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Cane sugar is a native of India, where it has been refined since about 3000BC. Alexander the Greats" general Nearchus commented in the 4th century BC on a reed that produced honey without bees, and by the 5th century the crop had spread westwards into Persia, where the Arabs encountered it and carried it still further west in the wake of their conquests.
When it first arrived in Rome, it was decided that it was not so convenient as honey (used as the sweetener at the time) - Pliny wrote "sugar is a kind of honey that collects in reeds, white like gum and brittle to the teeth; the longest pieces are the size of a hazelnut. It is only employed as a medicine".
Sugar cane brought back from the Near East by the Crusaders was sold by the ounce. Later, when the galleys of Venice and other Italian cities brought oriental spices to Britain, they also carried sugar from Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete (then known as Candia), Malta and Sicily - the sugar first being primitively refined into large blocks in its country of origin. More expensive sugars called sugar candy and rose and violet-scented sugars were also imported. A typical load of 100 tons would have been worth a million pounds by today"s values!
Little twisted sticks of sugar called penidia, resembling later barley-sugar sticks, were a favourite form in which to take sugar and considered to be protection from the common cold. All this was only for the rich, common housewives continued to use honey, parsnips, or no sweetener at all until the end of the 18th century, when sugar cane started to be grown cheaply in the New World. As late as 1736 it was listed alongside the precious gems among the wedding gifts of Maria-Teresa, later queen of Austria and Hungary.
The demand for sugar increased enormously after the dissolution of the monasteries during the latter part of the 16th century. Religious orders had always kept bees to produce beeswax for their candles and their honey was a much-appreciated sideline.
In 1747, a way of extracting sugar from beet was discovered by a Prussian chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, but it was not until 1793 that another German (albeit of French origin) Francois Archard perfected the process so it could be used commercially. This happened just in time to save France"s newly acquired taste for sugar from starvation - as during the Napoleonic wars Britain had cut off sugar supplies to the European mainland.
Enormous factories were constructed, serviced by great stretches of land under beet cultivation in Northern France. Later in the century, almost every European country planted sugar beets and build factories for sugar making.
It has been said that in terms of botany, the development of the sugar beet surpasses any other achievement of human ingenuity in food creation. Every other majot crop has been known for countless generations; the sugar beet so far stands alone as a crop developed by modern man. Beets have allowed Russia - a country with only a temperate climate - to become the worlds largest sugar producer. The rise of sugar beet has been a blow to the economies of the Caribbean islands which produced so much for 18th century England, France and Spain.
In Britain the working classes only really started their love affair with sugar when Gladstone removed the tax on 1874.