Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Crystal Dunes

I ended my visit to Louisiana’s cane country by visiting a modern sugar factory, constructed in 1961, it was the last one built in the state.As you walk around the Cajun Sugar Cooperative plant you are buffeted by an ever-shifting mixture of smells: the sour earthy funky manure smell of molasses, the sharp putrid vegetal smell of freshly ground cane (called bagasse). There are hints of mown grass, hay, caramel and sweat. The Cajun produces a million tons of raw sugar in its grinding season, more than three times what the entire state of Louisiana produced a hundred years ago.

I was taken around by the Lance Weber. Lance looks more like a linebacker than the operation’s manager of a sugar mill yet it’s up to him to make sure the system doesn’t stumble. Once the mill is cranked up in late August, it runs 24/7 until sometime in December. “She’s like a woman,” Lance tells me with a whisper of a smile, “once you get her going you got to go with it.” In some ways, the process of making sugar is exactly the same as it has always been: you squeeze the cane, boil it down, crystallize it and drain off the molasses. But the speed, scale and efficiency would leave the tycoons of the last century breathless.

The cane that arrives in flatbed trucks and giant metal carts is transferred to conveyor belts by a giant claw that seizes the enormous bunches of grass much like the little mechanical grabs that pick up fuzzy toys in supermarket vending machines. At the end of the belts, a non-stop Niagara of cane cascades down into a long maw that chews it up and spits it out onto another conveyer belt, now looking more like mulch rather than anything you’d want to stir into your coffee. This is fed into a battery of four rollers with interlocking teeth that shred and press this wet hay to extract as much juice as possible. This repeats once, twice, six times. The leftovers, that is the bagasse, are fed into four-story high furnaces that feed steam turbines that keep the process running. Any excess steam is used to keep two electrical generators—named Donna and Paule Ann—producing electricity. A woman’s work is never done, it would seem.

At this point the cane juice is clarified by the addition of lime to precipitate out the solids. Lance pulls out a test tube of the clarified juice, which resembles nothing so much as a urine sample. As you move up in the plant, the heat slowly increases. It’s never exactly hellish but you do occasionally think of purgatory. An especially depopulated one however.

About five workers are inside the plant at any given time, most of them huddled in an air-conditioned room that acts as a kind of cockpit for the entire operation. (Lance shouts over the roaring turbines to tell me that twenty years ago, there would have been four times as many employees.) Once the juice is clear it is pumped into evaporators first at 240°F and then under a vacuum at 140°F. The resulting syrup is thick and the color of dark caramel.

This syrup is now pumped into tall cylinders that each hold some 21,000 gallons of the warm sweet liquid. To turn this into sugar, workers add anywhere between 750 and 7,500 gallons of brown sugar (this is more art than science apparently) to encourage crystallization. As the slurry cools, the sugar crystals grow, first elongated prisms and then small square crystals. Judging just when to strike the sugar (that is to stop the process) is as much a matter of expertise as it ever was. You test it by pulling a long plunger out of the cylinder smearing a little on a glass slide and looking through a loupe. What you see are crystals suspended in a light caramel solution. At this point the taste is like an incredibly complex light brown sugar. But the process isn’t finished yet. Now the sugar is spun in a centrifuge outfitted with filters that will not let the crystals pass through. The molasses that is expelled is a thick aromatic goo. It is seeded, struck and spun two more times. By the third strike, the final molasses is loam black, dense and sticky—there’s almost no sweetness left now. The sugar that results from the third strike is what they use to seed the syrup. Too bad, it’s an incredibly flavorful, earthy and perfumed dark brown sugar with notes of vanilla, bourbon and resin. Lance wrinkles his nose. “I don’t like the taste of molasses.”

he tells me as he leads me around the outside of the plant to an enormous corrugated hangar where sugar, the color of sand, spills off the conveyor belt. A wheel loader pauses from its task of shoveling this two-story high dune of sugar into the waiting flatbed container so that I can climb this sweet mountain, like an ant in a sugar bowl. I pick up a handful of the raw sugar. At this point, it is 98.5 percent pure, made up of uneven crystals that glisten like rough treasure in the pale light. The raw sugar crystals dissolve on the tongue leaving behind sweetness and smoke.

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