Sugar cane

"reeds that produce honey without bees"

Yesterday we journeyed to the beautiful Mossman Gorge in the Daintree. As any of you have been to Queensland will know the main road going north is lined by sugar cane fields and above is a not terribly good photo that I snapped from the car as we sped along. Anyway I'm a bit bereft of inspiration at the moment - sinking into holiday stupor - so I thought I would investigate sugar cane.

Nobody seems to know where that phrase at the top of the page comes from for sure - Darius of Persia, one of Alexander's generals, the Greeks ...? Ancient anyway, but not as ancient as its real beginnings.

Wikipedia seems to think - in quite a lot of detail - that it was originally cultivated in two places from two different varieties of sugar cane. The first - in prehistoric times in Papua New Guinea and the second a little later in Taiwan and southern China. So when asked by my granddaughter where it was native to, and I guessed south East Asia (because it looked a bit like bamboo to me) I can now pat myself on the back and say that I was right. It was cultivated by the Austronesian peoples of south east Asia and Papua New Guinea.

Now I had never heard the term Austronesian before but apparently it refers to a range of ethnic groups in the south East Asian area, moving into the South Pacific as far as New Zealand. I am assuming they are not the same as the Polynesians or Micronesians, and certainly not the Australian Aborigines. They seem to have been seafarers and were sailing boats with sails well before the change from BC to AD - thousands of years before. And they went a long way, and so why didn't they come to Australia? I'm guessing they may well have got to the Torres Strait Islands as I think that the Torres Strait Islanders are not quite the same as Australian Aborigines? Forgive my total ignorance if I have got this wrong. I guess the other question that niggles is why did the Australian Aborigines never become big sailors? Another time perhaps.

Back to sugar cane. Initially it was just grown as food for pigs, not as a crop for human consumption, although surely they would have sucked on the juice. They probably used it for things like thatching roofs and making baskets as well - and yes it is a kind of grass and has become very hybridised to the extent that it is now:

"one of the most complex plant genomes known". Wikipedia

Via the Austronesians it travelled to China proper and thence to India where it was first crystallised. Then the Persians discovered it as they conquered India, and from there to Europe and so on. We all know its early dreadful history whereby the various colonial powers realised its value - everyone loves sugar - and grew it in various suitable parts of their far-flung empires with slaves from Africa mostly providing the labour.

"France found its sugarcane islands so valuable that it effectively traded its portion of Canada, famously dismissed by Voltaire as "a few acres of snow", to Britain for their return of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Lucia at the end of the Seven Years' War. The Dutch similarly kept Suriname, a sugar colony in South America, instead of seeking the return of the New Netherlands (New York)."

And so yet again the political makeup of the world changed because of food. How different would it have been if those changes had not happened. There is perhaps a good novel or two there.

Queensland also has a dark history as regards the growing of sugar, as we now all know and not just because of the 'blackbirding' which occurred in the late 19th early 20th centuries. Kanaks from various South Pacific Islands were induced by bribery - with the bribes never actually materialising - or simply abducted to work in the new Northern Queensland cane fields. When eventually most of them were returned to their original homes (maybe a generation too late) it was not out of kindness but because of the white Australia policy. Nevertheless about a third of them remained here.

Then there were the Italians whom I learnt about in my A-level Geography classes. An Italian from Piedmont, who had lived in Australia set up a migration scheme for northern Italians to come and work in the cane fields. Some of them went back home, some left the cane fields and found better work or purchased farms of their own and although some were interred during WW2 they remain a vibrant and early contributing group to Australia's multicultural society. Yes the Italian food revolution started up there in Queensland, not in the post war migration of mostly southern Italians to Australia.

Nowadays of course the cane is harvested by machines, taken by small trains along the railway tracks shown in the foreground of my photograph at the top of the page and milled in a nearby town - such as Mossman.

Which brings me to this slightly alarming fact that I also found in Wikipedia:

"Grown in tropical and subtropical regions, sugarcane is the world's largest crop by production quantity, totalling 1.9 billion tonnes in 2020, with Brazil accounting for 40% of the world total. Sugarcane accounts for 79% of sugar produced globally (most of the rest is made from sugar beet)"

Well then you see that it is becoming increasingly important for its ethanol product. A bio fuel and now used for bio plastics. Now I have no doubt that there are many issues with this as well, not to mention all the environmental problems with sugar. It uses a lot of water for starters - which is why it is grown in the tropics I guess. Here in Australia there are problems with runoff and the Barrier Reef and I have no doubt there are other problems too.

But it does seem that almost all of the plant can be used - there is very little wastage - animal fodder, garden mulch, paper, bio-hydrocarbons, all these and more are products made from sugar cane.

As for actual sugary products - well an increasing number of less refined sugars such as muscovado and Demerara - luxury products. Molasses and Golden Syrup are also sugar. Jaggery too - but not palm sugar, that is indeed made from a kind of palm tree. Rum is made from sugar.

"A mature stalk is typically composed of 11–16% fiber, 12–16% soluble sugars, 2–3% non sugar carbohydrates, and 63–73% water."

Then there's sugar juice which is made by crushing the stalks and then filtering it. You can make your own if you have access to sugar cane. Now the health foodies will tell you that this stuff is magical and prevents all sorts of things including diabetes (very odd) and cancer and that it contains lots of those magical vitamins and minerals. I suspect it just tastes nice.

I tried to find recipes that used sugar cane juice but honestly could find nothing other than one lady who suggested adding some to a lemony chicken saute a little before serving. I would have thought various cocktails would have been devised by now and you would have thought that here in Queensland it would show up frequently in cocktails and ice creams but no. Come on trendy foodies surely you can think of something.

It's our last meal out tonight so I shall be looking for signs of that sugar cane juice or some of those more exotic tropical fruits. However, it's just the Yacht Club which I don't think is going to be the height of trendiness.


Recent Posts

See All