Cypriot-Sugr-art – 8/5/06


“From Cane To Kitchen: An Investigation into Medieval Processed Sugar” by Gavan MacBane.


NOTE: See also the files: sugar-msg, sugar-sources-msg, Sgr-a-Cnftns-art, Sugar-Icing-art, Sweet-Terms-art, Roses-a-Sugar-art, medvl-sweets-lnks, honey-msg, Candying-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at:


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at



From Cane To Kitchen:

An Investigation into Medieval Processed Sugar

By Gavan MacBane


The existence and use of processed and refined cane sugar in Medieval Europe has long been the target of debate.  There are some who insist that cane sugar was not refined in Europe during the medieval time period.  There are others who claim that although it did exist, excessive cost put it out of reach to all but nobility.  Still more believe that the refining process was so primitive that the sugar available would have been scorched, burned or otherwise unusable.  The intent of this research is to determine the layout, operations and production methodology of late medieval Cypriot sugar mills, and to discuss, and recreate, how sugar was refined in these facilities. This will be accomplished by 1) analyzing written descriptions and images of the medieval physical refining process; 2) examining archaeological evidence derived from the actual sugar processing mills, especially their layout and equipment; and 3) an attempt to duplicate the refining process using period equipment, methodology and technique.  This will all be performed in an effort to determine both the visual and gustatory properties of the sugar produced during this period and how it compared to modern refined sugar.  


Thirty-Second History of Cane Sugar


Sources differ on the exact origin of sugar cane, but most agree that it was most likely first cultivated in the South Pacific.  Whether it originated in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands or Southeast Asia, it is estimated that sugar cane has been cultivated for about 8000 years.  There are multiple documented references following the western migration of sugar cane throughout the centuries.  Nearchus, general of Alexander, when encountering sugar cane in India in 327 B.C., is recorded as describing "a reed which makes honey without bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made though the plant bears no fruit."  The process of refining sugar from the cane was known in India as early as 300 AD.  That knowledge followed the reed as it found its way through India to the Middle East sometime around 600 AD.  With proper irrigation, sugar cane cultivation took off in the Tigris-Euphrates delta.  Over the next 500 years, sugar mills began appearing Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sicily, Morocco and Cyprus and Greece. The products of these mills, both crystallized sugar and molasses, were largely unknown in Europe until the Crusades.  Crusaders learned about sugar during the First Crusade and brought it back to Europe with them.  Albert van Aachen, a writer who collected accounts and stories of veterans of the First Crusade explains,


“In the fields of the plains of Tripoli can be found in abundance a honey reed which they call Zuchra; the people are accustomed to suck enthusiastically on these reeds, delighting themselves with their beneficial juices,…It was on this sweet-tasting sugar cane that people sustained themselves during the sieges of Elbarieh, Marrah, and Arkah, when tormented by fearsome hunger” [1]


During and after the Crusades, sugar began making a substantial impact on Europe.  In the early 13th century, written records of medicinal cordial recipes including sugar began appearing.  The physician Gilbertus Anglicus includes sugar in many of his medicinal directives.  Henry III also is recorded to have sought sugar in fairly large quantities (at the time) in 1226. In 1393, “Le Menagier de Paris” lists sugar over 70 times in various recipes. The existing recipe corpus of the 13th and 14th centuries includes hundreds of recipes involving sugar.  In 1390, Curye on Inglysch includes a process intended to “clarify” refined sugar. [2]


      In the late 15th century however, the cane sugar industry in the Mediterranean sharply declined.  Some researchers attribute this decline to the newly established sugar mills in the Atlantic Islands (the Madeira and Canary Islands, among others) and, eventually, the Caribbean.  Others claim that the toll taken by warfare and plague, and its resultant decline in population, caused worker shortages in this labor-intensive industry.  Still others insist that the popularity of cotton plantations in the region helped oust the sugar industry, since cotton had a much shorter growing season and required substantially less labor to harvest and “process.”  In reality, it was probably a combination of all of these.  


      By the 17th century, the majority of refined sugar was being produced in the New World, although smaller plantations and refineries still functioned in the Atlantic Islands and mainland Europe.


It is important to note that sugar beets have been seen throughout history, used for food and fodder.  Temple drawings from Egypt in 2000 B.C. show a plant that some Egyptologists believe to represent the beetroot.  Regardless of whether they were commonly known or consumed, sugar beets would have to wait until 1747 for German chemist named Andreas Sigismund Marggraf succeeded in extracting sugar from beet.  It wasn’t until 1784 that Marggaf’s former pupil and successor Franz Carl Achard began selectively breeding the modern sugar beet from the White Silesian fodder beet.  


Medieval Process


By examining extant culinary, medicinal and brewing recipes in manuscripts dating from the 12th – 16th centuries, it becomes apparent that processed cane sugar was used in one form or another [3].  Once it is established that refined sugar falls within the medieval time period, and that the sugar involved was produced from sugar cane, the following two questions are introduced:  How was the sugar refined and what are the physical characteristics of this refined sugar.  


