Grow your own sugar, sweet crops

Almost all of us enjoy sweet things, it’s in our nature, and providing we get a balanced diet in total there’s not much wrong with enjoying sweetness. Nowadays most sugar comes from sugar beet or sugar cane although much commercial sweetening is glucose and other sugars converted from starches and industrial fodder. As Kitchen Gardeners we may not think we need sugar but all our jams and jellies are half sugar, tomato ketchup, chutney and many pickles require sweetening and home made fruit squashes, syrups, sorbets and even such as sloe gin all require sugar in some form too. If we bake we may use huge amounts in cakes and biscuits. Indeed we need sweeteners, and if, heaven forbid, we could no longer buy sugar so easily are there any alternatives?

Honey may spring to mind as the obvious choice. However it’s an expensive option and the flavour tends to overwhelm. Honey’s not so good for jams and highly baked products (except as a glaze) as it caramelizes too easily giving overtones and even bitterness. Honey works best as a sweetener with fruit, yoghurt, breakfast cereal, toast, some sorbets and so on, indeed just as it’s most often used. Even when a beekeeper with unlimited amounts I found I could not use honey to replace sugar entirely, especially as I had to give them sugar to replace the honey I robbed.

So how about growing your own sugar?

Sugar Cane was always the major source commercially but as you can imagine it’s not suited to the kitchen gardener. Surprisingly it’s easy to grow. The plant (many many cultivars) isn’t hardy but easily grown in frost free conditions. It gets tall but bends so fits under cover easier than you may imagine (it can reach 20ft). However if young plants are started off under cover they can be planted and grown outdoors for summer where they make surprisingly good growth. It’s difficult to over winter plants outdoors but one summers’ growth gives cane thick enough to cut that autumn. The outer bark is trimmed off and the fibrous middle chewed and sucked, the lower cane is the sweetest. To get quantities of juice you need a crusher and a serious press, first to break up the cane and then to squeeze out the juice. Grown under cover or after a hot summer you may get the equivalent of a pound of sugar from ten pounds of fresh trimmed cane. This sweet liquor can be used straightaway in various ways with other fruit juices such as cherry or blackcurrant or cooked with fruit for jams and so on. The flavour is fair but it soon goes off fermenting rapidly, to make a very alcoholic beverage which, the law permitting, you would distill as rum. The raw juice can be boiled down to get a storable molasses or boiled further to the crystallizing point when it will make raw sugar (Jaggery) on cooling. Getting that sugar purer is difficult without a centrifuge so the end product will be a sticky brown one not the flavourless odourless white crystals we desire for many purposes.

So what about Sugar Beet? Sugar beet are a close relation of our common beetroot and resemble giant parsnips with chard like foliage. They were first used as a source of pure sugar in 1747, and became big business by 1808 when a blockade of Napoleon prevented cane sugar reaching Europe. Victorian factories extracted 2-300lb of sugar from a ton of beet comparable to production by sugar cane. Although the chopping, boiling and squeezing is easier in a kitchen than the pressing of sugar cane the juice obtained is not as pleasing. This must be boiled down to a sugar and then made purer than for cane sugar, an awesome task requiring centrifuging at least. Sugar beet is easy to grow and pre-process but this purification is difficult. However you might consider Sugar beet worth growing for texturising pieces in desserts or conserves; I grew up with delights such as pineapple jam made from sugar beet and artificial flavouring, a curious thing now but very welcome back then. Other sweet roots such as carrots or parsnips can be turned into sweet liquids or even sugar but the problem of removing colouring matter and flavours is greater.

Surprisingly both Sweet corn and Sorghum can be grown and squeezed to give as sweet a juice as cane or beet. Sweet corn plants, especially any de-cobbed before they swell, have a very sweet sap substitute where sugar cane is unavailable. Likewise Grain Sorghum which plant so resembles Sweet corn it’s uncanny, though it’s sap is thicker and sweeter. The cane itself, less leaves, even more resembles sugar cane and fools my Caribbean friends, until they taste it. The taste is pea (or even cabbage) like and not as pleasant as sugar cane. The juice is nearly as difficult to extract requiring high pressure. Either plant grows fairly well in cool summers, growing much faster than sugar cane. But once again our problem is getting a usable sugar or stable and palatable ‘molasses’ from a lot of not awfully tasty juice.

