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Sugar and spice, and all things
The personal histories of sugar and spice. Words by Ben Benton and Kareem Arthur
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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Two things on the noticeboard today. First of all, Vittles will be holding a panel talk at the British Library in London this Saturday on the subject of ‘What is British Food Writing?’ where we’ll be discussing the tone and function of British food writing throughout history (from Mrs Beeton to Red Hot Entertainment) and looking at where it might go. Am v thrilled to say that the panel will be Angela Hui, Yvonne Maxwell, Lucy Dearlove and Pen Vogler (and there may be a very rare appearance by me as host). If you would like to attend then please sign up here.
Secondly, one of the contributors to this newsletter, Ben Benton, is working on launching a small independent cookbook press, Saturday Boy Books saturdayboy.com to publish new and underrepresented voices in food. One of the key tenets of the press will be its commitment to encouraging the careers of new and emerging food writers and cooks. It is their core belief that there is extraordinary talent out there, but that many of those voices may not yet be known or are not yet deemed ‘commercially viable’ to the mainstream publishers. If you wish to submit anything or learn more, please do so via the website here.
What is the most important drink in the world? Well, water, technically. But it is masala chai that holds the distinction of being the only drink, or food, that contains the three most consequential ingredients in modern history, all bound together in a small disposable pottery cup: tea, sugar and spice. Trace back the ingredients in masala chai and you get a history lesson: from tea, you will learn about 2000 years of Chinese culture, the spread of Daoism, the Opium Wars, the ascent of Britain as a world power, the Industrial Revolution, the independence of America, the creation of the minimalist Japanese aesthetic you can find everywhere from Scandinavia to your local coffee shop; from spice, you will learn about the formation of modern Europe, colonial trade routes, and the creation and evolution of all major cuisines; from sugar, the Middle Passage, the formation and abolition of the slave trade, the creation of the modern Caribbean and the creation of modern America. The lengths undertaken, the evil wrought to bring you a drink you throw on the floor once you’re finished, is almost too much to think about.
And yet, while these ingredients take you through the grand sweep of history, they have personal histories too, intimate histories that tell us about family and identity, each one unique. Today’s newsletter by Ben Benton and Kareem Arthur tell two of those histories through two family recipes that use sugar or spice, their production outside of Britain, and how each one has provoked a personal reckoning with the past. The recipes, I’m thrilled to say, are reproduced exactly as they were written: for the recipe too is not just the history of the dish, but the story of who wrote it and who they wrote it for.
Spice, by Ben Benton
My grandparents were not gourmands by any stretch. Their formative years were post-war and they were working-class; their diet: meat and two veg. Family celebrations were known to happen at The Gatwick Hilton, regardless of there being no flight to catch, while culinary luxury was found in ‘grand’ coastal hotels: The Hythe Imperial in Kent, The Grand at Eastbourne, The Toorak in Torquay. They would take cookery classes if they spent any length of time at these hotels; a chef in a high-starched toque would take them through beef wellington or crepe suzette or duck a l’orange. Once, at The Hythe Imperial, they were shown this way with kedgeree.
Kedgeree is a succinct example of the influence of spices, their colonial passage and adoption in British cooking, but also shows how vernacular British food was actually transformed and enlivened by spice. These were not things brought in by middle-class gourmands but were very much in everyday use. My grandparents, for instance, had a very well-stocked spice cupboard; my grandmother would boil her carrots in a little orange juice, butter and caraway, my grandfather would stud his onions with cloves for a sauce. Their little corner cupboard that spun around when you pulled it out would always have two types of mustard seeds, black, white and green peppercorns (peppercorn sauce was in the ascendancy in the Surrey of my childhood), always mace and nutmeg, cassia and cinnamon, cayenne and paprika.
I learnt about these spices from my grandfather, a product of the world wars. He leant towards history and global economics as the vehicles with which to try and enlighten me about the world, a method not always met with enthusiasm, but when he spoke of food and where it came from – how trade routes, globalisation and colonialism had influenced what we cooked and ate here at home – he had me hooked. With a Dorling Kindersley World Atlas and his laminated kedgeree recipe, I vividly recall him showing me Zanzibar and Sri Lanka, Kerala and Madagascar, pointing to distant places where each of these gnarled, perfumed things came from.