The answer to the question of ‘How’ must be answered from multiple directions.  There are several documented descriptions of the refining process, or at the very least, some of the equipment used in the process.  The earliest physical description is from Burchard of Mount Sion in his “Descriptio Terrae Sanctae” (Description of the Holy Land) originally written in 1280 AD. In his text, Burchard describes:


“The canes are gathered, cut in lengths of half a palm, an are so crushed in the press.  The juice squeezed out of them is boiled in copper boilers, and, when thickened, is collected in baskets made of slender twigs.  Soon after this it becomes dry and hard, and this is how sugar is made. Before it dries, a liquor oozes from it called honey of sugar, which is very delicious, and good for flavouring cakes.” [4]


The Egyptian author, al-Nuwairi (1380-1432), offers another description of the process:


“The cut canes are laid out below the mill stone which is turned by good oxen, and through that the cane is squeezed out … When the canes are pressed out as much as possible, they are transferred to another place. The pulp is packed into baskets made of rushes with slits on the sides and at the bottom.  These baskets are put under the wheel which is moved by beams, until the pulp is completely crushed and the last juice has flown out of it.” [5]


He further elaborates,


“The boiled juice is poured into moulds of earthenware, which are narrow below and wide above.  In the bottoms are holes, which are plugged with pieces of sugar cane for the first phase of the evaporation process.  These moulds are placed on top of other vessels, into which in an advanced stage flows the syrup which is separated in fine drops, while after some time the crystalline sugar, formed to a loaf, can be removed from the moulds.” [6]


Neither the Burchard nor the al-Nuwairi descriptions are very detailed nor do they cover much information about the equipment used.  The only other written reference to the mills and equipment I was able to find is a comment about the mill at Episkopi by Pietro Casola while describing his “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem” in 1494.  In his description, Pietro writes:


“I can only speak of a great farm not far from Limasol, which belongs to a certain Don Federico Cornaro, a patrician of Venice, and is called Espicopia, where they make so much sugar, that, in my judgment, it should suffice for all the world. Indeed it is said to be the best which goes to Venice, and the quantity sold is always increasing. It seems to me that no one ought ever to die there. It was very interesting to see how they make the sugar -- both the fine and the coarse -- and so many people at work. There were not less than four hundred persons there, all employed -- some in one way, some in another. It was interesting too, to see such a number of utensils; it was like another world to me. There were cauldrons of such a size that if I described them no one would believe me.” [7]


Pietro’s description helps provide some details about the vast quantity of sugar being produced.  He indicates the types of sugar – both fine and coarse – being made and a rough estimate of the number of people required to work the mill.  He also notes with fascination the size of the cauldrons and the unfamiliar equipment.  


      All three of these authors indicate that the sugar juice was boiled and poured into molds, but none discuss the molds in detail, nor do they provide any detail about the sugar itself other than it was hard and dry, and either fine or coarse.  


Further research reveals a Florentine merchant, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, who apparently was a representative of the banking house of the Bardi in Cyprus.  In his 1340 book, La Practica della Mercatura, Pegolotti catalogs the appearance, price and packing of the sugar produced.  He details that there were three types of sugar produced, Bambillonia (or Caffettino) – the highest quality, Musciatto – inferior quality, and crystal sugar known as ‘polvere di zucchero.’ [8] Pegolotti also remarks that the “best powdered sugar came from Cyprus…it was called dezamburada, rid of impurities which accumulate on the top of the sugar loaf, the zambour.” [9]  Muddled in all of these sugar loaf descriptions lies a quality scale.  Dr. von Wartburg points out, based Pegolotti’s descriptions, that the higher quality sugar had to be boiled multiple times.  King James II of Cyprus, in his limited time on the throne, requested that all sugar crops be processed as thrice-boiled sugar. [10]


      All of this makes for captivating reading material, but doesn’t help in our understanding of how the cane was crushed and ground, under what conditions the cane juice was boiled, exactly how the sugar cones were created, and how this “thrice boiled” sugar differs from the other varieties.  


The Mills


For answers to these questions, we are required to turn to archaeological evidence.  Fortunately, over the past 25 years there has been a growing academic interest into medieval sugar mills and there have been several digs involving the three main medieval sugar mills on the island of Cyprus. These mills are Kouklia-Stavros, Episkopi-Serayia, and the mill at Kolossi.



Built toward the end of the 13th century, this facility was likely owned by the royal house of the Franc Lusignan dynasty, which ruled Cyprus from 1191 – 1489.  The milling and refining facility continued to be used through the Venetian period, around 1571, although the complex was remodeled and reconstructed several times throughout its use during this time. [11]



During the 14th century, the Serayia mill located in the village of Episkopi, became the property of the Venetian Cornaro family, relatives of the Lusignan Queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro.  The family developed an extensive empire of cultivation and refining of sugar on their lands, on the western banks of the Kouris River. [12]



Also in the 14th century, the mill at castle Kolossi on the eastern banks of the Kouris River was in full use. This facility was owned and operated mostly by the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, better known as Hospitallers.  The Hospitallers transferred their headquarters from Acre to Kolossi in 1302, where the headquarters remained for several years.  Even after the “official” headquarters moved on to the Greek island of Rhodes, the Hospitallers maintained a military and sugar production presence for many years.  Being located across the Kouris from Serayia caused a series of well-documented conflicts between the two facilities. Most of these conflicts revolve around legal rights to use of the river for both irrigation and power. [13]


All three of the mills discussed in this research, although built and rebuilt over a span of a few hundred years, are remarkably similar in both construction and refining technology. The three mills follow the same basic layout, as seen in the Kouklia-Stavros floor plan (figure 1)


Figure 1:  Kouklia Stavros floor plan [14]


The mill walls are composed of limestone walls, separating the facilities into four main sections, the store room/workshop, the mill area, the boiling hall and the stoke rooms.  It is likely that it was a combination of this separation and layout, along with their engineering ingenuity and well practiced process and technique that Cyprus was able to produce such a high quality product.  


