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In search of 'head sugar'

Published:Monday | March 22, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Nobel Prize-nominated Jamaican scientist Dr Bert Fraser-Reid in the laboratory. - FILE
A sugar cane cutter works in the canefields. - FILE

Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer

Dr Bert Fraser-Reid is a Jamaica-born world-renowned researcher in organic, synthetic and sugar chemistry who was once nominated for a Nobel Prize. In the November 16, 2009 instalment of His Story, called The 'accidental scientist', we told of how he got involved in chemistry purely by chance. Sometime last year, he returned to his native Clarendon to look at the manufacturing of what is known locally as 'head sugar'.

"Is head sugar still made in Jamaica? This was a question that I directed to any Jamaican who would listen. Today's 20-year-olds had no idea what I was talking about. Their 40-year-old parents confused it with 'wet sugar'. Wet sugar is really head sugar dispersed in molasses," he says.

So, after much inquiry he found a man named Leopold Maye in Summerfield, one mile from Clarendon College, where he had spent 10 years as a student and teacher. But why his sudden interest in head sugar?

"My friends wanted an explanation for my sudden interest in head sugar. They know that I am a 'sugar' chemist, and that 30 years ago, my lab, then at the University of Waterloo in Canada, had carried out synthesis of table sugar (sucrose). However, the sugars that interest me today at my research institute in North Carolina are the non-edible types that are implicated in infectious diseases, particularly malaria and tuberculosis.

"The interest is because table sugar (sucrose) is now used to make, arguably, the world's most popular, non-caloric artificial sweetener, sucralose, which is packaged and marketed under the trade name Splenda ... The procedure for making head sugar has remained virtually the same for over 500 years. So there is a straight line from the days of West Indian slavery to sucralose, the sweet ingredient in Splenda. It is this straight line that interests me," he explains.

Enthusiastic man

After an initial visit to Leopold Maye's operations, travelling along the main road and then on a narrow and rough path that leads to Maye's property, he returned with two of his high-school classmates and a nephew to see the process for themselves.

He says of Maye, "This enthusiastic man proved to be a fount of information of all kinds. I learned that his slave-owner ancestors had operated a sheep and pigpen at a site which is now in the bustling town of May Pen. A recent ancestor had added the 'e' to May. An enterprising man on all fronts, Mr Maye is badgering the powers that be to install a historical plaque in May Pen that proclaims his slave-ancestral lineage.

"A tour of his facility was a walk down memory lane. He is the third-generation practitioner of the art of head sugar making, his father and grandfather having paved the way for him. His yard is strewn with cane-crushing devices that could be a timeline in the evolution of these devices."

The mill, currently in use, Fraser-Reid says, bears testimony to Maye's mechanical acumen and ingenuity. Maye's driving mechanism is a two-stroke engine 'cobbled together' from a little tractor. So, instead of a four-inch-wide belt, there is the ordinary black half-inch belt that you will find in a car's engine. The engine is ignited by drawing a piece of cord to get the pistons moving.

The process starts at the cane crusher. Long stalks of sugar cane are fed manually into a Rube Goldberg machine. The juice from the machine runs through a funnel into a two-inch diameter, 20-foot-long PVC pipe and empties into the first of three huge, bowl-shaped cast-iron cauldrons in the boiling house. The furnace is fed by dried bamboo.

However, using bamboo for fuel can be dangerous. The joints must be split. If not, upon heating, air trapped in cracks expands, and can explode with such force that the interior of the furnace is shattered. Also, unlike sugar factories, Maye does not use bagasse (dried cane trash) as fuel, because it produces fine ashes that get into the sugar.

During the evaporative process, the increasingly thick liquid is transferred manually from the first to the second, and to the third cauldron. This transfer of the hot, sticky liquid is done with a ladle attached to the end of a 10-foot-long pole, resting on the edge of the furnace.

The steaming, bubbling cauldrons spew a vast amount of froth and Maye skims this off using a perforated pallet, also attached to a 10-foot pole. However, the thick froth could contain valuable syrup, and so the skimmed froth from the third cauldron was not discarded, but added to the second, and that from the second was added to the first.

From time to time, Maye rushes outside to stoke the fire in order to regulate the bubbling in each of the cauldrons, until crystallisation starts. To facilitate this critical process, a suspension of white lime (calcium oxide) in cane juice is added, to prevent the sugar crystals from clumping.

Finally, the thick brown substance is poured into a flat trough to cool, while constant manual stirring, scraping, and folding are maintained to ensure consistency of texture. Timing is again important at this juncture. At a certain critical stage, Maye then starts to ladle the warm, thick, caramel-coloured syrup into styrofoam cups. The search for head sugar is over, and Dr Fraser-Reid is back to his lab.