In order to do so we are going to pay a visit to the sugarcane factory of Le Gol, in the Southern part of Reunion, near the town of Saint-Louis. It is one of the two plants which process sugar canes on the island, the other one is in Bois-Rouge on the eastern coast. The factory is actually a double one as there is on one side the sugarcane process itself and on the other side an electricity power plant which feeds its burners using a byproduct of the sugar cane industry known as "bagasse." This is what is left after the canes have been crushed and pressed and consists mostly of ligneous leftovers. The steam used to rotate the dynamos is generated by the bagasse during the whole harvesting season, about five months long, and when the season comes to end, coal imported from nearby South Africa is used. We will only visit the sugar plant; the power plant is not open to public. There are some 190 people working all year and an additional 200 during harvest and processing season between July and December, when work continues 24 hoursa day.
Before entering the factory itself we have to slalom between tractors and trucks which come directly from the fields to deliver the freshly cut canes. Growers who are too far from the factory will deliver to other scales scattered throughout the island and the cane will then be transferred to the factory by huge trucks called "cachalots" (sperm whales). Every tractor and its trailer are weighted as they enter the factory, they will be weighted again when leaving so as to know the exact weight of cane delivered. Right after the weighing a sample will be taken from the load by a sort of large iron pipe and analyzed on the spot to determine the percentage of sugar within the load delivered. The growers is given a price calculated on a ratio between the weight and the richness or sugar content. After the sampling, the tractors unload the canes which form a huge pile.
Now will start the processing; the sugarcanes first go through the "shredder" which cuts them in small pieces; the resulting mass passes under a strong electromagnet which role is to attract the various metallic parts which might have accidentally been mixed within the canes, such a loose tractor parts, nuts and bolts, broken machete blades and so on. The following step is "milling," where the shredded cane is crushed under very high pressure mills (500 tons! You sure don't want to let a foot under those!) in order to extract the juice (named "vesou") from the bagasse which still holds about 1% sugar within its fibers. The resulting juice is now poured in very large containers in order to be heated, first at 74°C ( 165°F) then lime is added and it is heated this time at 105°C ( 221°F). When cooling there is a natural process of degassing which means the
dissolved air and gasses raise up while the lime acts as precipitator and causes the small particles to sink at the bottom. Now we can climb up a metal ladder (watch your step) and go the clarification area where the remaining particle will be separated from the juice, giving on one hand sludge, a smelly stuff used as fertilizer which is given back to the growers and on the other hand clear juice. Evaporation now takes place in the evaporators. It will take five evaporation steps to get rid of most of the water and produce syrup. We are almost reaching the end; the next step is boiling or crystallization where sugar will indeed turn into the familiar sugar crystals. In order to produce crystals the syrup needs to be given a blueprint by injecting in it very small sugar grains, this is called "seeding." It still takes boiling and centrifugation to separate crystals from remaining juice which will be crystallized again and again until no more sugar can be squeezed out, the remaining substance is molasses, from which rum will be elaborated through distillation. The very last step will be to let the sugar cool down then it is dispatched to buyers. Most of cane sugar produced on Reunion island (on a basis of 220 000 tons yearly) is exported to France, it is the number one exported good and the second money making industry right after tourism, bringing in some 150 millions Euros.
The visit will end by tasting the various types of sugar produced, a small glass of rum sweetened with sugar cane syrup and of course the sweetest feelings towards our visitors!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 31, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)