The Aqueducts


The modern riverbeds of Cyprus are dry during the summer months, although this was not always the case.  According to archaeological evidence, Kouklia, Episkopi and Kolossi relied on water power to their cane grinders, making the presence of ample free flowing rivers more than probable.  The aqueduct system attached to the sugar mills plays an integral part in the medieval sugar cane industry.  Since sugar cane has a long growing season and requires substantial water supply to grow properly, the aqueducts were used to transport water from nearby rivers to be used to irrigate the cane fields.  The transported water also had other purposes, to clean and care for equipment, and to power the water wheel-driven cane grinding millstones.  


The Millstones and Water Jets


All three of these mills on Cyprus had technologically advanced grinding systems, where two separate kinds of cane milling equipment were discovered.  The first was an animal driven grinding wheel and millstone.  The second was a multi-floor, gear-based, horizontal waterwheel crushing and grinding system.  The waterspout and wheel remains for this second system were discovered in a subterranean vaulted chamber below the grinding room, next to the animal driven mill room at Episkopi [15].  


In an attempt to demonstrate the complexity of this design, a very brief exploration into the history of waterwheels is in order. Various sources indicate that horizontal wheels were fairly common throughout the Mediterranean as early as the first century.  In the earliest forms of horizontal waterwheels (figure 2), the wheel itself would sit in the water supply, usually a swiftly flowing stream, with the radial vanes or paddled lower end dipping into the water.  This design resulted in a fairly inefficient transference of power.  


Figure 2: Standard Horizontal Waterwheel – view from above looking down [16]


As time and waterwheel technology progressed, the horizontal waterwheel was often replaced by the overshot water wheel, which derives its power from water flowing over the top of the wheel.  The overshot wheel (figure 3) was substantially more efficient, did not require the wheel to actually rest in the water supply, and worked reliably even during months of low water flow. Further, because the wheel was not immersed in the water supply, the overshot wheel could be used at a substantial distance from the actual water source, with the water being delivered to the wheel via pipe, aqueduct or flume [17].  


Figure 3: Overshot Waterwheel [18]

      It is the combination of these two types of technologies and a specially designed water delivery system that allowed the Cypriot mill design to function.  In this case, figure 4 shows a concept drawing similar to the actual mill setup.  Here the water was delivered to the mills by way of an aqueduct and brought to the water mill room by pipe high above the wheel.  The water then traveled down through a high vertical tunnel to a small spout at the bottom, aimed at the horizontal waterwheel.  The combination of the pressure built up by the vertical distance traveled and the small size of the opening at the bottom created a powerful water jet.  This jet generated sufficient power to turn the specially designed wheel and the geared shaft, and to drive the millstones in the room above.  


Figure 4: Francesco di Giorgo drawing (c 1480) of an edge-runner mill. [19]


In Juanelo Turriano’s mill drawing (1560), which was specifically designed for sugar production, the mechanical process can be followed.   In figure 5, the water entered via the water spout and powered the horizontal waterwheel “A.”  This wheel turned the gear shaft “B,” which turned gears “C” and “D” which powered the crushing wheel, “E.”  


Figure 5: Sugar Mill project drawing of Juanelo Turriano (c 1560) [20]


Whereas a complex series of overshot waterwheel-driven flourmills have been discovered in southern France and Israel, this system appears to be unique to Cyprus during this time period.  Although extensive additional research would need to be performed to state that with any certainty, no references to or archaeological evidence of such a system have been found in recent investigations into contemporary sugar mills in Jordan, Israel and Greece.


The Stoke Rooms


One of the common misconceptions about medieval sugar is that it would have been laced with soot and ash.  It is true that one of the largest problems when refining sugar, from a quality viewpoint, is how to handle the soot, ash and other byproducts from the fires necessary for the boiling process.  The Cypriot mills responded to this challenge in their mill design.  An analysis of the physical mills shows the stoke rooms separated from the boiling hall by a limestone wall.  The stoke rooms were also deeper, partially under the boiling hall.  These stoke rooms could be entered and exited through doorways leaving the facility.  There was no direct access to the boiling hall from the stoke rooms, and vice versa.  The question then arises, how was the juice boiled?  The fires in the stoke rooms would heat the huge copper cauldrons in the boiling hall through the stone hearths upon which they were resting.  In figure 5 below, the stoke rooms can be seen on the left side of the wall remains.  On the right side of the wall is the boiling hall and the hearths through which the cauldrons were heated.  



Figure 6: The stoke room and boiling hall at Kouklia-Stavros [21]


The Boiling Hall


      Attached to the mill rooms by a series of stairs and cane juice reservoirs, the boiling hall housed the huge copper cauldrons that were used in the refining process.  These cauldrons rested on special stone hearths of limestone, through which the fire from the stoke rooms would boil the cane juice.  Careful and practiced control of the stoke room fires and the hearth-effect generated by the limestone design created the fairly consistent temperatures necessary for high quality sugar production.


The Cauldrons


The period descriptions of the refining process that actually list the cauldron material refer to the cauldrons being made from copper.  In an age where cast iron was used extensively for cooking, it might at first seem unusual for them to have used copper.  As with the waterwheels, additional investigation was necessary.  Copper has several advantages over other metals for processing sugar, especially in medieval Cyprus.   Firstly, copper was abundant on the island.  So abundant, in fact, that the original Latin word for copper was “aes Cyprium” – the metal of Cyprus.  Secondly, copper was easy for the Cypriots to work with.  It could be hammered flat with little effort compared to cast iron, and it also didn’t pit as easily as cast iron.  Copper also distributes heat more evenly than other metals, which is essential for a quality product.  The last reason was that it produced higher quality results.  Although the medieval sugar masters likely had no idea of exactly why copper worked better than other metals, copper naturally reacts with sugar, helping to prevent it from re-crystallizing.  Copper is used in modern mundane candy making and cooking for the same reason.  Chemically, contact with copper causes some of the sucrose molecules to break down, or invert, into two simple sugars, fructose and dextrose.  These simpler sugars crystallize more slowly than the larger sucrose, allowing more water to be boiled off before the mixture solidifies.  Modern sugar refineries no longer use copper, but add inverted sugar to cause a similar effect.


