“We didn’t have sweets when we were kids,” says the sugar cane grower. “All we had was sugar cane that we would eagerly suck on. I’d always grown sugar cane in the garden, maybe because of that sweet childhood memory, and I ended up turning the hobby into a profession. Twenty years ago, when I had to choose the second time around – after I lost my house and two and a half million shekels in my first incarnation as a building contractor – I chose sugar cane.” In the warehouse on the edge of the rented farmland in Moshav Rinatya stands a truck loaded with hundreds of green-yellow-pale red canes bundled together with blue tape. The truck will soon make its way to East Jerusalem, to the street vendors and stalls that sell sugar cane juice.
In times past, travelers and pilgrims to Palestine described the sugar cane fields in the coastal plain and the Jordan Valley, and the sugar mills that distilled the precious sweet stuff for the most affluent class. In the 12th century, the region was a thriving center of sugar production and an important way station for relaying the product and know-how about it from East to West. Today barely any sugar cane fields remain, since it is a crop that requires an abundance of water.
Uri Malhi, who has 40 dunams under cultivation on Moshav Rinatya, is about the only commercial grower around. And every purveyor of sugar cane juice from Acre in the Galilee to Be’er Sheva in the south gets Malhi’s fresh produce, as well as the machine to squeeze the sweet nectar.
Malhi, a towel around his neck, picks up a machete and heads out to the field. Trotting along behind him is Chief, the oldest of many dogs on the farm. “Around here, near the airport, a lot of pets get abandoned, and I can’t resist taking them in,” says the soft-hearted fellow, who has dogs, cats and donkeys following him as if he were the pied piper.
The sugar cane field – a closed, organic ecological system fertilized solely with liquid fertilizer produced by worms that feed on the cane remnants – is a wild tropical wonder to behold, a separate universe right in the heart of the country, yet hidden from view. The growing cycle lasts eight months, and the canes, which grow to a tremendous height, are hand-picked on a daily basis when they attain the desired level of sweetness.
A marvelous nectar is produced from these canes. As sugar cane has largely disappeared from the local landscape, and with the bad reputation sugar has earned in recent decades, the wonderful taste of sugar cane juice has been nearly forgotten. But the fresh juice, balanced with a little lemon juice to offset the natural sweetness, has an aroma and complex flavor that’s nothing like the flat, unvaried taste of industrially produced sugar. Besides sugar cane juice, Malhi also makes a terrific cane honey (which he calls sugar “silan”). The gelato maker Itai Rogozinsky of the Vaniglia chain is now using these two ingredients to make a refreshing and summery sugar cane sorbet.
“I met Malhi when we were looking for some equipment to buy and he’d advertised about the kind of tank we needed,” Rogozinsky relates. “But I tasted this fantastic juice, and the aromatic potential really grabbed me. And since I want to base my ice creams and sorbets on fresh agricultural produce, and to try to make the ingredient the star, I started experimenting. The final result is the Indian-inspired sugar cane sorbet, without the addition of any processed sugars, and with fresh lime juice and tart ginger added.”
Experiments on a stick
In olden times, children’s sweets were a rare treat. Throughout most of human history, sugar was as precious as gold, and most children only got to experience the sweet taste once or twice a year, on holidays or at special events, and even then it was usually by eating dried or preserved fruits. Only in the latter half of the 19th century did sugar become a common and accessible foodstuff, and then a new age of widely distributed inexpensive children’s sweets dawned. The lollipop (“candy on a stick” in Hebrew) was also born in that time, although it did have some more ancient roots in the form of sugar cane itself, and twigs that were dipped in wild honey.
Yaakov Goldberg, a design student at the Holon Institute of Technology, devoted his final project to lollipops, or candy on a stick. He first read up on all the professional literature and took a short course in candy-making (“I’ve eaten a lot of candy in the last year. My wife can’t stand the sight of candy at this point, and even worse – the bits of sugar left in the pots in the kitchen. It took me a while to realize that I could heat up the leftover sugar, stretch it out and cut it into Berlingot candies and bring it in every day for the other students”). He made candies using different techniques, including stretching, and ultimately focused on creating molds for pouring candies. “That’s where I see the line between industrial design and working with sugar,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do a project that combined two loves of mine – design and food, but I didn’t just want to design the presentation of the food, I wanted to design the food itself.”
The first series he created, “Mutations,” focused on the image of the classic commercial lollipop – red candy atop a white stick. “I viewed it as a cell that keeps splitting and developing,” he says. “And the different shapes create a totally different experience in the mouth.” Taking off from there, he used his imagination and creativity to come up with several beautiful, clever and humorous series that examined different aspects of the archetypical object.
The textures series – which includes spiky candies, candies with holes and one that looks like a knife and gets sharper as you suck on it – examined the experience of sucking on a candy and the feelings it creates in the mouth and on the tongue; the roosters series includes an egg-shaped candy as well as one shaped like a roast chicken. There are series that take apart and reinvent the role of the stick and the wrapping and their design. One of the most touching series, which should really be commercially produced, is molded in the shape of famous Tel Aviv icons (Dudu Geva’s duck, Yaakov Agam’s fountain and Menashe Kadishman’s “Hitromemut” sculpture). This sweet project, done under the guidance of Na’ama Steinbok, was recently on display in the graduates’ exhibition, and has also been compiled as a book of photographs, “86 Candies on a Stick,” containing dozens of lovely images paired with charming texts about the history and philosophy of the lollipop.