The history of sugar is intriguing, spanning the continents. Here we will examine the major turning points in the background of this substance.
My mother gave her children the choice of birthday cakes. I was hard put to choose between banana cake (see 2016/08/08) and fresh pear pie. My soul still thrills with the beautiful taste of baked pears, rich crumb topping, and the best of pie crusts.
I am so health conscious; thus I have experimented with using sugar alternatives here. Coconut sugar or sucanat (evaporated cane juice) can not compete with cane sugar in this receipt. Only sugar insures the right texture and flavor in pear pie.
Sugar has been around for the longest time. Saccharum officinarum, sugar cane, originated in the South Pacific’s New Guinea and was subsequently carried by human migration into Asia. Sometime before 500 B.C., people in India were producing raw, unrefined sugar. 1
Its first known reference was in 325 B.C., when Alexander the Great’s admiral Nearchus wrote of reeds in India that produce “honey” without any bees. The word sugar began to appear frequently in Indian literature around 300 B.C. This Sanskrit word sarkara, meaning gravel or pebble, became the Arabic sukhar, which finally came to be sugar. 2
The use of Indian sugar cane spread. Around the 6th century after Christ, it was planted in the moist terrains of the Middle East, where the Persians made sugar a prized ingredient in their cooking. After Islamic Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century, they took the cane to northern Africa and Syria; it eventually made its way to Spain and Sicily. 3
Sugar in Europe was barely known until around 1100, and it remained a mere luxury until the 1700’s. The western Europeans’ first encounter with sugar was during their Crusades to the Holy Lands in the 11th century. Shortly thereafter Venice became the hub of Arabic sugar trade for western Europe, while the first known large shipment went to England in 1319. 4
At first the western Europeans treated it like other exotic imports-e.g., pepper and ginger-strictly as medicine and flavoring: it was produced in small medicinal morsels, as well as preserved fruits and flowers. These sweets or candy first began being made by apothecaries, or druggists, which were making “confections” to balance the body’s principles. The word confection is taken from Latin conficere. meaning “to put together” or “to prepare”. 5
The medieval years brought sugary nonconfections to Europe, such as candied almonds, as well as the use of this substance in recipes for French and English courts. The chefs of royalty employed sugar in sauces for fish and fowl, for candying hams, and in desserts of various fruit and cream/egg combinations. Around 1475, the Vatican librarian Platina wrote that sugar was now being produced in Crete and Sicily, as well as India and Arabia. Columbus carried the cane to what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1493, on his second voyage. 6
By the 18th century, whole cook books were devoted to confectionery, which had become an art no longer associated with medicine. During this century, sugar consumption exploded in Europe, with the rise of colonial rule in the West Indies and the enslavement of millions of Africans, resulting in the sugar industry becoming the major force behind slavery in the Americas (one estimate holds that fully two-thirds of the twenty million African slaves worked on sugar plantations). This industry saw rapid decline later in the 1700’s, with the abolition movements, especially in Britain; the other European countries also outlawed slavery in the colonies, one by one, through the mid-19th century. 7
Sugar, however, had now become a world staple. Presently 80% of its production comes from sugar cane, while most of the rest is derived from sugar beets. 8
Wisdom and moderation are needed with this substance. Today our nation consumes sugar in unhealthy amounts. Personally I hold fast to the adage of Mary Poppin’s: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” My standard is to substitute more beneficial sweeteners wherever possible. However, there are times when only cane sugar will do. My precious pear pie is one of them!
Enjoy this carefree, mess-free recipe.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 648.
- James Trager, The Food Chronology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), p. 19.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 648, 649.
- Ibid., pp. 648, 649.
- Ibid., p. 649.
- Ibid., pp. 649, 650.
- Ibid., pp. 650, 651.
Pear Pie with Hot Water Pastry Crust Yields: 1-10″pie. Total prep time: 1 1/4 hr/ active prep time: 30 min/ baking time: 45 min.
1 1/4 c unbleached white flour (Bob’s Red Mill is high quality.)
1 1/3 c whole wheat pastry flour (May grind 1 c soft white winter wheat berries for 1 1/2 c total fresh ground whole wheat pastry flour, carefully measuring needed amounts.)
1 tsp salt (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; a fine grind Himalayan salt is available very reasonably at Costco.)
2/3 c oil (Grapeseed or avocado oil is best, available inexpensively at Trader Joe’s and Costco.)
1/3 c boiling water.
1 c sugar (Organic cane sugar id preferable; available in 2 lb packages at Trader’s, but more economical in 10 lb bags at Costco)
1/3 c butter, softened
5 lg Bartlett pears, ripened (May use Anjou pears as well, but Bartletts are best, must be ripened.)
1 c heavy whipping cream (Lightly sweeten this with powdered sugar.)
Nutmeg (Freshly ground is superb!)
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Blend unbleached white flour, 1 c of whole wheat pastry flour, and salt in a large bowl.
- Add oil and boiling water; mix lightly with a fork.
- Divide into two balls, one much larger than the other; cover balls with plastic wrap and place on hot stove to keep warm. (You will need to use 3/5’s of dough for this single crust for a 10″-pie plate; may bake leftover 2/5’s of dough in strips with butter and cinnamon sugar.)
- Roll out the large ball of dough between 2-18″ long pieces of wax paper. Form a very large, oblong circle which reaches to the sides of the paper.
- Gently peel off the top sheet of wax paper; turn over and place piece of rolled dough, wax paper side up, over a 10″-pie plate. Very carefully peel off the second piece of wax paper.
- Patch any holes in crust by pressing warm dough together with fingers. Form rim of crust on edge of pie plate by pressing dough together gently, using excess dough from heavier areas to make up for areas where dough is sparse.
- Mix 1/3 c of whole wheat pastry flour and sugar in same bowl in which you made the pie crust. Blend in butter with a fork, until mealy in texture.
- Sprinkle 1/3 of this mixture in bottom of unbaked pie shell.
- Fill crust with peeled pear halves. Fill in spaces with smaller pieces.
- Evenly spread remaining flour mixture on top of pears.
- Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes more, or until crust is golden brown.
- Cool, serve with whipped cream and freshly grated nutmeg. Mouthwatering!