The Molds and Pots


      The keys to the drying or evaporation phase in sugar refining are the sugar molds and their respective molasses pots (figure 7).  Various reports throughout the middle ages indicate that these molds were made from either earthenware, reeds, twigs or some similar material. All archaeological evidence points to the extensive use of fired clay pottery, however, reed or twig molds may have been used, but would not have survived the centuries.  Fortunately, thousands of these ceramic sugar molds and molasses pots have been recovered from various digs through Cyprus.  


Figure 7: Samples of sugar molds and molasses pots [22]


As mentioned above, Burchard of Mount Sion clearly indicated that the boiled sugar was poured into “baskets made of slender twigs.”  Our Arabian source, al-Nuwairi, points out that the pressed cane pulp was collected in “baskets made of rushes with slits on the sides and at the bottom” prior to crushing, but then the boiled juice was poured into “moulds of earthenware, which are narrow below and wide above.”  Thankfully, Al-Nuwairi elaborates on these molds further,


“…In the bottoms are holes, which are plugged with pieces of sugar cane for the first phase of the evaporation process.  These moulds are placed on top of other vessels, into which in an advanced stage flows the syrup which is separated in fine drops, while after some time the crystalline sugar, formed to a loaf, can be removed from the moulds.”


By looking at the cross section of the molds and pots, the holes in the bottom of the molds can be seen (figure 8).  Without Al-Nuwairi’s description of the sugar cane plug, however, it may have been more difficult to determine the exact usage of the pottery molds.  



Figure 8: Cross section of the recovered sugar molds and molasses pots [23]


Put all of these elements together, and you have a fully functional, commercial scale, high quality sugar refining plant.  Economically, these facilities were a major source of income throughout the 13th-16th centuries.  


Medieval Sugar Description


After examining all of the above information, there is still uncertainty about what the produced sugar actually looked like.  Those who used it, bought it and sold it provide hints to answer this question, but unfortunately their descriptions are sometimes found only in comparisons to other medieval items.  Many medieval descriptions describe sugar as “hard, white as salt, and brittle.” [24]  This provides a color reference only if the exact color of medieval salt is known.  If the salt available to the author of this description had impurities or discolorations, it may not draw the same comparison to modern purified salt.  According to Lopez and Raymond, the author of the 1458 Italian "Book of the Wares and Usages of Diverse Countries,"


"Rock Candy ought to be white, glistening, coarse, dry, and clean. Loaf sugar ought to be white, dry, and a well compact paste, and its powder ought to be large and granulated.” [25]


If these descriptions are combined with the scores of medieval culinary and medicinal recipes using “white,” “powdered” or “fine” sugar” [26], a clearer expectation of the visual properties of medieval sugar can be formed.


“Thrice-boiled” Sugar


Locating a medieval description of the process that leads to “thrice-boiled” sugar has been difficult.  As it was a major factor in Cyprus’ “corner” on the sugar market, the exact process may have been passed orally from generation to generation, reducing the possibility of the secrets being stolen and copied.  Therefore it became necessary to examine post medieval sugar making techniques, where documentation is often much more detailed.  As explained by modern Food and Agricultural Industry standards, data provided from the Environmental Protection Agency and other industry sources on sugarcane processing, when the crystallized sugar has been separated from the molasses, the molasses syrup is added back to the pan.  This “first molasses” is boiled to extract a second set of sugar crystals, the additional sugar that would not crystallize initially.  After this second set of crystals is extracted, this remaining syrup, the “second molasses,” is again re-boiled. The third and final set of crystals is then removed, and the remaining syrup, a heavy viscous material known as blackstrap molasses, is removed and apparently used as a supplement in cattle feed. [27]  


If this concept is applied to the medieval process, and the sugar mold and molasses pot quantities and sizes are examined, several correlations can be made.  Out of the several thousand sugar molds (and corresponding molasses pots) found in the sugar mill ruins of Kouklia-Stavros and Episkopi, the largest number of molds were of the “tall” variety.  Dr. von Wartburg suggests that these numbers show crystal sugar (the lowest quality) as substantially more important to the economy of Cyprus than the higher quality loaf sugar or the superior quality “Caffettino” sugar [28].  Examination of these mold quantities from another angle reveals that perhaps this multiple crystallization/re-boiling process was performed on Cyprus to make the various quality sugars.  It would stand to reason that the first crystallization/molasses extraction be performed in the larger molds.  The smaller volume of the resulting first molasses would have been more suited for slightly smaller molds and molasses pots for its post boil, crystal extraction phase.  Continuing this process for the third extraction, or “thrice-boiled” sugar would produce such a low volume that the smallest molds would have been used.

This is only speculation, but no other documented explanations have been found that demonstrate why there would consistently be three different sizes of molds.  It is possible that Pegolotti adds more to his description of the various “grades” of sugar.  This possibility will be investigated when a copy of La Practica della Mercatura can be obtained and translated.


