In Part 1, we got the cane from the field, unloaded it at the mill, chopped up, and now… into the mill it goes.
The cane is pretty much pulverized along the way, and the juice extracted. In another part of the cane mill complex, a core laboratory is analyzing samples from each load of cane to determine sucrose, moisture and other factors which indicate the sugar yield from each truckload. The cane is pulverized through the mill – usually involving a series of rollers – and the juice is extracted. The remaining pulp is called bagasse, and is usually incinerated to fuel the running of the mill. There’s an awful lot of bagasse, though, and the sugar content means it will ferment quickly – there’s that stench a lot of people complain about.
The juice itself is like any other raw juice – a thin liquid, and frankly, not exactly clean. It’s cleaned up with slaked lime, and the dirt settles out and is usually returned to the fields. The juice heads off to evaporators so that it can be boiled down.
If by now you have the idea that a sugar cane factory is a large, hot place with a lot of very massive machinery…you’re right. Most of the “smoke” people see billowing out of the plant is steam, and both air and water exhaust is monitored and must meet environmental regulations.
Making sugar is an art as well as a science. It’s one thing to boil the juice down into syrup; it’s something else to coax it into crystalization. It’s a tricky process.
Once the magic of crystalization happens, the syrup heads to centrifuges where the crystals are separated from the liquid. Voila! Raw sugar, which is dried and sent to a warehouse.
Louisiana is home to 11 sugar factories which produce raw sugar, which is sent to refineries that will produce refined sugar and similar products. Because of the sugar content of the cane, it must be processed quickly after it is cut. The raw sugar is usually stored in warehouses until it can be shipped to a refinery.
I often wonder who figured out that the tall, thick cane held this amazing sweet stuff in it. Since cane was introduced into Louisiana, I don’t think it was the same brave soul who looked at a crawfish and said “I wonder how that tastes?”
So when you sit down to enjoy something sweet this Christmas or Hanukkah, take a moment to think of all those who had a hand in your holiday baking. Chances are many of those folks are at work on Christmas day, because grinding doesn’t stop until all the cane is done. Think about all of those who’ve had a hand in your entire holiday meal, no matter how extravagant or simple, and say a prayer of thanksgiving.
Now I’m going to post this and bake some Christmas cookies with – yep, you guessed it – home-grown Louisiana raw sugar.
Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved. Please contact me for use.