Perhaps it’s because I have been spending a lot of time in the mud, but I’m drawn very much to muscovado sugar. Dark as earth, moist, crumbly and rich with minerals, it has sizeable heft. It is always winter with muscovado. And it reminds me of the eternal cold of Devon, before central heating, and the way our small fingers stuck to the inside of the windows and having to get dressed with our foggy breath snorting out of our mouths like buffalo.
As children we only ever had muscovado and we put it in our tea, which was like drinking turf. We sprinkled it over our porridge in the mornings and the strong malt-like aniseed depth of it was not always easy to take, though it helped if there was a moat of cold milk which the muscovado sweetened to butterscotch. If muscovado is turf then molasses is tar. It was sometimes given to us ‘for nerves’ in the same way that cod liver oil was administered ‘for bones’. And I can still remember the thick gluey strings of molasses making my jaw ache, the smell strangely reminiscent of tobacco and the colour which was like Victorian yacht varnish.
I was aware that other households didn’t have such things. My school friends had white sugar that was often mistaken for salt, and a wet dab of the finger was needed to ascertain which was which. I also remember that theirs were houses filled with neatness and pullovers and tank tops knitted in luminous artificial colours.
My friends didn’t have to be wrapped in sheets stiff with heat from the storage heater just before bedtime. They didn’t know what they were missing, because being swaddled like this so you could barely move and feeling the starchy steam rise into the room was actually very satisfying. And then we were lowered into our beds like mummies. But apart from this one thing, I really wanted to be banal and suburban and have nothing unique about me at all.
This might be why I called myself Marian, which I did for a while, thinking it was a nice, quiet name. But the black sugar was too much of a give away. It marked us out as odd and therefore vulnerable to attack. And it wasn’t used for things people understood, like chutneys, marinades and fruit cake. It spoke of the chaos underpinning everything, that we used muscovado outside of its real purpose, that we didn’t differentiate. Eventually we left, dad to Exmouth and the rest of us to Exeter and later onwards to London. It has left me with a lifelong nervousness of parochial life, of so-called ‘country living’. Those small places can be tough. But muscovado put iron in the soul and molasses helped to calm our fraying nerves.
The lowdown on muscovado
Muscovado (from the Portuguese açúcar mascavado meaning ‘separated sugar’) is also known as Barbados sugar, and is made differently to other brown sugars: instead of being white sugar to which molasses is added, it is boiled down from sugar cane juice, purified with lime juice, but then not refined any further. Muscovado is made in Barbados, in Mauritius, and in the Antique province in the Philippines, where it was one of the most prominent export commodities, from the 19th century until the late 1970s. It is nutritionally richer than other brown sugars, and retains most of the natural minerals – such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and iron – inherent in sugarcane juice.
Muscovado brownies with almonds
Adapted from The Delia Collection: Chocolate
You can use whatever nut takes your fancy, but almonds always work with this recipe, and keep the skins on. This is on the ‘cakey’ end of the brownie spectrum – crisp on the outside and damp within, but no weeping chocolate or fudge. If this bothers you, use my earlier brownie recipe. I’m terrified now looking back at those ingredients; you will probably need a defibrillator standing by, just in case. This recipe is much more demure. You can make it gluten-free by using ground almonds/rice flour instead of the standard plain. The molasses keeps things dark and rich, but is not essential here. The salt, to my mind, is.
2 oz (50g) almonds (skin on)
4 oz (110g) dark chocolate (60-70% cocoa solids)
4 oz (110g) butter
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
8 oz (225g) dark muscovado sugar
1 tbs molasses (optional)
2 oz (50g) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt (plus a pinch to sprinkle over the baked brownie)
Lightly grease a non-stick baking tin 6 x 10 inch (15 x 24 cm) and line with baking parchment. Allow the paper to come 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the tin. Heat the oven to 350F/180C, then chop the almonds roughly, put them on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 5-8 minutes, keeping an eye on them as they burn easily.
While the almonds are doing their work, put chocolate and butter together in a heatproof bowl fitted over a pan of barely simmering water. Allow the chocolate to melt without stirring it, then remove from the heat and gently stir to smoothness. Then mix in the other ingredients until well blended. Spread the mixture into the prepared tin and bake on the centre shelf for about 25 minutes, or until soft and springy in the middle. Leave to cool for ten minutes, and then put on a sheet of parchment on a wire rack. Cut squint, so you can eat the stray bits while no one’s looking.