The Recreated Process – Preparation


The process seems simple, cut the cane, press it, boil the juice and let it crystallize in the mold.  However, after finding all of the above information, not having access to a sugar mill throws a small wrench in the works, so to speak.  


      The first step in the recreation process involved procuring the necessary equipment.  I was able to order an all-copper sugar pan from a cooking supply store.  After contacting companies, State Farm Bureaus and Sugar Cane associations in Florida, Louisiana and Texas with no luck, it was through a very resourceful friend that I was able to purchase large amounts of raw sugar cane.  The cane lengths, about 4-5 feet in length, were cut into pieces about 10 inches long.  These pieces were then frozen for storage until the equipment and space was available.   The last item I needed was the sugar molds and molasses pots.  This item shows up on the list last because it took the longest to find.  After multiple inquiries, I was able to find a potter in the Midrealm to reproduce the molds and pots, based on photographs and period descriptions.  Not having access to the actual physical molds, I was able to get detailed descriptions via email from Dr. von Wartburg. Dr. von Wartburg indicates,


“Moulds and pots, used in the refining process, were always made of clay, fired medium hard and not glazed, in their consistency comparable to tiles or Medieval cooking vessels.” [29]


This additional information proved crucial in getting the reproduced molds and pots as accurate as possible.  


      Once the equipment and cane were obtained, a heat source needed to be chosen.  I decided to use a propane turkey burner, since the boiling process would be long and the temperature would need various adjustments toward the end of the process.  




I did not have access to efficient crushing/juicing equipment, so I chose an alternative method.  The frozen cane pieces were removed from the freezer and allowed to thaw in several gallons of boiling water.  This would produce three results.  First, it would allow the cane thaw quickly to reduce the possibility of spoilage.  Second, going from frozen to thaw quickly would hopefully help split the cane, making it easier to crush.  Third, it would allow the water to extract some of the sugars from the cane prior to crushing.  This last part is essential to mimicking the free flowing juice that would be present in freshly cut cane.  Since the cane I was using had been cut several weeks earlier, it had dried some.  When the cane/water had cooled enough to handle comfortably, the individual pieces of cane were split and quartered, lengthwise, the inner flesh was stripped and returned to the liquid, and the cane husk was discarded.  The cane flesh was then added to a large pots and it was crushed with a hammer and a rolling pin, and twisted by hand in an attempt to extract the sugar.  This proved very difficult, time consuming and inefficient, and the lack of productive results encouraged me to add the flesh back into the liquid.  The entire mixture was boiled for several hours during which time the cane flesh lost much of its yellow color.  The cane pieces were extracted and drained, and the flesh was then discarded.  The liquid continued to boil for several more hours, gradually turning from a light yellow/white to a light brown color.  At this point, the boiling juice was transferred from the large aluminum pot in which it began to the all-copper sugar pan, and returned to the heat.  During the boiling process, a dirty white foam would rise to the surface of the boiling liquid containing reed fibers, pieces of husk and other impurities.  Each time this happened, the foam would be collected and discarded.  This action is not noted anywhere in my research, however, there are similar instructions to skimming foam and impurities from boiling honey throughout brewing history.  Since both items demanded quality, and both were to be consumed, I associated the two and removed the foam.  The boiling continued for a couple more hours and as the volume decreased, I lowered the temperature of flame, to reduce the risk of scorching.  Again, there is no documentation for this action, however, the workers in the stoke rooms would have easily been able to adjust the fire intensity as the process continued, specifically for this purpose.  As spilling some of the juice into the flame demonstrates, it only takes a little too much heat to scorch or burn the sugar.


      The boiling continued until the sugar syrup reached the consistency of fresh honey or light pancake syrup.  During this time, I washed and dried the sugar olds and molasses pots.  At this time I also carved sugar cane plugs for the molds and inserted them according to Al-Nuwairi’s instructions.  The molds were placed in their molasses pots and the sugar syrup, at about 220° F, was poured into the molds. The molds were set aside to cool.


      One of the molds started draining properly, slow and steady, drop-by-drop.  Apparently the plug I had carved for the second one didn’t fit tight enough.  The second mold drained into the pot almost completely within about ½ hour, leaving sugar, pieces of reed, and other miscellaneous impurities in the mold.  These impurities were removed from the mold and the mold was cleaned again.  I carved a new sugar cane plug, more carefully this time, the mold and pot combination was reassembled, and the liquid was poured back into the mold.


      In my caution not to over heat the sugar syrup, I neglected to boil it long enough.  After a few days in the molds, the sugar had not started to crystallize.  I took the contents of both molds and pots, and added it back into the copper sugar pan to re-boil.  I boiled the syrup over a low flame for about another hour and a half.  As the syrup continued to boil, hardened sugar began to form on the walls of the pan near the top.   The temperature of the boiling liquid at this point was 235° F.  When I noticed the sugar on the sides of the pot, I ensured that the cane plugs were tightly secured in the molds and poured in the sugar syrup again.


      Within an hour, the syrup in the molds had started to solidify.  By day four, it had become mostly solid, although still not dry.  By the eighth day of drying, the cone could be removed from the mold.   The cone was very dark, hard and solid.  Attempts to break pieces off by hand were unsuccessful, so I used a wood rasp and proceeded to shave some bits off.  The crystalline structure of the sugar was obvious, that is until I ground it fine in a mortar.  The sugar tastes very sweet, much like modern mundane sugar, but with the distinctly vegetal/woody characteristic that is found in modern molasses.  


