While researching the raw materials used to manufacture the Strangler we found ourselves most interested in the question of how the sugar water was made. This curiosity quickly got the better of us and our sugar notes soon took up as much space as our Strangler article. For such a little question it was quite a puzzle, but we eventually came to a satisfactory solution. We then figured it would be fun to share and this mini-essay is the result.
In A Song of Ice and Fire white cane sugar is notably absent as a sweetener. Even if sugercane production were limited to just a few islands in the Jade Sea, wealthy POV characters like Tyrion, Daenerys, or Cersei would surely encounter a packet or a bowl’s worth of pure white sugar at some point, but they do not even chance upon so much as a pinch. Not a single east-west trade ship is ever encountered that is carrying it. Euron does not present any cane sugar to the Kingsmoot, although he presents “chests of nutmeg, cloves, and saffron” (FfC Aeron II). This makes little sense if sugarcane cultivation were underway in the East, as plantations would be exporting this white gold as they are exporting pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and saffron. Rather than sugar, the go to sweetener in East and West is honey. Honey is served straight on the cone, added to porridge, spread on bread, made into sauces, basted on roasting meats, soaked into sweet cakes, distilled into mead, and mixed with wine and milk and lemon water. It is only in Old Volantis that queen honey has been checked by a popular taste for purple sweet beets. They are “served with almost every meal” and used to make a desert soup “as thick and rich as purple honey” (DoD Quentyn I).
And yet a certain amount of sugar refining clearly exists and makes its presence known in the kitchens of the Red Keep, Highgarden, and Sunspear. Sugar frosts some of the lemon cakes Sansa enjoys at King Robert’s court (GoT Sansa II). At the feast following the tourney of Bitterbridge Renly’s court is served spun sugar unicorns (CoK Catelyn II). At Joffrey and Lady Margaery’s wedding feast one of the dishes Tyrion samples is a leche of brawn “spiced with cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and almond milk” (SoS Tyrion VIII). When Ser Gregor’s skull is delivered to Sunspear the cook joins in on the celebration by serving the court spun sugar skulls filled with sweet custard and bits of plum and cherry (DoD Hotah). But, again, it is never served or consumed as crystal. Outside the kitchens and tables of the great, sugar crystal totally unknown. And then, along the waterfronts of the world, there is rum.
Rum exists in parallel to kitchen sugar. On ship and onshore, common sailors and passengers in the Narrow and Summer Seas, from Qarth to Braavos, drink a cheap and terrible tasting black tar rum (the name obviously referring to its taste rather than its color) (DoD Quentyn I, Tyrion VIII, The Blind Girl). More appetizing are the barrels of blackbelly and sweet spiced rum carried in the holds of the Cinnamon Wind, just back from making the traders circle around the Jade Sea (FfC Sam IV). The delicious spice rum indicates the existence of a finer class of rum drinker. We glimpse this better sort of drinker on the Qartheen docks when Dany observes “[s]eamen from half a hundred nations wandered amongst the stalls, drinking spiced liquors and trading jokes in queer-sounding tongues” (CoK Dany V). These spiced liquors almost certainly include rum; when Sam Tarly tries the spiced rum he notes “[t]he liquor was strange and heady” (FfC Sam IV). However, this better sort of rum drinker is not found anywhere among the great and powerful, for even those who regularly interact with merchants and sailors show no interest in rum, generally preferring wine, beer, or flavored water. Tyrion Lannister, a good candidate for a highborn rum drinker, only starts drinking rum aboard the Selaesori Qhoran. Lord Celtigar of Claw Isle is reputed to have a cellar filled with “more wines than a man could drink in a hundred years,” but no one makes any mention of sweet rums (SoS Davos IV). Lord Godric Borrell of Sweetsister drinks beer when he dines with Lord Davos (DwD Davos I). Lord Baelish, former customs collector for Gulltown, drinks wine. Xaro Xhoan Daxos drinks ruby red wine and tempts Dany with a quest to find the mythical “wine of wisdom” and “a golden vintage so fine that one sip makes all other wines taste like vinegar” (CoK Dany III). In Magister Illyrio’s cellar Tyrion finds exquisite wines from all over the world, but not a single keg of rum (DoD Tyrion I). Upper caste Ghiscari prefer foreign wines and flavored waters to their own thin, sour vintages. Those who move up in the world leave rum behind. Lord Davos and “Prince” Salladhor Saan, who have no doubt tasted rum over the course of their long criminal careers, regularly drink wine (SoS Davos I). Euron Greyjoy partakes in wine and shade of the evening (FfC Victarion II). The Kings, Princes, and Lords of the Summer Isles might favor high quality rum, as it would go well with their unreserved culture, but in Westeros and Essos the main rum buyers are probably well off itinerant merchants and common sailors.
