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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Do you like licorice?

I haven't thought about licorice for years and then recently I saw a TV programme about it that reminded me how much my grandfather adored it - and how much I hated the flavour of it myself. There are some foodstuffs that if anyone asked me where they came from, I would have to think hard before I replied. Licorice is one of them. Did I even know it grew on trees? (Well, in bushes). I'm not sure that I did. Yet the history of licorice growing in Pontefract, a town near where I grew up in Yorkshire, is fascinating.

The precise date when licorice arrived in Britain is unrecorded. It could have been brought over by the Romans, as it grew well in Europe, or it may have been brought back from the Crusades. In medieval times it was a plant well known for its medicinal qualities (although in the programme I was watching we were told that it makes your teeth fall out and causes high blood pressure! My grandfather suffered from high blood pressure for years. Now I know why.)

The first mention of licorice growing in Pontefract was in the 1500s and during the English Civil War in the 17th century, the siege plans of Pontefract Castle show a "licorice garth" between the castle and the siege works. As an aside, during the sieges of Pontefract Castle rough coins were struck to pay the troops. Following the execution of Charles I, the royalist motto became "After the death of the father, we are for the son" and this can be seen on the Pontefract Siege Coins. It remains the motto of the town today. Anyway, it is known that medical "Pontefract Cakes" made of licorice were being made from as early as 1614. Around 1720, the Dunhill family rented land in the Castle to grow licorice. George Dunhill, who became a chemist, claims to have made the first Licorice, or Liquorice, Confectionery, by adding sugar in 1760. The production of licorice sweets became a booming cottage industry, with families contracted to sweet firms. They soaked the roots in hot water in their homes then having passed it through their household mangles, they boiled the liquor on the kitchen cooking range. At harvest time all the family became involved, with the men digging up the roots and the women and children picking it.

By the 1940s, Pontefract was producing 400 tons of licorice a week and exporting it all over the world. The industry went into a decline as land use came under pressure because the crop took so long to mature and so it was cheaper to import licorice from the continent.

Licorice contains Vitamin E, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9 complex, Biotin, Lecithin, Manganese, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Phosphorus, Protein, Zinc and other trace elements, and has been used for centuries to treat a huge variety of ailments. A word of warning, though - it is also a laxative. There are various licorice recipes here. Try as I might, though, I cannot embrace the idea of licorice and tomato soup!

16 comments:

Sarah Duncan said...

I LOVE licorice. Every year I drop hints that what I really want is some all sorts or comfits for Easter, and everyone gives me chocolate. Which is nice too, but not the same.

NinaP said...

Household mangles... what are household mangles?

Great post. I had no idea licorice had roots in England. Maybe I'll try to work a nip of licorice into the WIP. I'm always looking for elements common (but different) between Then and Now.

Thanks Nicola. You are one smart cookie.

Nicola Cornick said...

Sarah, next time I will send you mine. I'd like chocolate and people give me Licorice Allsorts!

Nicola Cornick said...

Nina, household mangles were the implements housewives used to wring out their washing in the days before mechanised washing machines. What do you call them?

There's a story told in my family that my great-grandmother was quite a bossy woman and one day her husband took exception to her nagging and pushed her skirts through the mangle so that she was trapped there all day. Me, I would have taken off my skirt or even torn it off to make sure I wasn't still standing there when he got home from work but my great-grandmother was too respectably Victorian to do that. My grandmother (his daughter-in-law) used to joke that it was lucky he and I never met. He wasn't hot on women's rights

I like looking for common elements between the past and the present too. Love the idea of a Regency character chewing a stick of licorice!

NinaP said...

Oh, I see. We call mangles wringers. My mother used one when I was little.

Defiantly with you on your great-grandmother. Bossy she may have been but I would never have allowed "him" to come home and find me where he left me standing. He’d be lucky if he ever found me again.

I wonder what your great-grands would have thought of us. Might I suggest our heroes are written tad too tolerant? :-)

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I do love red and chocolate licorice but not black. And I don't particularly love alcohol that has a licorice taste.

Nicola Cornick said...

I think I would probably have given my great-grandparents a heart attack! Going to university, working for a living, having opinions and expressing them...

Yes, I think you are right, Nina, our heroes probably have inauthentic levels of respect and admiration for strong women, but that is what I enjoy reading and writing about. It's that interesting subject of just how far do you make your characters true to their time, and how far do you make them appeal to a 21st century readership!

Nicola Cornick said...

Oh yes, I'd forgotten about red licorice! I love that. Is Pernod the drink that tastes of licorice or am I confusing it with something else?

Traxy said...

Scandinavians (I'm one of those) and the Dutch love their licorice salted with ammonium chloride ("salmiak" as it's also known, at least in Sweden). My hubby bought some "Turkish Pepper" candy in Sweden once and took it to work. The few who dared trying HATED it, and I've never seen a British person who can eat salty licorice without spitting it out in disgust. As the bag was nearly full, I took it to my work - I worked in a Nordic department at the time - and everyone LOVED it and a few said "Can I take two?"

Sweet licorice... I just don't like at all! I'm happy to have found a few places in Britain that actually sells salty licorice, so now I have a few more options than IKEA when I fancy some.

Nicola Cornick said...

I've never heard of salty licorice, Traxy, though I'd be willing to give it a go in the interests of research. Fascinating that it is so popular with the Dutch and Scandinavian palate! I've learned a lot about licorice from people's posts here and on FB. It's been great!

Leah Marie Brown said...

Although I do not like licorice (my husband does), I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post. What a fun read.

Nicola Cornick said...

Well I'm quite glad to find another non-licorice eater, Leah Marie. There are a lot of licorice enthusiasts out there. I'm glad you liked the post. Thank you!

Jan Jones said...

Oh, Nicola, I miss licorice so much. It reacts with my blood-pressure tablets. Bah!

Ever tasted American chocolate licorice? Wonderful.

Nicola Cornick said...

Someone mentioned chocolate licorice on Facebook, I think. I hadn't heard of it and I've got to admit the combination of flavours doesn't appeal to me that much but I would be prepared to give it a go - after all, I might like it!

Traxy said...

Nicola: Next time you're at IKEA, check out the food court. There are bags of salty licorice fish candy there. :)

When I visited a friend in Sweden in '08, I tried a chocolate bar which had a salty licorice centre. It was... umm... odd. Not the best combination, to be honest! As much as I enjoy chocolate and salty licorice... together... not so much.

Nicola Cornick said...

Traxy I misread "salty licorice fish candy" when I first saw your post and thought it was salty fish flavoured like anchovies. That just about finished me off - anchovies and licorice!