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!