Apple juice is a simpler option. Easily grown or acquirable in vast quantities apples are easy to crush, squeeze and their juice can be nearly as sweet as any of the above, and much tastier. It can be boiled down when the taste coarsens however it’s better than honey for jams, squashes and juice products as apple flavours blend in well. It’s more difficult to crystallize as there are too many other substances present. Straight apple puree is an excellent sweetening agent, and can be frozen then used for desserts with other fruits, as a cake and baked product or even as a sweet curry base. Apple puree can be mixed with other fruit juices and then concentrated down until it’s a paste, this spread in thin sheets and dried is called Fruit leather. The concentration of drying increases sweetness, flavour and tartness making a very palatable sweet delight on it’s own – and which keeps well too.

Pear concentrate is similar to apple concentrate but easier to make at home as only boiling is needed. Ripe pears are chopped and rendered down with just enough water to stop sticking. The pips and skins are sieved out of the puree which is simmered further until it turns into a dark molasses syrup excellent in rich cakes and as a general sweetener- it has surprisingly little pear taste and like apples is hard to crystallize.

Melons although incredibly sweet are so strongly aromatic that juices made from them are a tad unpalatable, watermelons however are different. Although not the easiest crop Watermelons can be grown and varieties such as Pasteque a confiture are very sweet and designed for candying or turning into jam, adding to preserves or as a sweet juice. Unfortunately yields are very low in our usual summers, even under cover.

Some other fruits are very sweet, especially if dried, raisins, for example, these could be juiced but are more easily just added as sweet things to other products such as cakes. However there’s a sweet powdery efflorescence comes off some fruits such as prunes as they dry and this could theoretically be collected. A couple of lesser known fruits may be particularly useful if they are as their name seems to indicate; Celtis australis, the Honeyberry and C. occidentalis the Sugarberry although I have so far failed to fruit mine to find out. A rarity from the ornamental garden is Smilacina racemosa the Treacle berry, which although not very productive does give a very sweet red berry once favoured by the native North Americans.

I guess every one of us when a child must have sucked nectar from a Cowslip, Honeysuckle or Dead Nettle flower. But did you ever stop to consider what potential this may offer? Native Americans would shake nectar out of flower heads of Asclepias plants (poisonous but not apparently the nectar), use it as a sweetener or boil it down. The same was done by African natives to Melianthus species and Protea mellifera, the Sugar Bush, in South Africa it’s still sold as Bush-syrup.

In this country I observed Blue tits on the flower spikes of my common Kniphofia, Red Hot Pokers. On investigation I found you could shake a wineglass of sweet green nectar from a few dozen heads (early morning before the bees have emptied them). I cannot recommend you do so as no safety trial has been done but I regularly enjoy it every summer. There are many flowers giving a lot of nectar and we have previously employed bees to collect and concentrate it for us but they consume a lot in the process. It is possible to cut them out and harvest nectar to get the sugar more directly. Or even while it is sap.

The Lime tree, Tilia xeuropaea, is a prodigous honey producer and in the past also of sap which is sweet and was tapped and concentrated as for maple syrup. Lime sap was even made into sugar, but more surprisingly a Frenchman (Missa) found that some lime flowers mixed with the fruits and ground in a mortar closely resembled chocolate, this was later manufactured in Prussia but failed commercially as it went mouldy too quickly.

Unfortunately the true Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum, and A. nigrum, the Black Maple, both need hot summers, cold winters and reliable springs to be productive and do not fair well here. Our native maple, A. campestre can be tapped though it’s claimed you get more sugar from Silver birch (often made into wine in the past). It’s difficult to tap any amount unless a lot of big trees are available. Anyone with a lot of woodland, for the fuel as well as the sap, should be able to produce either a maple syrup substitute or carry it further to a sugary fudge. Mountain Ash and Sycamore have also been tapped in the past offering other possibilities.

An unlikely proposition is Dates, Phoenix spp, not their fruit but again for their sap, often fermented into Toddy, concentrated to syrup or made into Palm sugar they are an important source. And Date palms are almost hardy. Others such as Sugar palms, Arenga saccharifera, Palmyra palms, Borassus flabellifera, and Caryota urens, the Jaggery palm could all be tapped if the climate warms enough for their cultivation. But I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting.

Another potential source requiring investigation is where sap can be turned into sugar by other means. Heracleum sphondylium, our common Cow Parsnip or Hogweed used to be collected in Russia and Siberia and the leaf stalks dried in the sun in tight bundles when apparently they went yellow and exuded a sweet sugar on the outside which they would scrape off.

Alternatively you could give up sugar entirely and go for a super sweet leaf. There have been several offered in recent years, my favourite is Lippia dulcis, the Aztec sweet herb, Oroznz, which is incredibly sweet when you chew a leaf and can be used to sweeten teas and so on. Does smell a bit of cats though. Oh well you can’t have everything….