Deviations and Compensations


There are several blatant deviations from the actual documented period descriptions in the process described above.  I will attempt to address them, and what effect they had on the results.  


According to the period descriptions, the cane was crushed and pressed to remove the cane juice.  Crushing and pressing the cane in this manner requires at least a single grinding wheel and at most a series of varying grinding and pressing mechanisms.  I did not have access to such equipment, nor was it feasible at this point to make comparable equipment.  I therefore chose to soak the cane in boiling water, slice and strip the cane, and squeeze as much juice out of the reeds as possible.  The results of this process modification are substantial, but only in the volume of sugar refined. The soaking, slicing and squeezing process simply could not extract as much sugar from the cane, as the original processes would have.  As a result, I expected a substantially lower yield.  According to modern calculations in sugar production, approximately 3 – 3 ½ pounds of sugar can be extracted from 30 pounds of fresh cane.  In this recreation, I was able to produce slightly more than 1 pound of sugar.  


      The research clearly indicates that the cane juice was boiled in copper cauldrons for the entire boiling process.  The largest copper pan I was able to afford holds a maximum volume of 3 ½ quarts.  This created a problem, since I was extracting the sugar from the cane via soaking, there was an initial volume of significantly more than 3 ½ quarts.  To find a vessel large enough to boil this amount of liquid, I was forced to turn to a 7-gallon aluminum brewing pot.  This pot allowed me to boil the liquid and reduce it to a much smaller volume such that it would fit in the copper.  Since there was no chance that the sugar solution would become anywhere near saturated while in the aluminum, there was no chance of scorching.  I believe that this alteration had no negative effects on the production.


      My initial thought process for a heat source was to use an open fire.  However, there are several reasons touched on in the document above that made this choice inferior.  To reproduce the effects of the limestone double hearth design and the separate boiling and stoking rooms, it was determined that a much cleaner and more controllable heat source would be necessary.  Using an open fire would have added several discrepancies to the results.  First, the fire I would have had to build would have required a significant supply of specific wood, as it would have had to burn at a steady rate for at least 6 hours.  Although the type of wood used in the fires is not documented, the forests on the island of Cyprus consist of oak, juniper, olive, cypress, and various types of pine.  According to National Geographic, some of the types of vegetation on the island are not found anywhere else on Earth.  This would have introduced additional unknowns into the process.  Second, using an open fire without the controlled physical separation provided by the sugar mill walls would have exposed the boiling sugar solution to more ash and other burned wood byproducts than would have occurred in the actual process.  This would skew the final results in regards to appearance and taste.  Finally, an open fire would have required constant maintenance and tending during the boiling process, which, as an inexperienced sugar-mill-stoke-room fire tender, I would not have performed adequately.   These mills operated incredibly effectively and efficiently for such a long time, the workers in the stoke rooms, or at least those in charge of the stoke rooms, would have be exceptionally proficient.  Improper fire control would surely be an easy way to damage the sugar produced.  All of these concerns led to the choice of clean, manageable propane as a heat source.  This choice actually provided results more consistent with the actual historical process than a wood fire would have.


Differences Between Produced Loaves


As mentioned above, it is unlikely that the variations in crushing technique, initial boiling vessel and heat source had any altering effects on the physical properties of the refined sugar produced.  With that said, however, there are several differences between the first sugar cone I created and subsequent loaves.  It should be noted that, for this discussion, the terms sugar cone and sugar loaf can be used interchangeably.  The first cone was very small, dried relatively quickly and ended up being very hard.  The loaves produced since then have been much larger, softer and almost paste like, taking much longer to fully dry.  The taste of both the larger loafsugar and the earlier sugar is comparable, and all have a significant molasses flavor.


The differences between the initial, harder sugar cone and the subsequent softer cones may be entirely due to the difference in size.  Because my initial cone had less sugar for the molasses to filter through, the extra water present evaporated quickly and the small cone dried rapidly.  The larger subsequent cones have yet to dry completely, so they may very well result in similar, much more solid loaves.  In addition to the greater quantity of molasses present in the mold, and the time it takes for gravity to filter the liquid through the sugar, the variances in drying time could also be caused by a number of other things.  Potential contributors range from ambient temperature, humidity and sunlight exposure; to the final boiling temperature and length of boil time; to overly snug fitting mold plugs.  


Overly tight or improperly cut sugar mold plugs can cause dramatic changes in the drying process.  A plug that is too loose will allow much of the sugar to flow into the molasses pot, leaving little to form the actual cone.  A plug that is cut incorrectly or made from a piece of poor quality cane may slow down the draining process, or halt it entirely.  If the molasses is not permitted to drain properly into the pot, the sugar would dry much more slowly.  If enough molasses remains in the cone, the cone simply may not dry completely on its own.  Unfortunately, no specific details or directions on the construction of the sugar plugs have been found.  


It is also possible that tightly fitting plugs helped enhance a potential flaw in my directions used to recreate the sugar molds.  The holes in the bottom of my sugar molds are fairly small, forcing the cane plug to be narrow at the bottom and clog fairly quickly.  If these holes were expanded to just below the diameter of a piece of mature sugar cane, the molasses may be able to drain through the plug at a faster rate, allowing the cone to dry quicker.  


Additional sugar molds with larger holes are being commissioned in an attempt to determine what effect the narrow holes and small cane plugs have on evaporation time and molasses content.  Further experimentation will be necessary to produce consistent results and to determine the various effects of drying time.  




