Brian Cox looks into where sugar originally came from and talks to a sugar historian about when it arrived in Britain.
Watch the video and answer the questions below.
1. As well as sugar what other commodities were available to our ancestors part of the year?
2. Where was wild cane first farmed?
3. When did sugar first come into Britain?
4. Who could afford to buy it?
5. Apart from being an additive to food and drinks, what was sugar used for?
6. How much sugar did Henry III order?
7. How much sugar could you find across the entire kingdom back in Henry III's times?
Back in the Middle Ages, sugar was only available to our ancestors part of the year, as fruit or honey. Sweetness was in short supply, so where did sugar, as we know it, come from? Well, it originated centuries before as a giant wild grass in the South Pacific, where its value was so recognised.
Legends from there tell of a story of how a sugar cane sprouted a man and a woman, who founded the human race. Wild cane was first tamed and farmed in New Guinea, and over time, spread by travellers, across the globe.
By the 13th century, it had migrated to the Middle East, where traders discovered it, and carried it to Europe. A commodity so rare, sugar's value equalled that of precious gems.
And what about its first appearance in Britain? My journey begins in Cumbria, where I'm going to meet a sugar historian, whom I'm told has a rather hands-on approach to this subject.
All of the sugar we imported into this country came from the Arab world, via the Venetians. The Venetians were the sugar controllers, they bought it from the Middle East, and then they shipped it out to every other European nation and they put a huge premium on it. If we go back into the 13th century, small quantities of it are coming to this country, but they are only being purchased by royal palaces.
Because it was quite expensive?
It was very expensive, and it was rare. Sugar in the early modern period is very much a symbol of status. But it was used as a plastic medium, as an art form. We have some marvellously detailed images of these sugar sculptures.
There is one piece of sculpture which was six-feet high, entirely made out of sugar.
Yeah, so it is standing like that on the table.
And this would be consumed, they wouldn't be ornamental?
No, no, no it was totally ornamental.
You are talking about a kind of decadence. Ordinary people eat food just to sustain themselves, but the very wealthy use it to show off, and having a sugar sculpture, six- foot high, on your table, is the equivalent of having a Maserati nowadays.
And all we have is this evidence of it.
The only evidence we have are the actual images we have of them. The other bit of evidence, that is not really obvious, we also have some of the tools we used to create it. So, for instance, this lovely wooden mould has got these four little goddesses on it. I’m going to get you actually to have a go at making some of these….
Okay, that’s it, one more there, it’s sticking there. If you just drop it on to the surface, you have your perfect grinning gibbons.
My goodness me!
One of the first recorded royal requests for sugar was by Henry III in the 13th century, who ordered three pounds of it, if so much is to be had, he’s reputed to have said.
It was so rare and luxurious that today’s equivalent of a bag and a half from a supermarket might be all there was across the entire kingdom.
You have created your own beautiful little thing.
I am impressed, I am, because I'm so cack-handed normally.
1. fruit and honey
2. New Guinea
3. 13th century
4. royal palaces
5. art, ornaments
6. three pounds
7. (the equivalent of) a bag and a half (from a supermarket)