I know I’ve been absent a few days, but I have a perfectly good excuse: we’ve been on a short vacation. Over the past few days, we’ve been knocking ourselves out to take in as much of the best of Michigan that we can. And, dear readers, you were never far from my mind. So, I have a few things to share with you inspired by our brief travels.
The first of them is the most delicious, and it relates to one of the biggest industries that drove industry in Amsterdam at the height of its golden era. I’m talking here of sugar. Or, more specifically, muscovado sugar.
If you’ve never heard of muscovado, I’m not surprised. I’ve got a hell of a sweet tooth, but I never heard of the stuff until I started doing historical research. Essentially, muscovado is a brown sugar. But don’t confuse that with “brown sugar,” because the two things are not the same at all. I’ll get to that in a moment. Along with a definitive taste test! But first, a little history.
Of muscovado and monopolies
First, let’s figure out what muscovado is. This gets a bit confusing, and I’m by no means an expert, but to the best of my understanding, it all has to do with the way in which sugar is refined — or more specifically, not refined.
Sugar can come from any number of sources, including sugar beets or corn. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll be talking about sugar cane. And even more specifically, I’m talking about sugar cane production in the 1600s in the areas of Brazil and the Caribbean, in the colonies then held by the Netherlands.
If you’ve never seen sugar cane, it’s a plant that can easily grow twice as tall as an adult human, which presents challenges in its transportation as a commodity. Another challenge: the sugar cane itself has to go through a rather extensive process before it becomes the fine, crystal substance you’re used to putting in your morning coffee or sprinkling on your cereal.
Turning that plant into the crystals you’re used to seeing takes a long process of boiling, distilling away liquid and refining. That’s because sugar cane does not only contain sucrose, or sugar, but also molasses — another useful ingredient, but one that has to be separated out (refined) in order for you to get your refined sugar crystals.
Turns out, that’s not so easily done. Over the centuries, the process has changed somewhat, and today it is often done with the process of centrifuges, or turbines, that spin out the liquid. When this process is done twice, the result is the ubiquitous white table sugar we’re all familiar with.
What happens when the process is done just once? You may have seen this sugar under different names. Here in the U.S., a brand name known as Sugar in the Raw uses this once-milled process. It’s a form of turbinado sugar — you know, turbinado, as in turbine. It’s also called demerara sugar sometimes: essentially the same thing, but the crystals are somewhat larger. The difference between these sugars and white sugar is that they contain more molasses; that’s because the molasses has never been entirely washed out of it.
But wait, you may be saying. Isn’t that what brown sugar is? Oh, my dear child. No. Brown sugar is one of the cruellest lies foisted on us by the food manufacturing industry. Brown sugar ain’t nothing but highly refined white sugar with molasses added back in. It’s … madness. It’s like ordering a hamburger at a restaurant, asking them to make it meatless, but then asking for a hamburger patty on the side. Just … why? Why would you do that? When there was hamburger in it to begin with? THERE WAS MOLASSES ALREADY THERE!
Ah, but there actually IS a brown sugar. Sugar that’s brown because the molasses never left it. And that, my friends. That is muscovado.
I knew for a while that it was this form of sugar, muscovado, that was sent from Brazil and the Caribbean back to Amsterdam for refining, but it took me a longer time to understand why. Was it a matter of difficulty of refining in the remote colonies? A problem of refined sugar spoiling on the voyage whereas unrefined sugar did not?
No, it turns out the answer has nothing to do with practicality. It’s all about commerce. The Dutch West Indies Co. and the Dutch Republic were eager to protect the commercial interests of the Dutch merchants living on the mainland, so they prohibited colonists from refining the sugar cane they themselves grew. Sugar cane was therefore processed only to the muscovado stage, then shipped back to Europe, where it was further processed to table sugar.
Though after tasting it, I have to ask, but why?
Muscovado: The definitive taste test
This weekend, Stephanie and I went to Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor. If you are a foodie anywhere in Michigan and you have not been there, why not? If you love food and you are in the Midwest, make it a point to find your way there. The sandwiches they make … oh, the sandwiches. And the meat and cheese counters are just divine. Then, there’s the rest of the shop.
That’s where I found this on the shelf.
Fair warning: it’s not cheap. Costing $10 for a one-pound brick, this isn’t the sugar you’re going to reach for when you want to drop something on your morning Cornflakes. I read that you can substitute this stuff fairly easily for anything that calls for brown sugar, but at this price, you’re going to want to be fairly selective.
But the question remains: would you even want to? I had to put it to the test.
Behold: I produced the competitors — refined white sugar, and light brown sugar (which we know now is nothing but bastardized white sugar with a whisper of molasses over it).
Here’s how they look and how they stack up.
Unless you’re diabetic or your parents were needlessly cruel, this is the stuff you grew up on. So really, there were no surprises in tasting this stuff. Not much I can say here that you don’t already know, except to point out that the sugar crystals are small and very differentiated. That is, they don’t stick together in clumps.
I mean, it’s basic sugar, man. It is what it is.
Brown sugar, I got a beef with you. Why you gotta lie about who you are? You’re just white sugar wearing a molasses jacket. That doesn’t make you different. You just put on a costume. But, OK. Let’s see what you got.
Flavor-wise, I really didn’t taste a whole lot of difference here compared to the basic white sugar. But there was a difference in texture. Brown sugar has a crunch to it. It made it a bit more fun. So there’s that, I guess. But I’m still ticked off that brown sugar is basically a lie.
Then, there’s this.
First, it’s hard not to notice that muscovado looks an awful lot like plain ol’ brown sugar, and I had a sinking feeling that I was being punked. But the muscovado was a lot clumpier than the brown sugar. It resembled sand on the beach after a heavy rain — coarse and crumbly.
I took a taste. At first, sugar. Then? If you ever had a molasses cookie, you’d recognize the unmistakable flavor in muscovado. I’ve read it’s also been compared to caramel or toffee, but to me, it took me back to the time I had a molasses cookie at Greenfield Village in Dearborn. Boom, like that.
The definitive test: cinnamon-sugar toast
There was only one thing left to do — a field test comparing the three kinds of sugar to see which one reigned supreme. I settled on making cinnamon-sugar toast to compare the three side-by-side.
And I had just the companion for them, a slab of Michigan Farm Butter, also from Zingerman’s. I love the stuff, creamy with just a hint of salt. I mean, all butter is good, but this stuff is heavenly. The cinnamon came from Penzey’s Spices, a company I adore both for the quality of their spices and their ethical and political practices. All that and a French roll, and I was set to go.
So how did they stack up?
Let’s start with the first, Mom’s Old Fashioned. You know the one, cinnamon + table sugar. The old standby on winter mornings when the school bus was coming and there was no time to fuss around with anything else. It got the job of breakfast done. It still tastes just like it did. No surprises here.
Next, I tried the cinnamon-sugar toast made with the brown sugar. Since I’d not been overwhelmed with the taste difference between this sugar and the white sugar earlier, I hadn’t expected a big difference now. But I admit, I was pleasantly surprised that the texture of the brown sugar translated into a somewhat gritty, somewhat crunchy topping that was pretty darn good. I’d recommend this over the regular cinnamon toast.
Finally, the muscovado cinnamon toast. And, yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. Here was the yummy crunch of the brown sugar toast. But wait, there’s more! There was also the fuller taste of the molasses behind the plain ol’ sweet sugar, mixed with the tantalizing spice of cinnamon. My my. We do have a winner.
Like I said, at $10 per pound, I’ll be judicious about how I use the stuff, but muscovado didn’t disappoint. Sometimes it’s good to be unrefined.