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10 Sep 2021

Edinburgh’s Pantry: sugar and spice

Written by Lindsay Middleton, PhD student at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen; edited by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator (Edinburgh and East)
A turquoise and gold sugar bowl with a lid is displayed against a plain grey background. On the side of the bowl is a painting of a young couple sitting by a wall.
The luxury of sugar – a Sevres sugar bowl; part of a tea set decorated with the bleu-celeste cabaret pattern (1770–1820) | Drum Castle collection
This series of articles highlights the food and drink to be found in Edinburgh’s pantries of the past, written especially to mark the re-opening of Gladstone’s Land on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. To conclude the series, Lindsay looks at how sugar and spices were integrated into Scottish cuisine, and discusses the global trading routes that brought these ‘exotic’ ingredients to Scotland.

So far in the Edinburgh’s Pantry series, we have covered the pulses and grains that made up breakfast (and often dinner) for people in historical Edinburgh; the meat that was served as the main course for those rich enough to afford it; the fruit and vegetables that accompanied meals; and the tea and coffee that started and finished the day. It seems only right to finish the series with the two ingredients that may have flavoured dessert: sugar and spices.

Both sugar and spice are now in almost everything we eat. Processed foods, even savoury ones, typically contain as much sugar as they do salt, for its preservative benefits as well as for flavour. Spices – whether they are bold like cayenne, bright like turmeric or subtle like saffron – are also so commonplace that, even if they aren’t at centre stage in a dish, they’re used as natural colourings and flavourings in crisps, juices and sweets.

A selection of spices, some wrapped in plastic bags and others in small tubes, are displayed on a plain grey surface. A small wicker basket stands behind them. Two of the bags are labelled: one with Tonka bean and the other Bay leaves.
Someone gave this woven gift basket, containing tubes and bags of spices, to Margaret Fay Shaw. The Culpeper label dates it to the 1980s. | Canna House collection

Of course, some spices are still expensive, the famous example being saffron. It’s still worth more than its weight in gold, due to the labour-intensive process of harvesting the individual stamens from the saffron crocus. But, in the past, the distances that sugar and spices had to travel to reach Scottish shores meant that they were valuable beyond what we can imagine today. Nevertheless, both products have been part of Scottish cuisine for over 200 years; Edinburgh’s strong global trading links meant merchants frequently imported and sold sugar and spice.

The wealthiest aristocrats tasted sugar and spices as early as the 13th century, but only in small quantities and probably as a condiment rather than a staple ingredient. By the 15th century, the quantities of sugar imported to British shores had vastly increased but, as Sidney Mintz suggests, this was not because more social classes were consuming it; rather it was due to the wealthiest citizens eating more and more of it. [1] The habits of the rich drove fashion, and a wider market and desire for sugar and spices flourished from the 1400s. Expensive sugar and spices were features of an opulent table setting. Merchants and trading companies were quick to monopolise on this demand.

As with all ingredients and products that weren’t native to Scotland, trading ledgers and inventories offer rich insight into what was coming into the country from overseas. A good example comes from Gladstone’s Land, where John Riddoch operated as a merchant in the early 17th century. Riddoch and his wife Margaret ran a successful trading business selling foreign goods.

When Riddoch died in 1632, the goods he left behind were worth £4,489 (well over half a million pounds today). The foodstuffs included in the inventory showcase the kinds of spices and other ingredients being imported to Scotland at this time.

The list recorded:

  • 268lb of sugar worth £268
  • 56lb of sugar candy worth £67
  • 32lb of pepper worth £25
  • 5lb of camell (cinnamon) worth £29
  • 112lb of ginger worth £44 and 16 shillings
  • 6lb of nutmeg worth £20
  • 3lb of cloves worth £20
  • 2lb of maiss (mace) worth £16
  • 94lb of liquorice worth £18

The inventory also notes tobacco, fabrics and dyes from Flanders and Venice, as well as exotic fruits like figs. At Gladstone’s Land we have recreated a store room, which includes the spices and sugar listed in Riddoch’s will.

A polished wooden cabinet has one front panel open, to reveal many smaller drawers inside. The drawers have little brass pulls on them.
Spice cabinet | Gladstone’s Land

Riddoch had invested in a ship and imported these goods from Greece, the Ottoman Empire, the East and West Indies, Brazil, China, the Middle East, southern Europe and South America, which shows just how international his business was. He made a very comfortable living thanks to the high prices that sugar and spices fetched when resold. Edinburgh’s lucrative burgess and market culture meant there were numerous merchants operating on similar (and larger) scales to Riddoch. From the early 17th century onwards, more and more foreign goods poured into the city – and tobacco, tea, coffee, sugar and spices were among the most valuable imports.

Buying ‘exotic’ storage jars for your imported spices was also popular with wealthy clients.

