The art of sugar crafting, perhaps better described as sugar “sculpting,” has been around for 100s of years, and has been practiced in different countries and even continents around the world. According to food historians, sugar crafting has been a respected skill for centuries in many cultures, but the role it played in those cultures varied greatly. For example, in some cultures, sugar sculptures were intended as a piece of art, something beautiful to be admired, much as contemporary sugar art work is today. In other parts of the world, sugar creations were considered sacred and had a religious and ceremonial purpose.
There is historical evidence of sugar sculptures appearing, usually as showpieces or centerpieces on feast tables or at other grand occasions, in Egypt, Istanbul and around Europe. The sculptures often took the form of grandiose buildings, or trees, or animals. At the occasion of a feast, the artist would often design his sculpture as a tribute to the host of the event or to an honored guest. Sometimes, if the feast was held to commemorate a special day or holy day, that would be reflected in theme of the sculpture itself.
Sometimes, the sculpture would be intended simply to generate admiration and conversation among the guests, or to give an impression of the power or wealth of the person who commissioned the artist’s services.
South Of The Equator
As documented by Spanish colonialists in the 16th century, the indigenous peoples of Mexico practiced a food craft art form which could be considered a predecessor to sugar sculpting. The method consisted of using a type of dough to create edible decorative images of the gods, or of animals or people. The images of the gods were considered sacred, and eating parts of the sculpture had a religious significance. Accessories and features such as feathers, stones, beads, etc. were added to the sculptures in the same way that sugar craft artists decorate their creations today.
Japan is another country that has history of sugar sculpting dating back 500 years. Modern Japanese sugar crafts are made from a type of confectionary called “Wagashi,” which is often molded into the shapes of fruit and other types of food.
As sugar became more widely available and cheaper, sugar sculpting enjoyed a surge in popularity, which gradually diminished in the 20th century as sugar lost some of its prestigious aura. This hasn’t however, stopped contemporary sugar artists in the 21st century from astonishing the public with their impressive designs and making a very good living from their craft.
Like sugar sculptures from previous centuries, even today’s masterpieces are perishable. Some argue that this is part of their allure both for craftspeople and their admirers. The beauty of a sculpture on a table is something transient that cannot be captured or hung on a wall. It will soon leave this world, and the artist will set about creating something just as magnificent all over again.