Back in the day sugar was quite expensive considering the little money we had coming in. Most of our sweetness came from honey, which with the amount of locals who kept bees was not difficult to get hold of. We would often swap something from the garden, or maybe a small block of suet for a couple of jars, cooking fat was very expensive and hard to come by so we always got more honey for suet than for garden produce.
Once a year though we made our own sugar, from the sugar beet Ernie and out neighbour grew in a joint patch between the gardens. There used to big a big old hedge there, but it was slowly dying and had bare patches so they pulled it out. The ground underneath was very poor, all stoney and sick looking. Not at all like the soil in the rest of the garden. Ern and Ron dug in a massive amount of muck, and a couple of sacks of leaves. They used the double dig trick, digging two spades deep, putting the soil behind you then filling the trench with the manure and leaves and turning the soil from the next trench over on top of it. They weeded and got rid of the stones as they went. The last trench was filled with the soil from the first trench they dug, completing the whole plot.
Once that was done they mixed more manure into the top layer and let it lie through the winter. By spring the difference was amazing. They turned over a couple of spades and the soil was all crumbly and much darker in colour than before. They planted the beets in April, and Ern wrote down the date because Ron couldn’t read or write. The beet would be harvested 100 days later.
They planted the whole plot with beet seeds, which I thought would be far too much for just two families…but it was nowhere near enough! The beet took a lot of tending, they have to be kept weed free. Then they have to be thinned, though not too much of that went on, too time intensive given they both worked 16 hour days on the farm.
The bright green leaves that grew thick and lush as the beets matured looked much better than the old hedge.
Come harvest time the children helped pull the beets up, we had a most massive pile, as did Ron and Doris next door. I set about cutting the leaves off, you can cook and eat them like cabbage but none of us liked the taste that much so I dried them on the iron rack above the range. They dry out quite fast, but even when you think veggies are totally dry leave them another two days to be sure because they will spoil the whole jar full if any of them are damp.
When they were dry I would place a piece of brown paper on the table and crumble up the dried leaves. These would go into a jar that I had heated up in the range oven, the heat made sure any tiny bits of moisture dried out. A few spoons of the dried greens added to soups and stews in the winter meant the children got extra veg inside them without me having a fight to make them eat it, the soups and stews had so many flavours you couldn’t taste the beet leaves.
The beets themselves took a good time to process. They had to have a good scrub and then be thinly peeled. I would dice them up quite small, that way they cooked down quicker. After boiling for about 45 minutes I would take them off the heat and pour the mixture through a sieve into another saucepan. You may have to sieve several times to get all the mash out, I used muslim cheesecloth for the final sieving. Leaving solids in it is okay unless you want to store it, it keeps better with the solids gone. The solids would then sit in the sieve until cooler and then I would squeeze them through muslim to get all the juice out. This happened over and over with batch after batch of beet until the juice saucepan was full.
The saucepan went back onto the range and was boiled until the liquid started to reduce and get stickier and thicker. If you boil it long enough you can then pour it out onto a sheet and it will set so that you can break it up into little lumps of sugar, this can take many hours. I rarely waited that long until the last batch, but I’ll tell you of that later.
Once about the thickness of honey I would take it off the heat and let it cool a while before putting it into hot screw top jars…liquid sugar. Ernie would take the mushed beet fibres to everyone we knew who had chickens and they would all give us a half dozen eggs in exchange for a couple of bowls of the beet mash, the chickens loved it and apparently happy chickens lay more eggs.
The beet processing often took a few days altogether because of having to keep up with other things at the same time, there would never have been enough time to do it all at once.
When I got to the last batch I would let it cook down until it was really thick and sticky. I would pour it out onto a baking tray and let it cool, then, just before it set and it was easy to handle I would take up small spoonfuls and roll them into balls, putting them to one side to set hard.
The children loved their sweeties, just a couple each, the rest would be stored and would reappear at Christmas.
I would usually end up with six or eight jars of delicious, dark brown beet syrup, four or so jars of crushed leaves and several dozen eggs from the swapping of the mash. Not bad from a handful of seeds.