Today, I am a chef, cookbook author and editor with a similarly well-stocked spice cupboard. I recently edited a manuscript for a cookbook where the author had specified Espelette pepper for a particular dish, Tellicherry black pepper for another, instructions I liked for their specificity and authenticity, but which I also suggested he remove. The home cook should not be sent into a tailspin, I argued, by the search for such specific seasoning. The author’s response was pragmatic and the specificity was removed, but the simple edits left me feeling sad. I was left wondering: should it be the job of chefs and cookbook writers to influence buying patterns and the sourcing of spices? Should the cook on the ground be expected to consider their spices in the same way they have started to consider their meat, vegetables and washing-up detergent? And, if the home cook were to want to scrutinise their spices, how easy might that be, what might they discover? How has our consumption of spices changed over the past three decades since I sat and traced the route of cinnamon from Sri Lanka back to Surrey?
If I go back to that kedgeree recipe, the routes we traced are no longer the same. The ginger, turmeric and black pepper of that recipe came from Kerala (Alleppey, Cochin and Tellicherry most likely), the cloves from the Maluku (or Spice) Islands, an archipelago in Indonesia, the cinnamon stick was from Sri Lanka. It was a sweeping arc, liveried in the Atlas in the red of colonial Britain, from the map’s south-eastern corner back to the UK. Vasco de Gama was mentioned, I’m sure, although I mainly recall the clatter of metal spoon on porcelain platter which told me that scented rice was being mixed with yellow fish, and that ochre-yolked eggs, cut into rounds, were being placed on top. With the benefit of hindsight, though, and a good few decades of education, the elephant in the room after those early chats over the atlas is that the all of the routes traced were colonial, likely opened up and operated by the East India Company, and thus a multitude of sins and issues are inherent within.
A Market Insider report on global spice production would suggest that, today, my black pepper is as likely to have been produced in Brazil as in India, my ginger is most likely Nigerian or Chinese, the cloves likely come from the hills of Sri Lanka, or from Madagascar or Zanzibar, as does the cinnamon stick. The turmeric might still be from Kerala, or it might be from Vietnam or Iran. The reasons are a medley of opportunism, trade deals, government contracts, the comparative advantage of the new players versus the incumbent and global capitalism, which is always looking for a new foothold, new frontier for investment, for yield, to generate returns. That I ever thought otherwise, that I had a misplaced romanticism of spices coming from specific places only because of tradition, is down to a British education that does not approach our troublesome colonial past with any sense of historiography.
No matter the where of production, the sheer scale of modern spice production does raise questions of quality. A visit to a Keralan spice factory a few years ago revealed a surprisingly manual process; the stems were removed by hand from chillies destined for powder and most stages in the process from fumigation to drying to processing to packing had considerable manual elements. But when any product is produced at mass and for yield, shortcuts are inevitably taken; according to one particularly bombastic report I read recently by the Seasoning and Spice Association, “at the cheaper end of the market, adulteration is often practised by spice manufacturers to gain additional profit. Certain stages of the process can be eradicated.” By this they mean the careful natural fumigation and drying, “with chemicals added into the process as a shortcut”. This would be anathema to the professional chef and the home cook alike if we were considering our dairy or our dried goods. The same report goes on to suggest that some large manufacturers will “employ the use of fillers, ranging from cheap spice extracts to flours, with some places adding toxic and carcinogenic dyes to spices, to enhance their colour and appeal.”
All of this should be common knowledge when buying spices or, indeed, anything with spices in. My local coffee shop tells me in painstaking detail of the high-welfare criteria of its beans and milk, but would they know, or care, where the cardamom in their buns comes from? If a spice farm is operating under Fair Trade, a paltry 15% premium on the cost of producing the crop is paid to the farmer; if not, then the margin for profit will be negligible and the farmer will return to their farm to eke out yet another unprofitable harvest, while the traders and importers process their keenly priced raw ingredients for profit. By the time exporters, spice companies and supermarkets have had their hand in moving the spices around the world, the whole process might have taken years; two at best, up to six or seven at worst. Any farm that manages to produce a consistent supply throughout the year will need to be using vast quantities of sprays and water and heat to create consistent conditions, or if not that, then someone along the line will have to be pimping and adorning the poor-quality crop that they can produce, and none of that can be good; not for us or the environment, nor for the flavour of the crop itself.
As with all these things, there is already an enlightened niche, be they the communities themselves in spice-growing regions, or the more engaged shopper the world over, who are already taking considerable care and attention to find out where their spices come from, who produces them and how they are ending up in their chicken methi or samosa chaat. But we need the mass market to demand better if we are to move the needle. The cumulative influence of localised consumer demand and buying patterns, extrapolated globally, can move the juggernaut of global supply, eventually, even if we are still reliant on Bart or Schwartz and at the whims of the global marketplace. As cooks, we are at the thin edge of the wedge in terms of spice consumption. The proliferation of ready meals, an increased interest in global cuisines among keen home cooks, health fads such as turmeric lattes and ginger, fennel and liquorice teas, etc, have driven the huge growth in spice consumption in Europe and the US in recent times. But perhaps we can do our little bit by considering our spices when we do buy them, and not wait for chefs and cookbook authors to lead us there.