So what can be puzzled out from this? Sugar is a luxury product imported by southron kings and lords paramount in quantities sufficient to frost cakes, create spun sugar deserts (a very labor intensive process), and spice the occasional dish. As a rule it is regarded as unsuitable for consumption without first going through the kitchen. Crystal sugar is scarcer then all other spices, including saffron, but there are considerable quantities of cheap rum on the world market. However, rum consumption is largely confined to those who make their livings on the ocean highways and it has yet to break out of that niche, except maybe in the Summer Islands. Because of this it is largely considered a low class drink.
This leads us to conclude that neither sugarcane nor the sugar beet has been cultivated in the world of Ice and Fire (the Volantene sweet beet is not a sugar beet as sugar beets are white, not purple). Instead, we choose to imagine that the crystal sugar used in the highest Westerosi dishes is palm sugar, produced in the Jade Sea from the sap of the Ice and Fire equivalents of the real world Palmyra palm, date palm, sugar date palm, Arenga sugar palm, nipa palm, and coconut palm. In the 1904 edition of All About the “Coconut Palm“ by John Ferguson, the editor of a colonial paper called the “Ceylon Observer” and another called the “Tropical Agriculturist,” there is an informative description of the distillation of sugar from palm sap in British India:
Instead of being fermented, the liquor may be evaporated down and its sugar thus extracted. “Eight gallons of sweet toddy, boiled over a slow fire, yield 2 gallons of a lusciously-sweet liquid, which is called jaggery or sugar-water, which quantity being against boiled, the coarse brown sugar called jaggery is produced. The lumps of this are separately tied up in dried banana leaves” (Royle). Dr. Shortt says: “The sap is poured into large pots over an oven, beneath which a strong woodfire is kept burning, the dead fronts and other refuse of the plant being used as fuel. The sap soon assumes a dark brown semi-viscid mass, well known as jaggery or gur, which whilst warm is poured into earthen pots or pans for preservation. Ten or twelve sers of the sap yield one of jaggery; the value of a maund of this jaggery is about 2 rupees. In this state it is sold to abkari contractors, sugar refiners, or merchants. The sugar refined comprises several sorts, known in the market as moist, raw, coarse, and fine sugar. The jaggery is placed in baskets and allowed to drain; the watery portion or molasses dropping into a pan placed below. This is repeated, so that the jaggery or sugar becomes comparatively white and free from molasses. This sugar – for so it may now be called – is put out to dry, and the lumps broken up; when dry it is termed raw sugar, and weighs about 25 per cent. of the whole mass, the rest of it being collected in the form of molasses.” Thus cocoa-nut sugar is chiefly met with in the form of jaggery. It is well known, however, that it is capable of being refined, according to European principles, and a certain amount of cocoa-nut sugar is regularly prepared. “The success of Dr. J. N. Fonseca (author of the History of Goa), in converting toddy of the cocoa-nut tree into crystallized sugar, has been hailed with satisfaction by the press at Goa, and flattering calculations are made of the advantages that will accrue to the country from the development of this new industry” (Bombay Gazette). A similar sugar is prepared from the date-palm, from the palmyra-palm, and from the Indian sago-palm (Caryota urens). The date palm is very largely used for this purpose in Bengal and the cocoa-nut and palmyra palms in Madras, while in Bombay, apparently, sugar is only very occasionally made from the juices of these trees; but when extracted it is most generally prepared from the palmyra or Caryota plams.
The reason crystal sugar is so scarce in Westeros is because most of said palm sap is distilled into palm wine for local consumption and then double distilled into spirit for local consumption and export through the traders circle. The piss poor “rum” the sailors drink and the higher quality “rum” carried by the Cinnamon Wind is really 80 to 100 proof arrack. This arrack/rum enjoys as brisk a trade in the Jade Sea as wine and mead enjoy in Westeros, but Summer and Sunset traders largely purchase it for their own crews (a little rum going a long way) and for resale to western establishments that are patronized by sailors. Excess palm sap is turned into sugar for local use and sale within the wider Jade Sea, with only a trickle of export to the west. Thus the sugar crystal could be delivered to Lys on the same trade ships that bring the Strangler leaves.
