Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Sugary milky sweetness, that first delicious taste, imprints itself on a baby’s tiny tongue, and seals forever a great love. From the very beginning of life, then, a yearning for that nectar haunts us forever and never leaves us in peace.

This primal urge for sweetness led to the scourge of slavery and fuels the modern obesity epidemic.

Imagine, for a moment, vast fields of sugar cane, saber-sharp green blades swaying under gentle tropical breezes, fed by the merciless sun and watered by torrential rains. Visualize men and women gripping machetes, hacking at tough stalks, sweat rolling down their necks and arms and burning their eyes with the saltiness of it.

Sweetness links directly to sweat, yes.

Thanks to the perspiring backs of lowly laborers, mostly African slaves, sweetness arrived on European and American tables. Without that sweat, the glorious cakes and fancy sugar art of the classical French kitchen might never have evolved as they did, nor the tea cakes of Britain or the gooey chess pies of American cooks.

When I decided to bake the Green-Grape Tart from Paula Wolfert’s The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook  (2003), for the first time, I truly understood just why sugar cane revolutionized the European kitchen. Honey really didn’t sweeten everything before the arrival of cane sugar in Europe. And I saw clearly why cooks preferred to work with cane sugar in their kitchens, no matter where those kitchens might have been.

It’s one thing to read about foods like grape-sugar syrup, commonly used as a sweetener in Roman and medieval European cuisine, and another thing to actually get down and dirty by making some.

I started with two pounds of plump green grapes, their firm skins a pleasure to touch as I plucked each one off their shriveled stems. Unlike my medieval predecessors, I simply whirled them in my Cuisinart food processor and turned them into a sort of pulpy green grape juice. Curious, I poured a few tablespoons into a small wine glass and sipped. The taste reminded me of some slightly fermented new wine I drank once in October in Burgundy, France. I spent about 10 minutes with this step.

The next step demanded a little more elbow grease. I poured the mixture into my chinoise or French cone-shaped sieve. I pressed the wooden pestle hard against the fine mesh of the sieve and watched the light green and foamy juice oozing out, into a shallow saucepan. That step took about 15 minutes to complete.

Boiling down the juice over medium heat came next. As the liquid evaporated, and I stirred madly with a wooden spoon, I noticed that the beautiful light green color changed to a rather unattractive brownish hue, close to that of mud. Aiming for the 1/3 cup recommended in the recipe, I feared that the sugars would caramelize before I got the volume down. Some caramelization occurred, but not enough to seize uncontrollably when I added the sugary syrup to the eggs and milk. This step took about 30 minutes.

Basically a custardy version of clafoutis, the tart came out tasting slightly, but pleasantly, sweet, unlike most American desserts, which often cause excruciating tooth pain because of excessive sugar.

Sitting in my kitchen, eating a piece of this tart, I savored the fresh taste, but I also know that I much prefer dipping a measuring cup into my sugar canister over spending about an hour making the grape-sugar syrup.

But I would make grape-sugar syrup again, because there’s something about following these old culinary processes that – crazy as it sounds – calls up visions of cooks from the past, creating miracles from the bounty of the earth. There’s something comforting in that, you know. Not quite mother’s milk perhaps, but close.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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I am a cook who loves to write. And I am a writer who loves to cook.

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