A blue and white porcelain storage jar is displayed against a plain grey background. It has a wooden lid with an intricate lattice-effect pattern carved into it.
A blue and white porcelain ginger jar, made in China c.1700–50 | Hill of Tarvit collection

Riddoch’s customers would have been wealthy – the ladies and gentlemen of Edinburgh who wished to enjoy the finer things in life. It would not be until the 19th century that sugar and spices were affordable for most people, or integrated into processed foods like sauces, relishes and sweets that could be bought in grocers’ shops. Even then, the poor and working classes would only be able to indulge every now and then; their diets would remain plain and relatively unseasoned.

As a typist living in Glasgow in the first half of the 20th century, Miss Toward could afford marmalade, a preserved orange condiment made with lots of sugar.

Find out more about jams, jellies and preserves

A very old pottery jar of marmalade is displayed against a plain grey background. It has the remains of a paper lid around the rim, and a mostly intact label on the side of the jar that reads: SCWS Golden Ball Jelly Marmalade.
Golden Ball marmalade jar, 1930s | Tenement House collection

But how did those who could afford sugar and spices use them? Cookbooks offer some insight into how both featured in the kitchens of the past. Recipes show that sugar and spice featured in sweet and savoury cooking, as well as in medicinal mixtures.

Recipes from The Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of Rarities, a cookbook for the aristocracy that was published in London in 1687, lists several expensive ingredients for puddings: sugar, quince syrup and cinnamon in an apple tart recipe, for example. It has recipes including ‘To candy Ginger’ and ‘To make Syrup of Cinamon, (which is excellent good in case of Faintings or cold Distempers)’. This last recipe calls for 4oz of the ‘best Cinamon’ to be steeped for three days by a gentle fire in 3 pints of white wine, and ‘a pint of small cinnamon-water’. [2] Then, 3lb of sugar is added, before the mixture is boiled to form a syrup. Spices, sugar and expensive ingredients like wine were used in all sorts of syrups and cordials – medicinal or otherwise.

The medicine cabinet below, from the 1830s, includes ‘Ipecacuanha Wine’, which was used to clear the lungs and stomach, and essence of camphor, an ingredient often taken with a lump of sugar, which helped cure a feverish cold.

An old-fashioned, portable wooden medicine cabinet is displayed against a plain grey background. Its doors are wide open to reveal shelves inside filled with little glass jars. The jars are all labelled, some with the words Poison!
Medicine cabinet | Georgian House collection

Meat was often either cooked or preserved with spices, sometimes to conceal when it had started to spoil. In the household accounts of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston in Edinburgh, there is an entry for ‘Oysters and spice’ from 1680 and ‘Oysters, spices, vinegar’ from 1702. Clearly, even seafood was spiced to enhance its flavour. [3] Although the increasing consumption of tea, coffee and cocoa were bigger influences on the growing use of sugar, wine was often heated and then mixed with sugar and spice to improve the taste. Moreover, for those who could afford to purchase and drink wine, spice was used as a means of disguising if it was low quality or had gone off.

The 1640s oil painting below by Abraham van Beyeren shows the kinds of food that were often spiced and sugared, including fruit, oysters, lobster and wine.

Read more about wine in 17th-century paintings

A still life oil painting of a table of rich food. A bright red lobster lies beside a plate of oysters in their shells. A pomegranate and other citrus fruit lie in a bowl behind. A couple of tall and elaborate drinking glasses stand on the table too.
Still Life by Abraham van Beyeren, c.1645–55, oil on canvas | Hill of Tarvit collection

Buying, owning and eating spices would have brought new paraphernalia into the home. Spice cabinets and cupboards, like tea chests, would have been kept locked to protect their valuable contents. Graters would be required for nutmeg, mace and cinnamon. A mortar and pestle – made of wood, earthenware or stone – would be a key feature in a kitchen where spices were regularly used.

Sugar also required its own equipment. Most sugar arrived in the home in cone-shaped loaves, and its colour gave a hint to how much it had been refined. If sugar was white, it was well-refined and therefore expensive. But before it reached Scottish pantries and tea tables in cone form, it had a very long journey to make.

A re-created Georgian kitchen, showing a large wooden table in the foreground with a large cone of sugar standing on it.
This kitchen in the Georgian House, Charlotte Square, has a large sugar cone, just like those available to wealthy Edinburgh households in the late 18th century.