Places to buy spices
Diaspora & Co – https://www.diasporaco.com/collections/all#spices (American) – Expensive, and as such I actually can’t make a case for them at home, but in recipe development the brightness and clarity of their spices makes them an absolute joy to cook with.
Rooted – https://rootedspices.com/ – for some reason I buy into the narrative and they seem to be cleverly placed (price-wise). Whilst their spices are perhaps not quite as alive as someone like Diaspora, this London-based company blow away the dusty nonsense available readily on the high street.
The Spicery – https://www.thespicery.com/spicestore-shop – based in Bristol, I worked with these guys a little bit back in the day when I helped Stevie Parle on his book with Emma Grazette, Spice Trip. They were a very impressive outfit then and I have used them over the years since.
Spice Mountain – https://www.spicemountain.co.uk/product-category/spices/ They have a mad range of spices and other nice stuff and I’ve always found the quality to be pretty good. Order online or visit the Borough Market stall.
The Spice Shop – https://thespiceshop.co.uk/herbs-and-spices – The OG for me. I lived in Ladbroke Grove when I first moved to London and these guys were my local dealer. I don’t actually know how they stand up in terms of sourcing etc, but I would say I’ve always found their spices to be great.
Sous Chef – https://www.souschef.co.uk/collections/herbs-spices – Tbh I do quite often buy some of the more esoteric bits and pieces I need for recipe development etc from Sous Chef. I find that the more generic spices etc are perhaps not of the most compelling nature, but for niche bits and pieces they are a great resource.
Sugar, by Kareem Arthur
Grandma Joyce always used to make coconut bread. During half-term, my mum and I would take the trip up to Banbury in Oxfordshire where she lived and there it would be, sitting on the wooden dresser next to the fridge waiting for our arrival, wrapped tightly in tin foil. It was dense, not quite a bread but not a cake either. She would always make extra: one would accompany her on the return leg too when she’d drive down to us in London with a loaf in her bag, along with M&S sausage rolls she’d picked up at the petrol station on the way.
A handwritten recipe for coconut bread, or sweetbread as it is also called in Barbados, lives and travels with me from home to home. It fell out of a book I borrowed from my mum that she’s had since she was in her twenties called Cooking in Barbados (written by Charlotte Hingston with illustrations by Jill Walker). It’s one of my favourite books. Most copies don’t actually contain a recipe for sweetbread, something that has always been surprising to me. I always expect to see it nestled between the banana cake and the pineapple pie. But mine does. It was written by my mother when she was 19; she scribbled down a recipe before she went to university, I guess, as a way for her to take with her a piece of home. My mum’s handwriting is the kind I dreamed of having when I grew up. It swirls and swooshes across the page elegantly like the dancer she is herself, every letter perfectly joined. At the top there’s a personalised sentence which says “A note from Karen” then below that ‘COCONUT BREAD’ in capital letters – a recipe enough for exactly two loaves. The fourth ingredient down, along with the red glacé cherries and raisins, is key to making this treat delectable – 6oz of caster sugar.
The UK’s sugar industry is worth £740 million. Its origins lie in the Caribbean, on island sugar plantations which flourished during the 19th century. These islands included Martinique, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Croix, the Leeward Islands, Saint Domingue, Cuba and Barbados itself. These plantations produced 80 to 90 percent of the sugar consumed in Western Europe and are where the origin stories of famous sugar companies in the UK, such as Tate & Lyle, began. It would be this sugar, both its profits and the fuel it provided for workers in industrial Britain, that would help shape the modern world.
Andrea Stuart’s book Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire tells the story of the sugar plantations, intertwined with the journey of her ancestors, of their migration from the UK to Barbados in 1625 to their life on the island during the 19th century. I found the book in a bid to learn more about Barbados and its histories; reading it, I realised that sugar production was a particular type of hell. Producing sugar was a labour-intensive process and slaves were required to do all of the work, starting with harvesting the crop in the fields with the heat from the rays of the glowing sun directly permeating onto their bare skin. The work began from early dawn until nightfall, the days were long, the climate was hot and the job was a daily risk. In order to create those coveted jewels, the juice must be derived from the sugarcane crop and refined. Slaves not only cut the sugarcane, but every plantation had its own sugar mill, boiling house and curing house.
Among the fear, anger and sorrow I also found some sense of empowerment, like in the story of Bussa, a saltwater slave who in 1816 led one of the biggest rebellions in history on the island. Bussa’s statue was created 1985 by Bajan sculptor Karl Broodhagen, 169 years after the rebellion, and symbolises the breaking of chains. Another person who fought for the abolition of slavery was who Stuart describes as a forgotten heroine, a Quaker from Leicester called Elizabeth Heyrick. In her pamphlet An Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of Women, which was distributed widely around Britain in 1828, she made judgments on those who were contributing to the suffering of slaves, particularly those in the West Indies. She made direct links between the suffering of slaves and the consumption of sugar, declaring that “by buying sugar we participate in crime”, a riposte to those who claim that changing values meant that the British didn’t know the production of the crop was immoral.
For a long time, before the island relied on its thousands of visitors each year, the trade of sugar was what Barbados leant on to support its economy. Until the beginning of the 1990s, Barbados not producing sugar wasn’t something that many could envisage. Since the decline of the industry and trade to Europe, Barbados has since had to rethink how it can support the island’s economy and where this leaves the sugar trade for them. Today the biggest suppliers and producers of sugar worldwide are India and Brazil. Caribbean countries now produce less than 0.3% of the world’s sugar. With Trinidad closing its last sugar factory in 2007, only five Caribbean countries still produce sugar: Belize, Jamaica, Guyana, Cuba and Barbados. Barbados no longer participates in the European trade (production is mainly used as local supply and to trade with neighbours) and at present there are only two factories left still producing sugar: the Portvale Sugar Factory and Andrews Sugar Factory, both in the parish of St. Joseph.
Yet it is still very much part of the local culture. Crop Over, an annual and much-awaited celebration that takes place in July-August, is a carnival that celebrates the end of the season and is part of Bajan culture. The tradition was first celebrated in 1625 at the end of the harvest season. The king and queen growers are crowned and parties go on long through the night until dawn. There is one company that sells locally and supplies some of the best restaurants and pastry chefs in Barbados: Plantation Reserve, a mill that supplies sugarcane for a revitalised local industry on the island.
Sugar has also become a big part of a Bajan’s palette: conkies are made with a mix of cornmeal, brown sugar, raisins and nutmeg, which are then steamed in a banana leaf and traditionally enjoyed on Independence Day which takes place on November 30th; Bajan bakes are a shallow, fried, flat dumpling eaten for breakfast and made with a dough containing brown sugar and sweet spices – the perfect accompaniment to fried eggs and avocado; cassava pone is a sweet dessert made from grated cassava and coconut, currants, cherries, all brought together into an aromatic mix filled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and, of course, brown sugar. New companies such as Plantation Reserve are looking to reframe Barbados’ sugar in a new light and use it as a chance to support small local producers.
What struck me the most when reading Stuart’s memoir was how little I knew of the history of sugar, this fruitful crop. The fields of cane will no longer look the same to me next time I visit Barbados, and the island will feel somewhat different. In turn, the England that I was born in, and my connection to it, feels more distant. If sugar is part of the fabric of Barbados history, even beyond slavery, it is also the same in the UK. This economy wouldn’t be half of what it is today without the effects of the sugar industry and the plethora of wealth that it’s brought to this country.
For me and many other Caribbean folk, sugar is seamlessly woven throughout our culture and cuisine: delicious foods and baked goods made by elders to make life a little sweeter and childhood even more memorable. But the history of sugar and the bleak path it took to be able to use it in abundance isn’t something to take lightly. Although the production and process has evolved since its origins, its beginnings should be respected and the people who suffered should be honoured. It’s important that everyone is aware of the people who made its popularity possible.
Ben Benton is a writer and cook with an interest in how we eat in England. He has have a particular soft spot for the everyday food of the suburbs, both nostalgic and current. He unpacks this, alongside thoughts on his own personal greed, each week through his newsletter, No Cartouche, and can be found on Instagram.
Kareem Arthur is a writer from South East London. Her work focuses on food justice, the origin of ingredients, different cooking cultures and food systems around the globe. Centred around women she also tells stories about their relationships with the kitchen, the emotional connections that we have with food and how the act of cooking positively contributes to our mental wellbeing. You can find Kareem through her website www.kareemarthur.com
The handwritten family recipes in the photos are reproduced with the permission of the authors.
Many thanks to Liz Tray for additional edits and proofing.