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A scone with jam and cream and a cup of tea on a table overlooking the sea

Sugar’s influence on English cuisine and drinking culture

11/04/2024 By Theresa Pereira in Recipes

In England today, sugar is very much a part of daily life and accessible to everyone. But this was not the case in the 16th Century, when sugar was an expensive commodity enjoyed only by the wealthiest in society. In our latest around the world with sugar series, we stop in England to explore how sugar has shaped the country’s beverages and cuisine.

A brief history of sugar in England

The presence of sugar in England was first recorded in the 12th Century. In the 13th Century, Venetian traders discovered sugar in the Middle East and transported it to Europe. In the late medieval period, sugar was used as a spice, sweetener or flavour enhancer in medicines, and to preserve food. It was not only sourced from the Middle East but from North Africa and India. 

Sugar’s rarity turned it into a highly prized commodity that only royalty had access to and a symbol of status. Sugar was the material used to make large, elaborate sculptures and statues as decorative centrepieces on tables at banquets. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, sugar was an expensive indulgence, consumed only by royalty and the wealthiest people in society at banquets. Primarily used to sweeten food, the English nobility developed a taste for it. Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer, writing about his travels to England during Elizabeth I’s reign, remarked that the monarch’s black teeth were “a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar”. 

Black and white illustration of early sugar production activity

Sugar production in the 1600s used an evaporating furnace and oxen working a sugar mill.

At this time, more sugar was being imported to Europe, and then England, from plantations in Brazil, and Europeans expanded the sugar industry in the Americas. As imports grew, so did peoples’ fondness for sugar. By the early 17th Century, sugar was more affordable and accessible, and it started to appear as an ingredient in recipe books. Recipes for plum cake were sweetened with sugar, and sugar was also used as a seasoning to counteract the sour flavours in certain meat dishes.

Semi-processed sugar was transported to the European centres of Lisbon, Amsterdam and Antwerp where it was refined further and moulded into cone-shaped sugar loaves. These loaves were brought to England and sold in apothecary shops and grocery stores where people used the sugar to make sweet treats and preserves like marmalade. By 1700, sugar refineries or ‘sugar bakers’ were present across England. English sugar merchants became wealthy, and a surplus was exported to other European countries. England also re-exported brown sugar to other parts of the world. 

By the 1800s, sugar could be found on the tables of most people in England. As the market for sugar in the country expanded, refined white sugar was most expensive to purchase, but a consumer with less to spend could afford brown sugar or black treacle. Sugar loaves continued to be used in baking. In the best-selling cookery book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, ‘preserving sugar’ or ‘loaf sugar’ were key ingredients in recipes for jam, jelly, marmalade and bottled fruit.

Early golden syrup branding poster

Golden syrup, a staple ingredient in baking in England, was first formulated by Ragus’ founder, Charles Eastick, in London in 1883.

In the late 1800s, an important addition to the sugar products market was invented in England: golden syrup. This beloved, amber-coloured sweet syrup has strong ties to Ragus, as it was first formulated by Ragus’ founder, Charles Eastick, in London in 1883. Golden syrup has been sold in the same recognisable tin since 1885 and is now a staple of English life. Learn more about the history of golden syrup.

Historically, England has been a major grower and producer of sugar beet and an important trader of sugarcane. Today, sugar beet is still grown in England. In 22/23, the country produced over 6 million tonnes of sugar beet that was refined into 804,000 tonnes of beet sugar. The wider sugar manufacturing industry in the UK achieves sales of around £830 million annually.

Sugar in savoury dishes and Sunday roasts

Sugar has always played a role in the traditional roast dinner, a meal of roasted meat, roasted potatoes, vegetables, condiments, sauces and gravy usually consumed on a Sunday. For example, demerara sugar may be added to mint sauce, a condiment made at home that is typically served with roast lamb, or to apple sauce, usually served with roast pork, to balance out the tartness of the cooking apples. A product like soft brown light sugar, demerara sugar or even black treacle is usually rubbed on a piece of gammon prior to roasting to create a glaze and enhance the flavour of the meat.

Roasted gammon sliced on a board with orange slices around it (left), a stew in a casserole pot with the lid off (right).

Left: Treacle or soft brown light sugar is rubbed onto a piece of gammon before roasting to create a glaze and enhance colour and flavour.
Right: Sugar is often added to otherwise savoury stews and casseroles to harmonise the flavours in the dish.

Braised stews and slow-cook casseroles serve as the ultimate comfort food in English cuisine. Many recipes exist using different cuts of meat or even sausages. In these recipes, a small quantity of a sugar such as dark cane muscovado sugar may be added to enhance the colour and harmonise the flavours in the dish.

Sugar can typically be found in curries in England, which are Indian dishes modified for British tastes. In curry, sugar is used to balance out aromatic spices or sourness. Sugar is also a major ingredient in chutneys, sauces, and in meat and fish marinades. It is integral in breakfast preserves like jams and marmalade. The latter is made from citrus fruit peel, and a sugar like demerara or a specialised invert syrup is needed to counter the acidity of the lemon, orange or grapefruit.

