From status symbol to sweet poison: A cultural history of sugar | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.07.2019
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From status symbol to sweet poison: A cultural history of sugar

How did pies become cakes and what do pharmacists have to do with candy? A new exhibition explores the rise and fall of the reputation of this omnipresent ingredient.

Sweets for the kids, chocolate for heartbreak, ice cream during lunch break: We love sugar in every form — and the industry loves it too. Whether in bread, baby food, yogurt or sauces, sugar is present in just about everything we eat.

The average German consumes more than 30 kilos (66 pounds) of the white crystal a year. The times when possessing it was a sign of wealth and power are most certainly over; today it's notorious as something bad for our health and that makes us gain weight.

In the beginning there was fruit

Like almost everything else, sugar had to come to Europe before the craving could be developed there. But how did Europeans satisfy their desire for sweet treats before merchants brought sugar to the continent?

Two thousand years ago, fruit was the only source of sweetness. The Romans started growing it in Germany, and from then on, a wide variety of fruits, from apples and pears to plums and grapes, continued to be planted. The extracted and preserved fruit juice was processed into mush or jelly. "It was durable and could be used to sweeten food," explains Carl Pause, an archaeologist who curated the exhibition "Sweet stuff: Snacking in Neuss" at the Clemens Sels Museum in the German city of Neuss, located next to Düsseldorf.

Cane sugar (CC / Rufino Uribe)

Cane sugar came to Europe from the Middle East and was too expensive for most people to afford

The extraction of sugar from sugar cane began in the early Middle Ages, imported to Europe from the Middle East. However, it was too expensive for the general population, says Pause. Even the nobility could only afford it for special occasions.

Legend has it that the name of the famous candy, bonbon, originated at these very festivals. After testing the sugar mixture for the first time, French royal children were said to have replied enthusiastically, "Bon! Bon! (French for "good"), giving the candy its name.

Read more: On baked goods and secrets kept: Ophir Raul Graizer's 'The Cakemaker'

The sweet revolution

In the 18th century, the British began to cultivate sugar cane in their colonies, producing sugar in large quantities. France led a war against Britain under Emperor Napoleon who "wanted to prevent the British from doing business," says Pause. Thus, the so-called Continental Blockade put a stop to sugar imports. The war was long over and Napoleon dead for years when sugar beet finally made it to Germany in the middle of the 19th century. From then on, sugar was available to everyone and — above all — affordable.

A source of energy

Today, an excess of sugar is regarded as "white poison" and linked to numerous diseases. This makes it all the more surprising that since ancient times, it was found where it might be least expected: in pharmacies.

Medicine bottles (picture-alliance/dpa/U. Zucchi)

Sugar was said to have healing properties and was once used in medicines available at pharmacies

As early as the first century A.D., sugar was said to have healing properties. In the 12th century, drugs called "sine confectiones" consisted of 90 percent sugar. Five hundred years later, however, pharmacists used sugar in medicines mainly for preserving and correcting the bitter taste and as a source of energy. The sweet medicine sold well. Eventually, in order to boost sales, pharmacists simply left out the active medical ingredients, selling only the sweet food — and the confectionery was born.

Read more:German specialty: Black Forest cake 

How pies became cakes

After the confection left the pharmacy, it did not take long for the range of sweets to widen. Cake was one sweet treat that eventually became popular. With its airy sponge cake base, sweet cream and plenty of cherries, the Black Forest cherry cake became one of the most popular cakes in Germany.

Although it celebrated its 100th birthday in 2015, the forerunners of this baked product existed as far back as the 16th century. However, the cakes of that time did not have much to do with our current understanding of what form the Black Forest cake takes. Several hundred years ago, they looked quite different.

Black Forest cake (Fotolia/bynicola)

Black forest cherry cake is one of the most popular cakes in Germany

At the time, the cake was prepared by pastry or confectioners and consisted of a dough that was filled with both sweet and savory ingredients after baking. It was "a sweet variant of a pie," Pause explains.

The curator has experimented with 200-year-old cake recipes and has even tried baking them with the help of a confectioner. The result was comparable to a kind of cake filled with jam or fruit and then covered with icing. The cakes tasted rather dry, he says: "In the 19th century, you couldn't cool anything, so you couldn't use cream." This means that the Black Forest cake only became possible at the moment when you had the opportunity to keep the cream cool.

Sugar has long since lost its good reputation as a luxury item and status symbol. Today it is abundant and problematic. Fortunately, all this can be briefly forgotten with a large piece of cake.

The exhibition "Sweet stuff: Snacking in Neuss" runs until October 13 at the Clemens Sels Museum Neuss.

Watch video 03:29

How to make a Black Forest cake

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