Hearing with the Mouth

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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How did such sweet words taste to Christians in Roman Palestine and the growing diaspora? The biblical land “flowing with milk and honey”—the favored description of the fertile promised land of Canaan in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—actually flowed with dvash in Hebrew (dibs in Arabic), translated as méli in the Greek Septuagint and New Testament, a term having the same broad meaning. These sweet, thick substances (“sticky” is the root meaning of dvash) included fruit syrups made from figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and carob pods, as well as wild and domesticated honey. See dates and honey. The common feature of these early honeys—and the syrups, cordials, jams, pastes, compotes, and comfits made from them—is the intensity of their sweetness, the result of time- and labor-intensive practices we still celebrate in bees and in the occupational language and practices of confectioners: chopping, boiling, straining, concentrating, and compounding. Sugarcane, introduced from India, was grown in the seventh and eighth centuries c.e., but did not become a significant cash crop until the tenth century. See sugarcane.