In Europe: a Spice and Medicine

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Western Europeans first encountered sugar during their Crusades to the Holy Land in the 11th century. Shortly thereafter Venice became the hub of the sugar trade from Arab countries to the West, and the first large shipment to England that we know of came in 1319. At first, Europeans treated sugar the way they treated pepper, ginger, and other exotic imports, as a flavoring and a medicine. In medieval Europe, sugar was used in two general sorts of preparations: preserved fruits and flowers, and small medicinal morsels. Sweets, or candy, began not as little entertaining treats but as “confections” (from the Latin conficere, “to put together,” “to prepare”) composed by the apothecaries, or druggists, to balance the body’s principles. Sugar served several medicinal purposes. Its sweetness covered the bitterness of some drugs and made all preparations more pleasant. Its meltability and stickiness made it a good vehicle for mixing and carrying other ingredients. The solidity of a fused mass of sugar meant that it could release its medicine slowly and gradually. And its own supposed effect on the body—encouraging both heat and moisture—was thought to balance the effects of other foods and enhance the digestive process. A number of soothing medicinal sweets remain popular to this day, including lozenges, pastilles, and comfits.