Sugar in English desserts

Many desserts of English origin use sugar for sweetness, such as sticky toffee pudding, rice pudding, syllabub andspotted dick, a steamed pudding traditionally made with suet and dried fruit and served with custard. Another steamed pudding, Christmas pudding, also contains dried fruit and is eaten on Christmas Day. Christmas pudding usually calls for a darker brown sugar like dark cane muscovado sugar and/or black treacle. The sugar balances out the spices and brandy, while the molasses content deepens the colour and intensifies the flavour.

Sticky toffee pudding slice on a plate (left), fruit dessert with custard on the top on a white plate (middle), sponge dessert with syrup on top (right).

Sticky toffee pudding’s texture and flavour is enhanced by sugar (left), as is spotted dick, a steamed pudding traditionally served with custard (middle), while treacle sponge pudding takes its sweetness from the golden syrup that is poured over it (right).

In other desserts, sugar is the central ingredient. This is true of treacle tart, which is often made from golden syrup. The golden syrup imparts a caramel-like flavour and colour and gives the dessert its characteristic gooey quality. Golden syrup is also important to desserts like sticky toffee pudding where it provides moisture, sweetness and stickiness, and some steamed puddings, such as syrup sponge pudding, where it acts as a binding agent. The latter is a steamed sponge cake with hot golden syrup poured over the top. The runny, sweet liquid contrasts with the soft sponge underneath and gives the dessert its bronzed colour and appealingly sweet taste.

English trifle, a layered, flavoured cream dessert that first appeared in cookery books in the 16th Century, is largely defined by its sweetness. In this, sugar will be used in the making of the custard, in the jam, and to sweeten the whipped cream and any fresh fruit. In a fruit crumble, demerara sugar is often sprinkled over the top to add crunch and provide a contrast to the cooked fruit underneath. Sugar is also used in this dessert to balance out the tartness and acidity of fruits like apples or blackberries.

Sugar in England’s drinking culture: tea and brewing

Since the early 18th Century, tea drinking and ‘teatime’ has been popular in England. The rise in the popularity of tea coincided with the practice of adding sugar and milk to tea. In this, sugar was fundamental to the enjoyment of tea as it helped to mask the bitterness of black tea in particular, turning it into a more desirable drink. At the time, there was growing awareness among the population of the possible complications associated with consuming larger quantities of sugar, and adding a small amount to tea was considered a respectable way to consume sugar.

A woman adding a teaspoon of sugar into a glass cup of tea (left). Various glasses of cider and beer on a wooden table (right).

Left: In England, sugar has long been used to sweeten tea, as tea could be bitter. Once it become popular to add sugar to tea, the popularity of tea drinking grew.
Right: Sugar is used in the brewing industry in England to make beers and ciders.

For centuries, sugar has played an important role in the brewing industry in England. In cider and beer making, sugar serves multiple roles, including in fermentation, to increase alcohol strength, to enhance flavour and colour, and to thin out the drink. In traditional beer making and brewing, an invert sugar syrup may be used, as the colour of the invert sugar can be formulated for the specific application. For example, the brewing of stouts and porters typically uses a darker invert sugar or cane molasses.

Find out more about how sugar is used in brewing.

Sugar in pastries and baked goods

Scones, a baked good popular not only across England but also Scotland and Ireland, are commonly eaten in a cream tea. As part of a cream tea, the scones are eaten with jam and clotted cream and enjoyed with a cup of tea. Scones do contain sugar, often a lighter, paler variety such as caster sugar.

Traditional current buns, such as Chelsea buns, have long been popular in England. First baked in the now-demolished Bun House in Chelsea, London in the 18th Century, Chelsea bun recipes often use soft brown light sugar to add colour, balance the spices and draw out the natural sweetness of the dried fruit.

Scones on a plate next to a pot of jam and cup of tea (left), gingerbread-coloured loaf cake on a wooden table (right).

Left: Sugar is used in the making of scones and jam, and sometimes added to tea to sweeten it.
Right: Different types of sugar, including golden syrup, treacle and muscovado sugar, are used to enhance the flavour and colour and add sweetness to products like gingerbread cake.

Golden syrup is used extensively in the making of biscuits, sweet treats and baked goods, including fudge, toffee, golden syrup cake, flapjacks and gingerbread. As a functional ingredient, it sweetens, enhances colour and texture, adds moisture and extends shelf life. In cakes, golden syrup acts as a binding agent, and it is responsible for the irresistibly sticky quality of flapjacks.

In conclusion, England has a long association with sugar and there is no doubt this important commodity has helped shape English cuisine and customs such as tea drinking, where the habit of adding sugar to tea has been largely responsible for the drink’s overwhelming and enduring popularity.

Ragus manufactures functional pure sugar ingredients for industrial food and beverage applications in all the world’s cuisines, enhancing flavour, texture and appearance. To learn more about our pure sugars, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.  

Theresa Pereira

Theresa ensures that our customers’ orders are managed efficiently and works closely with our Sales Office Manager to deliver all orders on time in full.

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