Turning the French People Up Sweet

In 1807, the British began a blockade of France, which among other things prevented the import of sugarcane from the Caribbean. The French people stoically did without many things during the Napoleonic Wars, but Napoleon did not for a moment expect them to give up sugar. He put the power of the state behind a search for a solution to the sugar shortage. French banker Benjamin Delessert came up with a sugar extraction process suitable for industrial application and set up several beet sugar factories at Passy. 65,000 hectares (160,000 acres) of French fields were planted with sugar beets. Within two years, the factories had produced four million kilos of sugar. For his efforts, Napoleon awarded Delessert the medal of the Legion of Honor.

Delessert refined an existing process for extracting sugar from beets that had been developed in Germany. German chemist Andreas Marggraf had discovered the presence of sugar in the vegetable in the mid-1700s. By 1793, another German chemist, Franz Karl Achard, perfected the process for extracting the sugar from the beets. The first beet sugar factory opened in the Prussian province of Silesia in 1802.

History of Sugar Production

The production of sugar in crystal form had begun in India using a cane native to Southern Asia. Later, the Muslims improved productions methods and spread the cultivation of sugarcane. Europeans first encountered sugar during the Crusades and it was one of the spices imported from the East. It was the Muslims who brought sugar cane and sugar production methods to their holdings in Spain. Europeans became producers of sugar when the Portugeese and Dutch established sugar cane plantations in the new world, where ideal growing conditions and low cost slave labor made the industry highly lucrative. British colonies established on Barbados in 1627 and on Jamaica in 1655 came to be devoted almost exclusively to sugar production. The French West Indies grew mainly sugarcane. Sugar produced in the Caribbean islands could be sold for one-third the price of sugar purchased from Muslim traders. Soon thousands of sugar mills were working away in the New World and Europe. The demand for cast iron gears, levers, and axles for the sugar mills lead to improvements in mold making and a larger number of workers being apprenticed in the millwright profession. Increasing mechanization of sugar production during the late 18th century, including the application of steam power to sugar milling, led to the production of vast amounts of sugar. Larger supplies made sugar a more affordable commodity. Sugar had been worth its weight in gold in the period between 1625 and 1750 and was often referred to as "white gold," taxes kept the price of sugar beyond the means of the poor until the taxes were abolished in Victorian times.

Sugar was milled by passing short lengths of sugarcane stalks through rollers that pressed out the cane's syrup. The syrup was then evaporated by boiling it down several times. The syrup was then poured into loaf-shaped vessels to cool and harden. During the cooling stage, the emerging 'raw sugar' would leave behind it molasses, or treacle.

Buy and watch a History Channel presentation on sugar: Modern Marvels - Sugar

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