Clarifying Sugar after Walter Ryff

I am back from my holidays and can get to translating again. Today’s recipe is a longer one, a description of sugar and how to clarify it from Walter Ryff‘s 1544 Confect Buch:

Confectioner, Nuremberg c. 1600, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Sugar is also a very lovely and pleasing plant and a peculiar kind of a miraculously growing honey, namely, the juice or marrow of a reed plant of great sweetness (though honey is said to exceed it in sweetness). It was first brought to us from Arabia and India, but these days also grows commonly in many islands such as Rhodes, Cyprus, the Canary and Fortunate Islands and many other places including (as I have reported) in Italy. Such pleasant, sweet juice of sugar is said to have been entirely unknown to the ancient physicians Dioscurides, Galen, Paul and others and was a new discovery of the Arab physicians. From them, it gained such a reputation and general usage that it did not stay confined to the pharmacy for medicines, but was especially passed on to cooks in the kitchen and is used in all kinds of dishes and especially in foreign beverages which court taste by being mixed in the most indulgent fashion. Thus arose the saying: Sugar spoils no dish.

The manner of the plant that produces this lovely sweet juice is, as stated above, a kind of reed from which the juice is taken and boiled and clarified many times so that it turns snow white. Inn the end, it is poured into great ‘hats’ (cones) which are then brought to us.

Sugar is of cold and moist nature in the first degree. It purges, loosens and diffuses as was said of honey (above), except that it does not raise a thirst as it is the way of honey. The stomach also does not develop an itching or burning (heartburn) from it as it does with honey. It stills and softens the belly and serves the chest and lungs as much as the bladder and kidney. The older the sugar is, the better it becomes in warmth, fineness and subtlety, but it becomes damaging to the head.

When sugar is dissolved in water and boiled, it receives coldness and is gentled in its heat. That is why it can always be given with convenient moist and useful waters (distilled herbal waters) when it is provided as medicine, especially in confits (Confecttäfelin) so that it receives their virtues and powers.

The smoke of sugar burned on glowing coals and taken in by the nose stills the powerful flows of the head. That is why sugar is also useful in medicinal incenses (Rauchkärtzlin) and pastilles which are produced for their pleasing scent.

To Clarify Sugar

Sugar should be cleaned to the best and finest whenever it is used. In apothecaries’ shops, this is called clarifying (clarificirn). It is done this way: Take your sugar which you intend to use and pound or beat it into small pieces. Pour on water and set it on a gentle, weak coal fire so that it dissolves (zergehe oder schmelzt). Take several egg yolks (I suspect a typographical error – likely means egg whites), according to how much sugar you have and also how clean or unclean it is, two egg whites to a pound, and place them in a clean dish. Pour clear water to them and beat it with a little broom made of clean, thin branches tied together to a white foam. Throw this upon the boiling sugar and it will draw all uncleanness to itself. Let it boil well together, then strain it through a clean white woolen cloth. If the said sugar is not clarified enough by this cleaning process, set it on the fire again, let it boil once more with clean water, prepare another beaten foam and also pour that into the boiling sugar. Strain it again. You shall do this as long and as often as is needed to make the sugar entirely clear and pure, that is clarified. The boil it to a suitable stiffness (bequemer härt) as common honey tends to be by itself. Keep it for many needs as its common use for many purposes is described below.

Also note here that almost all electuaries and the most prominent syrups should be prepared with sugar. Especially those to be used against fevers and long illnesses. For it is not as hot and dry as honey and is also more potent, pleasant, and suitable for all medicine.

This is interesting in itself and confirms what we already saw in the 1559 Koestlich und Fuertrefflich Kochbuch: Sugar was clarified by boiling with egg white, and it seems that it was them stored and used in a semi-liquid form. That has implications for all kinds of recipes that call for large amounts of sugar, especially the almond pastes, that mention no liquids. Sugar can in fact be a liquid in the sixteenth-century German kitchen.

Walter Ryff, a somewhat enigmatic figure, was a medical professional and incredibly prolific author in the mid-16th century. Many of his works on areas ranging from dietetics to obstetrics to architecture were very successful despite repeated accusations of plagiarism. His Confect Buch, dedicated to sweet confections both medicinal and culinary, was repreinted several times posthumously.

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