Americas sugar history began in New Guinea about 8000 years ago spreading along with human contact to Southeast Asia, India and the Pacific. Solid sugar existed in India during the first century BCE and perhaps in China a few centuries later. In the seventh century, the Persians developed a purifying process and began using sizable amounts of sugar to make their cuisine one of the most influential in the world. Knights returning from the 12th century crusades had discovered an exotic new spice/medicine and brought Crystals from these “honeyed reeds of Tripoli” home to Europe. For the next 400 years the 12 different grades of sugar sold by apothecaries was used with abandon, by those who could afford it, in virtually every recipe and medical prescription of the period.
Since the first century spices had been coming to Rome through the Red Sea and Egypt or overland via the Silk Road Byzantium/Constantinople route. However, sugar was unknown in Europe until the conquering Moors who planted cane there introduced it to Iberia around the ninth century. The Muslims curtain controlled the European spice trade for the next 800 years until the Venetians, who had become wealthy transporting crusaders back and forth from the Holy Land, began shipping sugar and tales of the exotic Spice Islands across the Adriatic. For the next 200 years, Temujen’s Pax Mongol promoted Western trade with China, Asia and India and along with the Byzantine control of Constantinople provided an easy access route via the Black and Mediterranean Seas. The loss of modern-day Istanbul by the Orthodox Christians to the Ottoman Turks and the fall of the Mongol empire resulted in an era of political instability that greatly reduced the spice flow. China adopted an isolationist stance closing its boarders to outsiders and the Egyptians who collected a 30% tariff on goods controlled the only remaining route. Spices demand and profits spurred the quest for a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope and sent Europe scrambling for a Western passage to the Spice Islands. By 1550 there were over 3000 small sugar mills in the new world and their demand for iron gears, levers and axles helped propel the technological expansion of the industrial revolution.
By 1420, the Portuguese had introduced sugar to Madeira and it soon reached the Canaries, Azores, and West Africa. Columbus transported both smallpox and sugar cane from his mother in-law’s plantation on Gomera in the Canaries to the Dominican Republic in 1493. In 1501, a plantation was established there and within 15 years molasses was being produced at the first trapiche/mill. In 1540 cane was planted in Cartagena, Columbia and by 1560 the three cane mills there made sure that locals would forever add a pinch of sugar and a splash of bitter [Seville] orange to almost every dish they cooked. Thin Indian cane was the only sugar grown in the lower Americas for centuries until it was replaced by the thicker “noble cane” hybrid, which remained the industry standard until the nineteen thirties when a new disease resistant variety in turn replaced it.
Sugar cane can be thick or thin, tough or tender, of numerous colors and leaf densities with each variety requiring different production methods. Cane either produces vegetatively by hand planting a cut portion of the stalk or from leaving existing roots or ratoons in the ground that can producing for years. Since cane begins to ferment 24 hours after being cut the use of ratoons, [roots left in the ground] which mature at different rates then the planted cuttings, allows harvesting to occur over a period of months instead of days. Pre harvest burning of the fields kills snakes, insects and spiders, makes the cane cleaner, lighter and easier to transport as well as preparing the fields for the next plantings. By weight, cane is 90% juice and the highest sugar content occurs in the portion closest to the ground so it needs to be cut as low as possible without damaging the roots for the best yield.
Burning field and Burnt field
The cut cane was then hand carried to the mill where it was crushed by human effort between crude log rollers. The juice was collected, strained and then boiled in a cast iron kettle using the dried cane from earlier harvests, known as bagasse, as fuel for the process. One pot production was the norm while an array of decreasingly sized kettles, called a Jamaican train, would mark a more sophisticated factory. During the first boil slacked lime, animal blood or egg whites would be added to clarify the juice and the resultant raft of impurities skimmed from the kettle. This simple syrup was then poured into crude wooded cone or loaf shaped molds and the molasses drained off through a hole in the bottom. The remaining solid sugar, called raspadura or moscovado, was allowed to solidify and wrapped in banana leaves for the locals to eat and foodies to praise.
In the colonial period, this undrained raw product was poured into hogshead barrels and shipped to North America for rum distillation and molasses processing. The resultant miel de cana took its place in the 3M culinary tetrahedron of Meat, Meal and Molasses, as the only sweetener of early North America. Sugar production in Panama has long been and, in many areas, continues to be artisanal. The first factory mill wasn’t built here until 1908, and there are only four mills in the republic today, so the old ways still prevail in many rural settings. In the modern schema, this first strike sugar makes is sent to a processor where the raw syrup is centrifuged and the resultant blackstrap molasses, from the Dutch stroop for syrup, is sold to a variety of industries worldwide. The spun product, bleached by exposure to sulfur dioxide, is either exported or sold locally as mill, plantation white or crystal sugar. All cultures seem to have a national Rum/liquor and in Panama, it’s called Seco. Seco is a triple distilled, 120 proof, unaged, uncolored and unflavored kind of Vodka or Grappa. It’s very inexpensive and therefore a favorite of the interioranos who historically drank it with milk straight from the cow’s udder in a coconut shell. The same beverage appears under different names throughout cane country and is known as Clairin in Haiti, where it’s spat on you in Vodou ceremonies, Cachaca or Pinga in Brazil and Aguardiente in various other Latin countries. You might equate it with White Lighting or Moonshine if you’re from that area of the United States where it’s famous.