! I had some very nice jokes going on about "salt in the sugar bowl". Thankfully I had used this joke in wealthy families (at Brandy Hall, and in Fatty Bolger's family), the people who might possibly have white sugar as a matter of privilege and prestige.

Thanks for all the info!



Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

That would be very appropriate, going along with Ang's posited trade routes for the coffee it would be used in.

The only thing so far I can't justify as a "snack food" in ME is chocolate. There just isn't the geopolitical setup for something so labor-intensive as the equatorially-based cacao tree, imo, which needs not only heat but lots of humidity and shade (it's naturally a rainforest species) -- and also needs huge amounts of sugar to make its produce palatable. Since it can grow in African jungles as well as its native Amazon, it could conceivably be a ritual food, as it was for the Mayans, somewhere in the farthest south, but I don't see it ever getting up to Middle-earth proper, unless as a very rare medicinal plant imported at hideous cost and difficulty. (It was originally drunk as a health food in Europe...)



Re: Sugar in Middle-earth

*sob* No chocolate? Poor, poor hobbits!!!!



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