07 May 2009

Sugar spinning

Wushan Guangchang lies on one end of Yan’an road opposite the very upscale shopping hub of Wulin square. Lately the area has been undergoing extensive amounts of refurbishment the quality and authenticity of which I want to observe over the coming year since it seems to be handled better than other urban renewal projects in present day China. On a recent visit there, I happened to come across some street entertainment amongst the usual hawkers, whom I had not noticed during my previous forays. The main activities and little boutiques, some vintage, others made to look vintage are along Hefang street, a pedestrian thoroughfare with many diversions to amuse even the most jaded or jade seeking tourist. Some ancient looking apothecaries dominate the corners, but the majority of shops sell silks, tea, and trinkets. Without any attempt to downplay its presence, McDonald’s doesn't do much to blend in with the setting's theme.
I came across two candymakers while strolling there with some students. What struck me was how the candymakers were selling the candymaking as entertainment even more than the sweets. I was amazed at just how easily the two artisans made the tasks look. Having worked with sugar in the past, I wondered how they could maintain the sugar at the proper temperature to do what they did. I could only think of Antonin Careme and his five stages of cooked sugar.
The first that I saw was a young man making candy tracery on a stick. The majority of his customers were young and so he had cleverly placed a wheel with a pointer to spin in order to get them to make a design selection. Then the candymaker would dip into a pot of sugar at hard crack stage maintained on a small electric hotplate. Letting the sugar drizzle, he drew the selected design over his worksurface, placing a stick halfway through his effort, but still with only one dip into the sugarpot. At this temperature and concentration of sugar, it is so very easy to burn the sugar or to have trouble maintaining humidity. I wondered whether an additive might have been mixed in with the sugar in order to lengthen to working time and how long the mixture could be allowed to sit on the burner. The same candymaker made candies whenever a customer asked for one. The spectacle of one piece candy being made would subsequently draw in more customers. Then more sugar would be drawn out of the working sugarpot. I didn’t see any backup pot to know what would happen if the raw material started to run out.

The young customers get just as much pleasure from watching their candies made as from eating them.

A few paces down from one candymaker saw another woman who made what can seemingly be best described as taffy. There she also drew from a simple pot that was thermostatically controlled without much apparent concern or oversight.

She would pull out a measured amount of the sugar with two sticks and spun the mass with a third stick, just as with a taffy pulling machine. Not only did this allow her to work air into the concoction, but she would also add tiny amounts of dye that went into the zoomorphic shapes that she had on display.

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