Examination of the Cypriot sugar mills and the sugar refining process shows a much more advanced display of manufacturing technology and industrial proficiency than might be expected.  The similarities between the three mills on Cyprus are incredible, considering that they were built at different times for different people.  Still, engineering innovations and technological skill are not uncommon for the area, as knowledge flowed relatively freely between southern Europe and the Middle East during this time period.  


      The sugar produced as a result of this research is a little different from what I had anticipated.  The color is darker than expected, not nearly as “white as salt.”  Perhaps there are additional post-refinement processes that have not been explicitly detailed, or perhaps the additional steps are performed elsewhere, like in a kitchen.  Aside from the color difference, the texture and taste are similar to what was expected.  The sugar is sweet, with a dark molasses flavor.  There exist additional medieval processes to further clarify the sugar.  These processes may remove some of the color and molasses flavor from the sugar; however, it was not possible to explore these processes at this time.  They will, nevertheless, be the subjects of future research on this topic.  


Additionally, the color and crystalline structure is similar to that of commercially available “Sugar in the Raw,” but with a more vegetal, molasses taste.  Based on these results, a combination of 1 part light molasses to 15 parts “Sugar in the Raw” added to a period potable, medicinal or drink, mimics this refined sugar closely.  An approximation using modern white sugar would be 1 part light molasses to about 8 parts white sugar.


This entire process has taught me a great many things to which I may not have been otherwise exposed.  It has required me to investigate medieval pottery making, engineering and cooking, but most of all; it has dramatically increased my appreciation for sugar and those who made it.


Appendix: Process Photographs




Figure 9: Equipment and supplies.  Clockwise: Staves of sugarcane, cut sugar cane pieces, sugar molds and molasses pots, copper sugar boiling pan





Figure   10: Cut and quartered sugarcane



Figure   11: Sugar molds and molasses pots




Figure 12: Boiled sugarcane shavings


Figure 13: Boiling the sugar syrup in copper


Figure 14: Sugar mold with sugarcane plug inserted


Figure 15: Sugar molds filled with boiled sugar syrup

Acknowledgements of Assistance

I want to sincerely thank Dr. Marie-Louise von Wartburg of the University of Zurich for her willingness take the time to answer my questions via email, and for providing me with offprints of journal articles, presentations and other resources from her archaeological digs that were otherwise unavailable to me; Olga, from Ash and Griffon Pottery, for reproducing the sugar molds and molasses pots based on the photographs and descriptions provided; the Republic of Cyprus Press and Information Office for its assistance in providing contact information; and my proofreaders.  In addition, I would like to offer a special note of thanks to Aesa for her resourcefulness and perseverance, without which the actual production phase of this research would have likely not been possible.




Best, Michael R., eds. Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife.  McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986.


Digby, Sir Kenelme.  The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened.  London:  H. Brome, 1669


Environmental Protection Agency.  “AP-42, CH Sugarcane Processing.” Technology Transfer Network Clearinghouse for Inventories & Emissions Factors


"Excavations - Medieval sugar mill." Cyprus News Agency.  Feb 25 1999


Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium.  “Sawmills and Logging Railroads.” Accessed May 2005


Getz, Faye Marie, eds.  Healing and Society in Medieval England, A Middle English Translation of the Pharmaceutical Writings of Gilbertus Anglicus.  Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press. 1991


Herscher, Ellen.  "Archaeology in Cyprus."  American Journal of Archaeology April (1998) 102-2: 309-354


Herscher, Ellen.  "Archaeology in Cyprus."  American Journal of Archaeology April (1995) 99-2: 257-294


Hieatt, Constance B.;Butler, Sharon, eds.  Curye on Inglysch - Early English Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century.  New York / London: Oxford University Press, 1985


Hodges, Henry. Technology in the Ancient World. New York: Alfred A Knopf 1970


Ieronymidou, Marina Solomidou.  "Sugar in the Middle Ages."  Government of Cyprus website.;languageNo=1#Part2


Lopez, R. S.; Raymond, I. W.  Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World. New York: Columbia University Press. 1955


Mas Latrie, Louis de. Histoire de L'Ēle de Chypre sous le RŹgne des Princes de la Maison de Lusignan. Paris: Impr. impériale, 1861


Mas Latrie, Louis de.  Nouvelles preuves de l'histoire de Chypre sous le rŹgne des princes de la maison de Lusignan. Paris: J. Baur et Détaille, 1873


Mintz, Sidney W.  Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History.  New York: Viking/Penguin, 1985.


Newett, Mary Margret, trans.  Canon Pietro Casola's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Year 1494.   Manchester: The University Press, 1907

Nutter, Terry J.  "Archived email in Sugar-msg." Stefan's Florilegium.  Accessed October 2004


Pichon, Jérome eds.  Le Menagier de Paris. Janet Hinson, trans. March 2005


Plat, Sir Hugh.  Delightes for Ladies. London, 1602.  Reprinted with an introduction by G.E. ad K.R. Fussell. London: Crosby, Lockwood and Son, 1948.


