Sweetrush

Even though this member of the great family of edible grasses grows extensively across the north coasts of the Middle Kingdoms’ continent, its profile in the Four Realms’ food culture is nowhere near as high as it is in many regions of our own Earth.

The generic name for members of the Saccharum species, right across the Realms, is either a coined word or a compound that translates as “sweetrush” (Dar. fénedel, Arl. and N.Arl fentell,  Stl. faeteneth). The Ladha, having found out about sweetrush from the Arlenes, use their word. Two main types of what we call sugarcane are recognized: the “tall rush” (closely approximating to our Saccharum officinarum, which grows 5-6 feet high) and the “thin rush” (which grows to less than half the height of the tall variety, but concentrates significantly more sucrose in its pith). As a result, the thin rush—most likely a selectively-bred hybrid of the local variants of S. officinarum and Saccharum sinense—is the one most widely cultivated. There is also an unusually sweet striped hybrid, S. medioregnis variegatum, which grows so invasively along some North Arlene coasts that it’s routinely referred to as murettaiv, “stickyweed” and is considered more a nuisance than an asset.

A combination of subequatorial/subtropical temperatures and year-around warm currents in the coastal Sea means that sweetrush has both the necessary warmth and frequent rainfall for it to prosper along the Kingdoms’ northern shores. Everywhere in its range where people live in any numbers, it’s freely harvested to be crushed for juice—either to drink fresh or for fermenting into a range of sweet fruit “beers.” And more or less inevitably,  anything that can be fermented to produce alcohol will eventually wind up being distilled. (The frighteningly potent North Arlene hooch called telenust is a sweetrush distillate—a relative-in-spirit [sorry…] of the equally robust Steldene spirit haermnul, which is distilled from sugar beet.)

It would only have been a matter of time before someone who often drank fresh sweetrush juice would start wondering if that sweetness could be further concentrated, and would boil some down to see what happened. Sweetrush syrups (often spiced with berry-pepper or the local equivalents of citron or cinnamon) gradually began to be used as a condiment in the 1500s p.a.d. Exactly when someone took the process a bit further—maybe accidentally—and discovered solid sweetrush sugar, is difficult to determine. However, references to a confectionery called “rushstone” begin turning up in cookery writings in the 1800s p.a.d. Further references to a granular sugar, “sweetsand”, and to the variants of molasses/treacle associated with its production, begin appearing in the 1900s.

While this new seasoning attracted a fair amount of attention early on, it never really acquired the kind of importance that sugar did in so many of our planet’s cultures. This was probably due both to the essential regionality of the Middle Kingdoms’ cuisines, and the unavoidable labor-intensiveness of sugar production.

Which of these was the more important factor would be difficult to tease out with any certainty. No matter where one’s located in the Kingdoms—and even with magic-users or Fireworkers involved—in a culture that straddles what we would think of as the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance period, there are significant challenges associated with moving either produce or finished goods long distances. As a result there’s something of a culture-wide resistance to moving goods “too far,” especially when some other more easily-available product is seen as superior because of lower price or an overall similarity to an out-of-region import. The producer striving to overcome this resistance must repeatedly gamble on whether a given potential market will produce enough of a return to make their efforts worthwhile—the consumer being the one who determines how much extra they’re willing to pay for the privilege of consuming the goods in question. As regards sugar, many Kingdoms people would tend to see the cost of importing the stuff into southern parts of the Realms as “not worth it” when honey can almost universally be locally sourced, and for far less cost.

And then there’s the matter of the very labor- and fuel-intensive basic manufacturing processes involved in making this particular product. Even if one has a willing sorcerer or Firebearer (or team of either) available to help with the onerous business of boiling the sweetrush juice further and further down, one question always remains. How much of their personal energy—or in the case of someone using the blue Fire, how much time off the span of their lives—are your magic-workers willing to spend on making something as relatively unimportant to the Kingdoms (in both the cultural and economic senses) as sugar?

In the period in which the lifespans of the principals in the Tale of the Five occur, the answer seems to be “Not all that much.” True, in North Arlen and on the Arlene seacoast surrounding Enethwaid west of Rûl Tyn, there are four well-known families—most or all of their members sorcerers—who have become professional sugarers. One of these families, the tai-Feneirutei, even holds a Throne warrant and receives a royal subsidy… though not for their sugaring, but for one of its byproducts.

Working with sweetrush in any significant quantity produces large amounts of crushed cane pulp. Some small producers use this refuse, once dried and baled, as fuel for the syrup-boiling kettles. But this post-manufacture byproduct also makes fairly good quality paper after it’s boiled, lye-bleached, and mechanically processed to break down and dissolve away its shorter, brittler fibers. The Arlene Throne’s sponsorship of the tai-Feneirutei’s secondary industry of papermaking is one more aspect of its continuing support of the great archive of rr’Virendir, without which the chief city of Arlen—and the home of the Throne—might not exist. (And if in return for this sponsorship the Throne gets from the tai-Feneirutei a yearly “peppercorn payment” of a barrel of high-quality brown sugar, a barrel of “palest-grade” refined sugar [used only for very high-end pastry or confectionery work such as sugar plate], a kilderkin of molasses, and a firkin of spirit of treacle? Well, the King does have a large public kitchen to provide for… and a favorite bakery up on the Castle Height which it is his royal pleasure to remind occasionally of his gratitude for the pastries they’d sometimes sneak him when he was a very young prince short of pocket money.)

In any case, as regards production, the sorcerous “sugaring clans” are exceptions to the rule. All other sugaring along the northern coasts, from the Eorlhowe to En’Lihan and Cythoer, is carried out seasonally by small-scale sweetrush farmers. These predominantly use conventional techniques for most of the production of what to us (for reasons of scale alone) would look like single-estate artisanal sugars. Most of them call in magic-workers only for the most labor-intensive parts of the boiling process. A few refuse to call them in at all, taking pride in bearing the burden of the work themselves.

This level of production seems more than adequate to supply the Kingdoms’ demand for a commodity generally viewed as a specialty sweet, meant more for special occasions than everyday use. This might seem strange to us… but it seems to work for them.

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