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Question: What was medieval sugar like?

Recipes from various sources refer to sugar as coming in a number of colors, including "black", "brown", and "white". They also call for "loaf sugar", direct the cook to cast or sprinkle the sugar, grate the sugar, and sometimes to use "powdered" sugar.

In a quick (i.e. two minutes) experiment with a mortar and pestle, I was able to grind common table sugar to a reasonably fine powder. A longer time spent grinding, combined with sifting is likely to produce something undistinguishable from modern powdered sugar.

Further evidence for the color of sugar can be found in Theatrum sanitatis (a medieval health manual) and La rue marchande, Le Livre du gouvernement des princes. Both of these depict the shops of merchants, and in both the sugar is deliberately painted white by the artist.


Source (primary): Curye on Inglish, Constance B. Hieatt & Sharon Butler (eds.)

91. For to make a pynade, tak hony and rotys of radich & grund yt smal in a morter, & do to þat hony a quantite of broun sugur. Tak powder of peper & safroun & almandys, & do al togedere. Boyl hem long & held yt on a wet bord & let yt kele, & messe yt & do yt forth.

Source (primary): Delights for Ladies

13 - The making of sugar-paste, and casting thereof in carved moulds. Take one pound of the whitest refined or double refined sugar, if you can gette it: put thereto three ounces (some comfit-makers put six ounces for more gaine) of the best starch you can buy; and if you dry the Sugar after it is powdered, it wll the sooner paste thorough your Lawne Searce. Then searce it, and lay the same on a heap in the midst of a sheet of clean paper: ...

The addition of starch to powdered sugar is something that is still done, even in commercially prepared powdered sugar. It helps keep the sugar from clumping.

The "Lawne Searce" mentioned above is a linen cloth for sifting.

Source (secondary): Le Menagier de Paris, Janet Hinson (trans.)

CREPES. Take flour and mix with eggs both yolks and whites, but throw out the germ, and moisten with water, and add salt and wine, and beat together for a long time: then put some oil on the fire in a small iron skillet, or half oil and half fresh butter, and make it sizzle; and then have a bowl pierced with a hole about the size of your little finger, and then put some of the batter in the bowl beginning in the middle, and let it run out all around the pan; then put on a plate, and sprinkle powdered sugar on it. And let the iron or brass skillet hold three chopines, and the sides be half a finger tall, and let it be as broad at the bottom as at the top, neither more nor less; and for a reason.