Spencer, Judith, trans.  The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti (a translation of the 14th century Latin manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis in Medicina). New York: Facts on File Publications, 1984


Stewart, Aubrey.  The Library of the Palestine Pilgrim’s Text Society, Volume 12. New York: AMS Press, 1971


von Wartburg, Marie-Louise.  Interview via email.  August 2004


von Wartburg, Marie-Louise.  “The Medieval Cane Sugar Industry in Cyprus: Results of Recent Excavation.”  The Antiquities Journal Vol 63 part II (1983)


von Wartburg, Marie-Louise.  “Archaeology of Cane Sugar Production: A Survey of Twenty Years of Research in Cyprus.”  The Antiquities Journal vol 81 (2001)


von Wartburg, Marie-Louise; Maier, F. G.  “Excavations at Kouklia (Palaepaphos).  16th Preliminary Report.  Seasons 1989 and 1990.” Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus, 1991


White, Edward.  The Widowes Treasure, plentifully furnished with sundry precious and aprooued secrets in Physicke, and Chirurgery for the health and pleasure of mankind.  London: Edward Alde.  1588


Zacour, N. P.; Hazard, H. W. eds.  A History of the Crusades, Volume V: The impact of the Crusades on the Near East.  Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985


End Notes


1.      Mintz, p28

2.     Curye on Inglysch: Book V-Gode Kookery: recipe 11, p150

3.     According to J. Terry Nutter in an email from 1995 archived in Stefan's Florilegium, “out of 447 recipes from the 13th and 14th C in England, sugar appears in 155 (31%)... Likewise, out of  205 recipes from the 15th C, sugar appears in 86 (42%)…(The sample from the 13th and 14th C is very nearly all the recipes available; the sample from the 15th is much smaller relative to its population, as well as in absolute numbers, but seems to be reasonably representative.)”  This was verified partially by myself much more recently, however, the precise numbers are not as necessary as the fact that there are scores of these extant recipes. Additionally, Gilbertus Anglicus, a 13th century English physician lists sugar over 40 times in his Compendium Medicinae written around 1250.  Further, Hugh Plat, Sir Kenelm Digby and Gervase Markham all make abundant reference to the use of sugar in various recipes

4.     Stewart, p99-100

5.     von Wartburg, Antiquities Journal, vol 81, 2001, p316.  Dr. Marie-Louise von Wartburg, from the University of Zurich, wrote multiple journal articles covering her 20+ year archaeological study of the ruins at the medieval sugar mills at Kolossi, Kouklia and Episkopi.

6.     von Wartburg, Antiquities Journal, vol 63 part 2, 1983, p299

7.     Newett, chapter 9

8.     von Wartburg, Antiquities Journal, vol 63 part 2, 1983, p311

9.     Mas Latrie, Histoire, III, 88 and note, 219

10.   von Wartburg, Antiquities Journal, vol 63 part 2, 1983, p311

11.    von Wartburg, Antiquities Journal, vol 81, 2001, p306

12.   Herscher, Ellen, 1998; Marina Ieronymidou of the Cyprus Archaeological Museum, online article

13.   Herscher, Ellen, 1998; Cyprus News Agency: News in English (AM), 02/25/1999

14.   Drawing by Dr. Marie-Louise von Wartburg (von Wartburg 2001, 309) showing the working units of the production complex at Kouklia-Stavros.

15.   von Wartburg, Antiquities Journal, vol 63 part 2, 1983, p307

16.   Drawing provided by The Fairbanks Museum, in their “Sawmills and Logging Railroads” article. Added here to demonstrate the basic function of a horizontal waterwheel.  This is a “bird’s eye” view, looking down from above the wheel.

17.   Details about basic waterwheel technology are the resultant compilation of information from a variety of sources including Hodges' Technology in the Ancient World, various encyclopedias and the Fairbanks Museum article entitled “Sawmills and Logging Railroads.

18.   Drawing provided by The Fairbanks Museum, in their “Sawmills and Logging Railroads” article.  Added here to demonstrate the basic function of an overshot waterwheel.

19.   As provided by Dr. von Wartburg (2001 page 319), this drawing by Francesco di Giorgo (c. 1480) is an edge-runner mill: project drawing reproduced from P.C. Marani, Trattato di architettura di Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Florence, 1979, fol 33v.

20.  Image provided in von Wartburg (2001 page 320).  Photograph reproduced from J Turriano, Los veinte y un libros de los yngenios y maquinas, vol. 3, 335v

21.   Photograph of the boiling installations and stoke rooms taken by Dr. von Wartburg at Kouklia-Stavros.  The remains of the hearths upon which the copper kettles were heated can be seen running along the right side of the south wall. The stoke rooms can be identified along the left side of the wall.

22.  Photograph of sugar molds and molasses pots retrieved from Kouklia-Stavros.  Photograph by Dr. von Wartburg.  According to Dr. von Wartburg in an email interview, these molds and pots “[as] used in the refining process, were always made of clay, fired medium hard and not glazed, in their consistency comparable to tiles or Medieval cooking vessels.” It is from this description and from figures 7 and 8 that the molds and pots were recreated.

23.  This cross section drawing of the largest type of sugar mold found at Kouklia-Stavros shows the funnel-like opening at the bottom, which would need to be plugged with sugar cane. von Wartburg 1983, 311.

24.  From the 14th century Latin manuscript “Tacuinum Sanitatis in Medicina”, reproduced in Judith Spencer’s The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti.  This illuminated work is attributed to the teachings of Ellbochasm de Baldach and other medieval alchemists from the 11th century.

25.  Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World by R. S. Lopez and I. W. Raymond includes the text of “The Book of the Wares and Usages of Diverse Countries” among other medieval trade and commerce documents

26.  Various recipes from Curye on Inglysch; Edward White’s The Widowes Treasure; Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium Medicinae

27.  EPA, AP-42, CH Sugarcane Processing, part the EPA’s Technology Transfer Network Clearinghouse for Inventories & Emissions Factors

28.  von Wartburg, Antiquities Journal, vol 63 part 2, 1983, p311

29.  von Wartburg, email interview, August 2004  



Copyright 2005 by Marc Johnson. <Gavan at>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at