Sugar cane was the earliest crop grown to produce sucrose, or sugar, and it grew best in warm climates. From the middle of the 19th century, UK-grown and -processed sugar beet began to compete, making sugar cheaper and more accessible. [4] Prior to this, however, the cultivation of tropical and subtropical cane sugar was widespread globally. It was one of the main products that drove colonialism and relied upon enslaved workers. It was grown and harvested in the Mediterranean, New Guinea, the Philippines, the Canary Islands, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas throughout its long history. [5] The early dominance of the sugar plantations in the Mediterranean was gradually superseded by sugar that was grown in plantations in the Americas. Spanish and Portuguese merchants established themselves in places like Brazil and the Dominican Republic, importing enslaved Africans to work on plantations from the beginning of the 16th century. [6]

The use of slave labour in the production of sugar quickly spread. One stronghold of British and European (particularly French) sugar production from the early 17th century onwards was the Caribbean. While British colonies in the Americas had been using enslaved people to harvest sugar since 1619, when Africans were first purchased to work at Jamestown in Virginia, crops fared better in the climates of Barbados and Jamaica, and sugar production was soaring there by the mid-18th century. [7] Colonel William Montagu was Governor of Jamaica from 1808 to 1827. The medal shown below depicts two African people, presumably to illustrate his role in overseeing the implementation of the abolition of slavery. In his role as governor, he had 60 enslaved people working for him at the Governor’s House in Spanish Town, St Catherine Parish and another 12 on an estate in Port Royal – he was well compensated upon abolition in 1834.

A tarnished-looking silver medal, shaped like a coin, is displayed against a plain grey background. Two figures stand either side of a tall cross, which appears to be topped by a small crocodile. The date at the bottom of the medal reads MDCCCXXI.
A silver medal awarded to Colonel William Montagu, 5th Duke of Manchester and Marchioness of Huntly | Brodie Castle collection

Until the middle of the 19th century, most of the sugar that ended up in Britain came from Caribbean islands. As mentioned in other Edinburgh’s Pantry articles, Scotland played a large part in establishing and profiting from the slave trade in the Caribbean, owning 30% of the estates in Jamaica by the end of the 18th century. Sugar, tobacco, coffee and tea were among the products grown and harvested by enslaved labourers. Certainly, many people who bought homes in the New Town of Edinburgh had benefited from the sugar and tobacco plantations in Jamaica. Despite the distance between the countries, Scotland was an active participant in maintaining slavery, both for profit and to provide Scottish consumers with luxury goods. The sugar and spices that are so prevalent in Scottish diets to this day were inextricable from the violent exploitation of slaves in Scotland’s colonial past.

Sugar that was exported from the Caribbean would largely have been unrefined, ready to be finished and processed elsewhere. Antwerp was a key refining centre in Europe, but in 1544 the first refining centre for cane sugar opened in London; from that point on, refineries spread across Britain. By the 17th century there were refineries in Glasgow and Leith, so raw (and thereby slightly cheaper) sugar could be imported to Scotland and refined there. One of the most successful refineries was the ‘Sugar House’. George Kincaid was in partnership with the Bell brothers, whose father had inherited an estate in the West Indies. They had two refineries, one in Edinburgh and the main one in Glasgow.

A close-up extract from an old typed document, listing merchants and their premises in Edinburgh.
Detail of 1805 Edinburgh Post Office Directory | National Library of Scotland Creative Commons

It was not sugar cane that was refined on Scottish shores, but coarser crystals of raw sugar that had already undergone boiling and some initial refining. When it came to refining, sugar was (and still is) extracted by a process of crushing or pounding cane fibres for their liquid, which is then heated. When the liquid evaporates, a concentration of the naturally occurring sucrose is left. As the concentration of the sucrose in the liquid surpasses saturation point, crystals appear. The process is then repeated with various balances of temperature to achieve the desired purity and colour. White, fine sugar was an indicator of wealth, as it went through more boiling and evaporating processes to achieve the end product. When the sugar reached its desired state, the cooling liquid was poured into cone-shaped moulds, where it dried and formed a hard, conical sugar loaf.

An old-fashioned sugar nipper is displayed against a plain grey background. It looks a little like a fancy set of tongs, with a wooden handle and metal 'pincers'. It stands on a wooden rest.
A sugar cutter or ‘nipper’ for cutting loaf sugar (19th century) | Castle Fraser collection

These loaves of hard-pressed, white sugar were easy to preserve and transport. Wealthy households would probably buy whole loaves, to be stored in wooden boxes (likely under lock and key). The hard sugar was then nipped off with sugar nippers and, like spices, ground using a mortar and pestle into the quantities that were needed for cooking. When sugar became more accessible in the 18th century, it could be bought from merchants or grocers by weight. Loaf sugar was common into the 19th century, and eventually it was available on Scotland’s city streets or in rural districts, sold by pedlars who carried the scrapings of sugar loaves. [8]

Once sugar had reached the homes of Edinburgh’s wealthy, had been taken from the box and nipped from the loaf, it had numerous purposes. Like spice, sugar was initially viewed as a medicinal ingredient. However, as it spread through Scottish society, it was incorporated into foods as well. One use was as a preservative. Two c1700 manuscript recipe notebooks, now held in the National Library of Scotland, were written by Katherine Bruce, Lady of Saltoun, in East Lothian. They contain recipes for numerous methods of fruit preservation. ‘Cakes’, for instance, were fruit that had been simmered until tender, and then boiled to a candy with an equal weight of sugar and dried in an oven for two or three days. [9] The large amounts of sugar, and the presence of fruits like oranges in the recipe collection, clarifies that these preservative methods were reserved for the rich inhabitants of large houses, like the Lady of Saltoun.

