A Sweet Retrospective

In the 1930’s the Pan Floor Manager was the most powerful man in the Home Grown Sugar (beet)  factories, and a seven year apprenticeship had to be undertaken to learn how to boil sugar.  That power had long gone in the 1960’s and it took me about a month to learn how to run a Pan to make sugar. A sugar boiler ran three Pans at once, which could be hectic on timing.  Today the process is computer operated.


Vaccum Pans at Bury St. Edmunds Sugar Factory, circa 1960
Vaccum Pans at Bury St. Edmunds Sugar Factory, circa 1960

C-R-A-C-K  the bleed  on the Pan’s suction line
then open the main to the stolen air’s roar,
swirl the feed tap  to its end stop
charging the vessel with evaporated juice.
When liquid licks at the lowest sight glass
slam shut the feed – then summon the skill.

Inch the steam valve’s knurled wheel
until the trapped juice boils in vacuum.
Patience – wait,  – wait – wait –
for the juice to thicken and crawl
across the glass portal to airless space.
Slide the sampler within its tight seal
probe the trembling mass,  twist, withdraw –
your wetted hand strokes its capture,
the only human touch required.


If syrup strings between finger and thumb
it‘s time to transmogrify to crystal.
The trigger-shock is  sugar, finely ground,
a handful at the  sample-cock’s curved mouth.
Fast Open Fast Close  — the vacuum sucks it in,
a catalytic magic, fine crystals now emerge
throughout the altered mass; ‘Massecuite.’
You have inseminated sugar.


Like  life newly formed, the crystals grow,
tightly controlled, over several hours —
fed now with juice, or water for control.
Liquid starved Massecuite will thump
and lump in torment on the glass,
a heavy pulse,  a  giant’s  beating heart,
but  misjudge correction with excess  feed
and  crystals will  drown quietly in syrup.


Get it right, thirty tons slides in silence through the drop door,
Get it wrong, and cringe at  the splatter of  gigantic diarrhoea.
Empiric wisdom – consumption and construction need equal care.



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