How beet sugar is born. An Italian excellence – Italian Cuisine

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There are products whose origins we forget. We are so used to seeing them packaged in a perfect and clean way to forget that they are the result of hard labor in the fields and of the ingenious work of human transformation. It is rare that we stop to think that a can of peeled tomatoes, fruit juices, wine and even a simple sachet of sugar are born from the earth and can tell a story.

The story we are writing about today is all Italian. We are talking about beet sugar produced in the heart of the Po Valley, in Minerbio (BO), where it is located Italy Zuccheri. It is a production very close to many of us, which follows procedures that are clearly different from the best known and most widespread of the cane from Brazil, India, China, Caribbean …

For a start, the vegetable from which it derives is different: the reed is a tropical plant of the grass family, growing outdoors in warm and sunny climates.

170669There sugar beet instead it is a plant whose roots, very similar to large potatoes of elongated and pointed shape, are very rich in sucrose: it grows in temperate climates, under the ground and never sees the light. Indeed it arrives with its radicles up to two meters deep. And yet, pushing so thoroughly and working incessantly to take and release substances, it enriches so much the soil to be strongly desired by the producers of wheat in the rotation of crops. Yes, because if one year the beet is cultivated and the next one in the same field grows the wheat, the soil will have treasured mineral salts and amino acids and can return them to the cereal, which will be richer and will have better yields.

The agricultural rotation is annual: the life cycle of the beet would be about two years, but after 9 months from sowing the roots are already beautiful and ready to be processed. Therefore it can be harvested before completing its biological growth.

The reality that Salt and pepper he visited the work in a cooperative system, where the farmers who supply the product, or at least many of them, are also members and are directly involved in the management of the company. In practice, the final product is precisely those who, day after day, sowed, cultivated and processed the raw material, up to the finished product. Among other things, this is one of the very few 100% Italian companies that have managed to resist the changes of the 80s and 2000. If in the post-war period Italian sugar factories were around sixty, those active today are counted with one hand: over time in fact, there has been an overrun without appeal of cane sugar from distant countries, but also of beet sugar produced in other European regions.

Harvest and processing of beet

170672Harvesting takes place from the end of the summer until mid-autumn. Huge trucks transport tons of beets every day, which are carefully stored in huge heaps in front of the plant. The politeness towards the beet is also prompted by the signs scattered here and there that invite not to trample or damage them. If opened or split, in fact, a fermentation process begins, leading to the division of sucrose into glucose and fructose, compromising and rendering sugar beet unusable.

In this preliminary phase, a series of quality controls are also made on the raw material, then a roller carries the roots in the factory.

This is where the actual processing begins. The roots they are washed repeatedly, using the water obtained from the processing of the same beets, to avoid the waste of enormous quantities of water with an unsustainable environmental impact, then they are cut into julienne and passed in cooking columns where they are reduced to mashed, turning into sauce dark, dense and sticky. This slurry is still unclean and is filtered several times before being crystallized: all processing waste is grouped, dried and returned to the countryside, where they are used to enrich the soil of mineral salts and amino acids.

At this point the dark sauce is crystallized, centrifuged and rinsed, melted and recrystallized over and over again. On the one hand, dark and viscous molasses is obtained, which is stored and sold as a supplement for animal feeds or to yeasts (primitive sugar is an excellent nourishment for yeasts!), On the other, the product is finally reached more white, which will then be sieved to become a coarse-grained, fine, fine or veil-grained sugar, depending on its destination.

White or dark sugar? Myths to be debunked

170675It is thanks to this behind-the-scenes tour of the processing that we discovered that it is appropriate to debunk a myth: how many do not consume white sugar, thinking it is "bleached" chemically? Nothing could be more wrong. The brown sugar and the white beet sugar are exactly the same identical product: simply that dark is less worked. It has a color that tends to brown because it has been rinsed less often. Those who work in the plant have also told us that light-colored sugar is a fairly recent novelty: in the post-war period the machines were not as sophisticated as today, achieving the current white was not possible and people were used to consume a decidedly darker sugar, tending to beige.

Then the less refined sugar was a necessity. Today is a plus. In particular, 100% Italian beet raw sugar is one of the flagships of Italy Zuccheri: is called Nostrano, comes directly from the beets grown in the Italian fields, ensures balanced organoleptic properties and, thanks to a careful and skilful processing, maintains the nutrients contained in the juice of the mother beet.

The market currently offers many different products and the only way to understand where it comes from and how it has been processed is the sugar we are reading carefully the label, where are indicated raw materials and processing plants.

Barbara Roncarolo
February 2019

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