There is however a second possible source. In The Repertory of Arts and Manufactures: Consisting of Original Communications, Specifications of Patent Inventions, and Selections of Useful Practical Papers from the Transactions of the Philosophical Societies of All Nations, Vol. XV, first printed in 1801, we came upon something rather interesting. Namely, the extract of a letter where a certain Frenchman going by the name Citizen Duburqua describes the process through which another Frenchmen, Citizen Cavezzali, supposedly was able to distill sugar from honey. So perhaps the Lysene alchemists extract the sugar they need from Reach honey. Lys is only 2,000 miles from Oldtown, compared to the roughly 4,500 miles between Lys and Qarth and roughly 3,000 miles between Lys and New Ghis. Oldtown rests at the mouth of the Honeywine River. Upriver, just below the jambs, is the Honeyholt, seat of House Beesbury, whose arms are three yellow beehives on a black pale over a pale black and yellow field and whose words are “Beware our Stings.” As these names and symbols indicate, this region is the honey producing and exporting capital of the world. It’s also rather thick with alchemy. Students at the Citadel learn certain alchemical practices as part of their medicinal studies. Jaqen H’gar takes on the identity of an alchemist prior to replacing Pate. And as Bran Vras of Winterfell Huis Clos has pointed out, the Hightowers and Beesburys have some alchemical interests:
Beside the Hightowers are reputed for practicing alchemy, alchemy is present in Lys, and might not be so unfamiliar to the Citadel. Indeed, Raymund Frey has married Beony Beesbury, from upriver on the Honeywine. One of their sons, Robert, is an acolyte at the Citadel, while another, Malwyn, studies with an alchemist in Lys. (New Adventures in Oldtown, pt. 8. The Alchemist)
All of which points to the Lysene alchemists having a fair number of connections in Oldtown. These connections likely stem from the rich commercial interaction between Lys and Oldtown, which have likely created ongoing contact between those educated by the Citadel and those trained by the Lysene alchemists. An alchemical interest in the Beesbury’s honey would fit right in.
Unfortunately our little group does not contain anyone with expertise in chemistry, so we cannot speak to the efficacy of this process or the quality of the sugar so extracted. Regardless of whether or not Citizen Cavezzali’s report is accurate, it is still worth going over as one can easily imagine the Lysene alchemists doing something like this (possibly aided by magic spells). Here is his laboratory recipe in full:
LXVII. Process for extracting Sugar from Honey.
By Citizen CAVEZZALI. – Extracted from a Letter of Citizen DUBURQUA, Druggist at Lodi.
FROM THE ANNALES DE CHIMIE.
Having considered that honey being a mixture of sugar and mucilage, it would be possible to extract the sugar, Citizen Cavezzali made an extract of honey by means of carbon, but without success; for he observed that the honey after some time became fluid; that it whitened and polished metal; that, in purifying it, its vapor attacked the wind-pipe; hence he concluded, that it contained an acid, which he justly considered to be the obstacle that prevented the crystallization of the sugar.
He took a quantity of white honey, which he placed in a gentle heat, in an earthen vessel; he afterwards scummed it, strained it, and placed it again, in the same vessel, over a furnace, very moderately heated. He then added pulverized egg-shells to the honey, upon which a very marked effervescence took place; he continued to add this powder till the saturation was complete; he then removed the vessel from the fire, and left it to stand in a quiet place for some time.
A very dense froth afterwards formed itself upon the surface. Some flakes of mucous matter floated in the liquor, which he strained till it became limpid; and he obtained a real syrup of sugar, deprived of the poignant properties of the honey. This syrup he divided into two parts: one half he put into a bottle, and, with the other, he formed a liquor, which was judged to have been sweetened with sugar. The experiment was repeated several times, and always with the same result.
Four months after, he examined the bottle that contained the syrup: he found the bottom covered with crystals; upon which he broke the bottle, collected the crystals, and collected the sugar, which he put to dry. It attracted humidity from the atmosphere, and it appeared of a reddish color. He deprived it of this color, by washing it with alcohol; after which it no longer attracted humidity.
In performing these operations, the following circumstances are to be attended to. I. The honey should be white and pure. 2. It ought to be clarified with the white of egg. 3. The vessels ought to be earthen-ware, but never of metal, for these are bad conductors of caloric. 4. Only the bottom of the vessel should be exposed to the fire, in order that the heat may not attack the mucous substance. 5. It ought to be placed quiet hot, after it has melted, upon a furnace. 6. The addition of the powder of egg-shells must be performed gradually, lest it should become clotted into lumps. 7. When the saturation is accomplished, the vessel should be removed from the fire, and the liquor left to stand quiet for the space of a day. 8. The liquors must be scummed, washed, filtrated, mixed, and evaporated to the proper consistence.
It can be assumed that any sugar so acquired is for purely in-house use, if for no other reason than the fact that nobody in their right mind would buy a food item from people renowned for making deadly poisons. It’s also likely that the Strangler isn’t the only poison that requires sugar. So alchemical sugar, if it exists, would not meaningfully compete with Jade Sea palm sugar.