A very elaborate cake stand is displayed against a pale pink background. The stand is mostly turquoise, with a gold and white pattern.
Porcelain cake stand or tazza; part of a turquoise Minton dessert service (1874) | Brodick Castle collection

Later cookbooks printed in Edinburgh show how quickly sugar became a staple ingredient. Elizabeth Cleland’s A New and Easy Method of Cookery (1755) is full of recipes for jellies, marmalades, preserves, cakes and biscuits that all use sugar, as well as savoury dishes like ‘A Civet of Venison’ or a mackerel sauce of gooseberries, fennel, butter and sugar. [10]

Later, Cookery and Domestic Economy, written ‘by the mistress of the family’, was published in Edinburgh in 1838. Given that this cookbook was subtitled ‘a work of plain and practical utility’, we can see that sugar had become more accessible by the early 19th century. Sugar features regularly in recipes for pies and puddings; some recipes even require different types of sugar. A recipe for trifle, for instance, calls for ‘sifted white sugar’, while the next recipe for gooseberry jam lists brown sugar, suggesting that consumers now had the luxury of choice. [11] Even in this later cookbook, sugar was still used as a preservative for meat: the recipe entitled ‘To Salt Ham’ lists ‘half a pound of coarse sugar’ and ‘two ounces of Jamaica pepper’ amongst the ingredients. [12] This seemingly economic cookbook still used ingredients imported from thousands of miles away, showing how Scotland’s international trading links increasingly infiltrated Scottish cuisine.

A brown earthenware pie dish is displayed against a pale grey background. The lid is topped with a grouse, and the pot is decorated with a hunting scene.
Earthenware pie dish topped with a grouse and decorated with a hunting scene, made by Copeland Late Spode (19th century) | Hill House collection

We consume sugar and spice in far larger quantities nowadays and continue the practice of using them to preserve and flavour foods and medicines. Many of us still add sugar to our tea and coffee, even though we probably do not nip it off our sugar cone with our specialist sugar nippers. Similarly, we season our food liberally with cinnamon and pepper, often without thinking about where they have come from beyond the inside of our cupboards.

As with all the foodstuffs covered in the Edinburgh’s Pantry articles, sugar and spices are now things we can buy easily. However, it’s worth remembering that the history of food trade and consumption is a story about the exploitation of others and the uneven distribution of wealth. As global and local demand for supply of food becomes a prescient issue in our contemporary lives, a look at the pantries of the past can help us understand our predecessors so we can make new choices about the way we harvest, distribute and purchase our food and drink.

Give this traditional recipe a try:

“Cinnamon Tablet

To a pound of loaf sugar, clarified and boiled till it can be blown through the holes of a skimmer, allow half an ounce of pounded and sifted cinnamon, or a tea-spoonful of the oil of cinnamon; stir it well with the sugar, and press it with a spoon to the sides of the pan, to make it perfectly smooth; rub some plates over with fresh butter, and pour in the tablet.
When cold, cut it into square bits.
Ginger tablet may be made in this way, allowing a quarter of an ounce of ginger to a pound of sugar. ”
Catherine Dalgairns, The Practice of Cookery
Edinburgh: Cadell & Company, 1829

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About the author: Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen. Her work with the National Trust for Scotland is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Lindsay has written a research report on historical recipes, food and drink as part of an internship with the Trust. She has also been instrumental in creating a new Food Tour for Gladstone’s Land.

[1] Sidney W Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 83

[2] Attributed to John Shirley, The Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of Rarities OR The Ingenious Gentlewoman and Servant-Maids Delightfull Companion (London: Printed by W W, 1687), p. 25

[3] Alexander Fenton, Scottish Life and Society: The Food of the Scots, v5 (John Donald: Edinburgh, 2007), p. 299

[4] Fenton, ibid, p. 105

[5] Mintz, ibid, pp. 19–33

[6] Mintz, ibid, p. 32

[7] Mintz, ibid, p. 37

[8] Fenton, ibid, p. 104

[9] Olive M Geddes, The Laird’s Kitchen: Three Hundred Years of Food in Scotland (Edinburgh: HMSO, 1994), p. 33

[10] Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery (Edinburgh: Printed for the Author, 1755), p. 39

[11] Unknown author, Cookery and Domestic Economy, for young housewives (Edinburgh: William and Robert Chambers, 1838), p. 90

[12] Ibid above, p. 109

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