Monday, June 4, 2012


Making Vermont Maple Syrup with the Traditional Evaporator

Hello My friend and Welcome.

In our continuing study of Foods of the First Century we turn to an interesting aspect of the Early Christians diet: Sweets. In the sugar saturated society that we live in it’s hard to imagine a world without Twinkies, Soda Pop, Candy, Sugar-Coated Cereals…the list goes on and on. Sweets of one kind or another seem to be everywhere.  A quick check of the ingredient lists on some of the items in our cupboard demonstrates how ubiquitous sugar, in its many permutations, has become.
Like it or not, we humans seem to come with a built-in sweet tooth. And we currently quench it with mountains of refined sugar, and millions of gallons of high fructose corn syrup. But what about our Christian cousins of the First Century? They somehow survived without a convenience store on every corner. How did they do it?
We know a couple of things about sugars. First, they seem to be somewhat addictive; the more you get the more you want. And secondly, a high intake of sugars in the diet tends to dull the taste buds. An apple or a pear can never match the intense sweetness of a bowlful of sugar-coated crunchy-munchies. So, while making do with less sugar than modern man, perhaps our ancestors were able to enjoy the natural sweetness of fruits and berries far more than we do today.
Still, there’s that sweet-tooth thing that makes us all crave sweetness. Rest easy, perhaps life was a little sweeter than we imagine. First, and foremost, they had honey. Evidence of large apiaries producing tons of honey annually have been found in the Holy Land. You can read our post on that HERE. People of that era also produced a number of syrups, molasses-type products, which they incorporated into their cooking in many ways.
How effective could fruit syrups be, you ask? The next time you’re in the grocery store stop by the bakery department and check the ingredients on one of their “Sugar-Free” pies. What you will find is that these pies, instead of being sweetened with refined sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets (sucrose), are sweetened with fruit sugar (fructose).
Most people have at least a peripheral understanding of the process for making maple syrup. Sap from a sugar maple tree is collected in early spring and transported to the sugaring house. There it is filtered and poured into a shallow evaporator with dividers that allow the operator to move the syrup from one section to the next as it slowly thickens. What comes in on one end as raw sap with barely any detectable sweetness emerges on the opposite end as that golden brown ambrosia we all know and love.
In reality, the sugar content of any semi-sweet juice can be increased by boiling to liquid to syrup. The following is a list of the most common syrups produced in the First Century. These syrups, or molasses, are still widely used in the Middle East.

Carob Pods - Green and Mature

We mentioned Carob in our post on vegetables and made passing reference to the pods being used as a sweetener. Today, we’ll examine that in greater detail. The syrup is produced by shelling the beans and finely chopping the empty pods into water. This mixture is then cooked to extract the sugars from the pods, It is strained and reduced into a thick syrup, or carob molasses as it is called. Carob molasses is 100% carob extract with a rich aroma, flavor and color. It has a high natural sugar content, and can be used alone as syrup, or as sweetener, colorant, and flavoring agent in ice-cream toppings, cakes, cookies, and sweetmeats.

In Lebanon, the site of the ancient kingdom of Phoenicia, carob molasses is traditionally used as an alternative to sugar. Mixed and served with tahina, or sesame paste, it is eaten as a dessert called dibs bi tahina. Carob molasses is also said to be delicious on pancakes.

Interestingly, carob seeds have a history of their own. The carob seed looks very much like a large watermelon seed. There are about eight seeds to a pod. The gum they contain was used by the Egyptians for binding their mummies. The Italians use the seed to make rosary beads and in Israel they have an annual Carob Festival.

Because carob seeds are very uniform in weight, they were used as a measure for gold and gems. This carob weight has come down through the centuries as the familiar caret weight. One half of a carob seed equals one gram, or five carets.

Bowl of Date Syprup in the Making

The juice of most fruits is obtained by pressing. Dates are different because their soluble solids are too concentrated to be pressed out. A minor exception to this rule is the incidental by-product when bagged dates are heaped on top of each other in a humid warehouse. Over a period of time small amounts of syrup will ooze out due to the force of the downward pressure. Clearly this is no way to produce usable syrup.
 To make date syrup at home, buy the softest dates you can find. Chop or crush them and put them in a narrow pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 5 minutes, then put it on the lowest heat and simmer for 30-60 minutes. Very soft dates do not require as much cooking. Remove from heat and let cool. Once the mixture is cool, put it into a blender and run on liquefy. If small pieces remain, pour the syrup through a sieve to remove them. The resulting dark syrup can be used as a replacement for maple syrup or honey when cooking and can also substitute for sugar when baking cookies.

This syrup is made by scoring dried figs, placing them in large pots of water and letting them reconstitute for 12 hours. When the figs have softened, they are boiled and the juice produced is strained off. This juice is then boiled down to thick syrup. Fig syrup is used in cakes, fritters and many desserts. It also replaces maple syrup over French toast, waffles and pancakes.

Also known as debash, it is mentioned several times in my Seeds of Christianity™ Series of books. In Greek it is πετιμέζι, pronounced peh-tee-MEH-zee. Grape syrup is naturally sweet and eaten with yogurt, over ice cream, in tea, on pancakes, in baking. In mountainous regions, it is also used to make an impromptu snow cone by pouring it over fresh snow. A teaspoonful will work wonders for sore throats due to colds.

The syrup is made by crushing the grapes and adding a small amount of wood ash to the must, as crushed grapes, juice and skins are called. The mixture is boiled in small batches and then strained. The resulting thickened juice is boiled and reduced to a thick reddish syrup. 

 There is apparently no end to the uses for these ancient syrups and sweeteners. One firm markets product to add to your bath water. It contains syrups from wild figs and grapes along with emollient oils and is said to freshen and soften the skin. We have no information regarding the use of such a product by the Early Christians, however, it seems unlikely to say the least.

All of the modern recipes for pomegranate syrup shorten the process by combining the juice with refined sugar in a ratio of 1 part sugar to 4 parts juice before it is reduced. True, pomegranates do have a tart, tangy taste and may require some sweetening, but clearly this is not the way it was done 2,000 years ago. They would have prepared the syrup by first boiling down the pomegranate juice and then sweetened it as needed by adding small amounts of honey.
Unlike the other syrups and molasses we’ve been looking at, pomegranate syrup wasn’t used as a topping or sweetener. Instead, it served as a marinade that was brushed onto various meats before grilling. It is still used that way today.

Until next time, Shalom Aleichem!

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