Very few of us return from a trip without some kind of souvenir; we all like momentos. Me? I collect sugar sachets. My craving began back in 2006. We were touring Spain in a campervan. I was doing the driving and insisted that every so often we had to have a coffee stop. One way of integrating with the locals and practicing our Spanish, right?
I remember my first sachet. It was a blue outline of a Victorian lady sheltering beneath her parasol. I thought it far too pretty to be on the back of a sugar packet. Somehow it found its way into my backpack. I’d become addicted. I wanted to see how many different sachets I could collect.
As I write, my hand delves haphazardly into a bowl containing some hundred and six sugar sachets; the memories came flooding back. The first one I pull out boasts of the ‘Cafe Viena’ in Aviles, an industrial city that boasts a medieval heart and the church where the first governor of the US state of Florida is buried.
The second tells of a cafe we visited in the small Asturian town of Navelgas where they pan for gold. The world gold panning championships were held there in 2008. If it hadn’t been for a much needed coffee stop, I’d not have known this rural, farming communities claim to fame.
Somewhere along the road we took coffee in the ‘Bar Berlin’ in Salas with castle surrounded by a mountainous wilderness usually bypassed by tourists on their way to Galicia.
The sachet with a picture of a sailing boat reminds me of when we visited the bar of the Hotel Pena Mar is Castrapol, a picturesque fishing village on the shore of the Ria de Ribadeo that forms the border of Galicia. The bar is suggestive of a museum portraying articles from traditional Galician houses in bygone days.
I wondered about the history of this little insignificant package that we take for granted. The first small packet of sugar can be traced back to Partridge’s Dining Rooms in Philadelphia, USA. Mr. Partridge started producing the packets in 1862 although it wasn’t until New Yorker Benjamin Eisenstadt started mass producing them in 1945 that they came into popular use. He and his wife ran a diner in Brooklyn and wanted a way to serve single teaspoon portions of sugar. Sadly, Mr. Eisenstadt didn’t paten his sachets and his idea was stolen by a firm he approached. In the 1950s he did become successful by producing packets of the low calorie sweetener ‘Sweet ‘n Low’.
The popularity of sugar sachets is phenomenal. They can be found anywhere from the greasiest of roadside diners to the poshest of hotels the world over.
The sugar sachet has found itself involved in all kinds of immoral acclivities. Some have made the headlines. Qantas sacked one of its stewards for stealing them. Prisoners have been known to use them as trading chips for other commodities as well as making moonshine. An Australian was spotted in a cafe flossing his teeth with the edge of a sugar sachet before placing it back in the receptacle.
Sachet trivia includes the little known fact that a Boeing 747 flying from Melbourne to Los Angeles will stock up with 950 sugar packets. An employee of the New Zealand firm Health-Pak claims he made in excess of 9.6 million sugar sachets in over 22 years. In the film ‘I Am Sam’, Sean Penn’s character is seen meticulously organising sachets according to brand at the Starbucks where he works. In 2001, the ANZ bank mailed a light hearted booklet to its customers entitled ‘101 Better Ways to Save’. Number 90 suggests taking sugar sachets from fast food restaurants (while number 45 suggests building a bungalow for your mother in law and upping the rent each month). In the UK you’re legally entitled to take unused sachets from your hotel room or when placed on your saucer accompanying your cup of coffee in a cafe.
Because of the diverse appearance of these packets, with their various pictures, shapes and sizes, they’ve become quite collectable. Sucrology is now an identified hobby. In the UK alone there are over 250 recognised sucrologists.
A sketch in the Times newspaper reported that sucrologists may be responsible for two percent of the worlds gross national product being tied up in emergency reserves of sugar sachets. If such supplies were convertible to cash, the world would be rich enough to provide clean water to everyone in Africa.
The sugar sachet is more than just a table dressing; it has a remarkable array of uses. During intense conversation, idle fingers often subconsciously pick up empty sachets, folding them into weird and wonderful sculptures. This form of origami is often only appreciated once you leave the table. Wobbly tables can be made stable by stuffing full sachets under the offending shorter leg. Arguing over the off side rule? Wondering if the fly-half can make it through the hooker? Sugar sachets can aid the working out of complex sporting formations by substituting players on the table-top field of play, settling the intricate of disputes.
Each sucrologist has their own way of displaying their collection. The most common way is in a photo album with plastic sleeves. Haven’t we all thought to ourselves “Oh no” when an album is magically produced around, until then, an enjoyable dinner party. Let’s be honest, who wants to spend an evening politely admiring someone’s holiday snaps of Blackpool pleasure beach or some obscure collection that seemingly serves no purpose?
My sugar sachets are tossed, without thought or order, into a fruit bowl sitting in the middle of my dining room table. Without fail, a dinner guest on their third glass of la rioja can be relied upon to delve their free hand into the bowl, asking “Now, what have we here?” Having asked, they can hardly refuse to listen to my explanation; can they? The evening ends some bottles later, each guest inspired to relate a tale of when they were in a cafe somewhere in down town Marrakech..........
Writing is such thirsty work; there’s a cafe in Longreo I’ve not been to. It’ll take me three hours to get there. Ok, that means a cuppa on the way there and another on the way back. Maybe I’ll have a hundred by Friday.........