Sweet Salt, Sugar and the New World

Sugar (Arabic sukkar) is an ingredient that has been used for over a millennia in French cuisine. While sugar cane did not grow locally, thanks to the spice trade many wealthy households were able to acquire sugar (or what they called sweet salt) for seasoning. Originating from India and SE Asia, it was eventually being grown in Cyprus during the early medieval era. From the 14th to 16th centuries it was the most important export crop in Cyprus. By the 16th century, Malta over took Cyprus as the leading producer in Europe (see article 1), although it was also grown in Madeira and other warm, wet climates throughout the Mediterranean.

See the source image
From https://www.medievalists.net/

It wasn’t until the new world was discovered and Christopher Columbus‘ son started to plant sugar cane in the colonies (with free, enslaved labor), that the use of sugar rose exponentially. This would ultimately catapult the overseas slave trade once enslaved indigenous people died off from disease within the first century of production (see article 4). While in medieval times sugar had been mixed with savory ingredients and there was no unique dessert option, once the colonies were producing and exporting high quantities of cheap sugar, oddly, sugar used in meat and savory dishes fell out of fashion. There is thus a notable change in consumption, sugar was now used in higher quantities and in individual sweet dishes.

From Smithsonian article ‘Sugar Masters in a New World’

There were ‘sweet’ courses in prior years, but they would have been eaten in between other courses, not as a unique dish, as is uniquely suggested by one of the fathers of French cuisine, ‘La Varenne‘. France can lay claim to have created (or at least lay the groundwork for) what we know as ‘dessert’ in Europe in the 1600’s, a unique sweet course often served at the end of a meal (see article 3).


1 Sweet Salt: Sugar Production in Medieval Cyprus – fergusmurraysculpture.com

2 FOOD : The History of Taste by Paul Freedman Food by Paul Freedman – Hardcover – University of California Press (ucpress.edu)

3 How We Got to Dessert – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

4 Sugar Masters in a New World | History | Smithsonian Magazine

Leave a Reply

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: