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Feast & Fast

The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 – 1800

Ginger and Sugar

Ginger and Sugar Ginger was an essential ingredient in medieval medicine and cooking. Tastes changed and by the late 1500s it was used less often in savoury dishes but remained popular in sweet ones.

Humoral theory identified ginger as ‘hot’, and helpful to those with cold constitutions or living in cold climates, which explains its greater demand in northern Europe. Different species grew across Asia, with edible varieties transplanted in the Caribbean by Spanish colonists in the 1500s. Ginger was imported in diverse forms into Europe, including preserved in a sugar syrup or dried and made into a powder. Early modern cookbooks attest to these different forms. Robert May described the addition of stem ginger in a variety of meat dishes. Hannah Woolley recommended equal measures of powdered ginger and cinnamon to make gingerbread. Sugar had many culinary uses, chiefly for preserving, fermenting, and sweetening. Increasing demand drove European colonialism and the establishment of sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Increasing imports led to lower prices and, by the eighteenth century, sugar was transformed ‘from a luxury of kings into the kingly luxury of commoners’. The constant need for labour on these plantations fuelled the horrific and inhumane transatlantic slave trade, when enslaved people, usually from the West African coast, were shipped to the West Indies, sold, and forced to toil under appalling conditions. Many Europeans made vast fortunes through this exploitation.

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