The small market town of Pontefract, Yorkshire—born from the Norman conquest and home to a rich history of royal battles and posh affairs—holds an intriguing secret. One of its most beloved treats has been its greatest medicine for centuries: the liquorice cake or Pontefract cake.
What could have driven ancient Englanders to work this spongy, black-as-tar delicacy into their diets? Curiosity caught me in my tracks, and I had to find out more. As I began researching the Pontefract Cake’s mysterious past, I unearthed a captivating tale that was punctuated by multiple monarch disputes and dark love affairs.
My heart raced with excitement as I thought about my next stop: a visit to the abandoned medieval castle that housed this delectable treat’s story. Could its winding walls provide answers as to why liquorice cakes were so important then…and now? Join me on this journey of discovery where we uncover fairy tales, festival fanatics and other enchanting delights surrounding Pontefract Cakes!
A Captivating History of Liquorice in Yorkshire
The history of liquorice in Yorkshire is captivating and filled with remarkable tales. Few towns have as magical a past as Pontefract, where the famous priory of St. John was founded by Robert de Lacy all the way back in 1090 and among its many monastic miracles was an especially unique founding – that of the development of one of Britain’s most beloved food items, liquorice.
Unbeknownst to many visitors, the town of Pontefract became a significant home for liquorice during Medieval times, when it was discovered by invader armies that had conquered the English lands from Danish knights. This particular strain of liquorice found its way with a group of persecuted Benedictine monks making their way to Yorkshire.
They brought the perennial herbaceous plant Glycyrrhiza Glabra (the liquorice plant) and the knowledge of its power to heal to our shores for the first time. We extract natural liquorice or liquorice extract from the roots of the plant. The clever monks made medicinal pastels by mixing the extract of these plants but without adding sugar.
As time passed, tenant farmer families tended the liquorice fields of Pontefract. It must have been a hard life for these subsistence farmers, who regularly grew potatoes amongst the liquorice plants to help make a living. But by the early 1700s, there were up to 50 families involved. Their crops of liquorice root turned to black gold in the hands of the Monks of Pontefract the castle.
As demand grew for the medicinal properties of Yorkshire liquorice, the town elders in Pontefract rented the castle to store the harvested roots. So valuable were they to the local economy. (At the time, physicians used it as a cure-all for everything from stomach ulcers and heartburn to colic, bronchitis, and tuberculosis).
Pontefract: The Town Where Liquorice Became a Heritage
Situated in the north of England near the town of Wakefield lies an ancient borough known as Pontefract. An attractive sort of historical treasure, steeped in awe-inspiring tales and shrouded by a misty air of mystery.
The area is, of course, home to many significant sites and stories. It contains the ruins of three castles built between 1100 and 1648, making it part of English history’s great fortified towns. Furthermore, its name is etched into legend after Edward II ordered Lord Thomas Lancaster beheaded there in 1322 – his body interred at the local priory church brought an unexpected miracle when reports sprung up that “holy water” had trickled from his tomb.
But aside from all these grand feats and stunning locations lie something more mysterious yet unassuming; the birthplace of Britain’s beloved liquorice confectionery tradition – courtesy of a monk whose story is sure to intrigue even the most curious amongst us and the unique soil under its good citizen’s feet.
Pontefract Castle: The Perfect Environment for Growing Liquorice
Much can be said about the castle’s history and demise during the civil war. Still, the longevity of liquorice in our story is courtesy of the soil under the castle’s foundations. During the medieval period, the monks extensively grew plants in the rich loamy soil around the castle. Enriched by the cartloads of muck from the stews of the neighbouring towns of Wakefield and Leeds, the plant’s production flourished.
By the 18th Century, Yorkshire’s fortress had been repurposed for another use. By 1720, the local economy had changed to meet the demand for medicinal liquorice, and the castle was converted to store roots rather than weapons, gunpowder and prisoners.
The remains of a castle on top of what used to be a deep trench for growing liquorice were pointed out by Dave Evans, the curator of Wakefield Museums and Castles. He explained that the area was once a massive liquorice field, requiring deep trenches of up to 6ft in depth for proper growth.
Although there were many impressive castles in England, Yorkshire’s climate and geography made it an ideal location to cultivate and store this sweet treat instead of using the space for warfare.
Once the liquorice roots have undergone the boiling process, the resulting liquid can be further condensed. This reduction yields a viscous, full-bodied elixir boasting an assertive, formidable flavour – this is the essence of liquorice, extracted through the skill of the medieval monks. To certify the authenticity of their craft, these monks would affix droplets of the extract with a stamp that bore the coat of arms of Pontefract Castle. These original Pontefract Cakes were a potent, bitter confection, but the advent of sugar during the Tudor era would eventually alter their course.
George Dunhill changed the way we think about sweets in 1760. A chemist and apothecary from Pontefract, he discovered the process of combining sugar and liquorice to make a chewable, non-medicinal lozenge that we now recognise as modern confectionery.
From Medicine to Modern Sweet: The Evolution of Pontefract Cakes
In 1760, a pioneering apothecary chemist named George Dunhill arrived on the scene. From his humble beginnings in Pontefract, England, he unlocked the secrets of combining sugar and liquorice and created what is now recognised as a modern sweet treat – Pontefract Cakes!
But it was more than just a sweet treat – it was an evolution from its use as a medicinal lozenge. This small town had access to local gardens and nature’s bounty for centuries to harness and create natural remedies for curing various ailments such as sore throats. But when George Dunhill discovered how to combine sugar with an extract of liquorice, people had a new way to enjoy what was once considered healing herbs without sacrificing flavour.
By the 18th century, Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire was being used to grow liquorice. Over the years, a sweet empire flourished in the area, and by the 19th century, there were around 20 companies producing sweets. At its peak, ten large factories operated in Yorkshire with teams of approximately 45 female workers who processed 25,000 cakes daily and stamped them with an image of Pontefract Castle.
Despite the onslaught of globalisation, one thing remains constant: the embossed castle stamp on each classic sweet. Local brands like George Bassett and Co, who created Liquorice Allsorts in the UK, were acquired by Cadbury. At the same time, Dunhills, makers of Pontefract Cakes, was bought by German confectionary Haribo in 1994. But the iconic stamp lives on!
Preserving the Heritage: Cultivating Liquorice in Britain
Referencing the past, Evans stated that although most of Pontefract’s liquorice factories are gone now, the heritage can still be found and experienced through activities such as the Pontefract Liquorice Festival.
The Pontefract Museum also houses a special liquorice exhibit.
Evans said, looking back; it seemed like the stars had aligned over Pontefract, and its liquorice-making heritage was palpable. Although most of the liquorice factories have since closed down, it is still possible to spend a day exploring the town’s liquorice-themed tourism attractions, such as the Pontefract Liquorice Festival in July or the art nouveau Pontefract Museum, which has a dedicated exhibition about liquorice.
But there is now a modern twist to this story. Just outside of Pontefract, Heather Copley and her husband Robert have managed to become one of the few farmers in the UK to cultivate their own liquorice root crop successfully. Despite being tricky to achieve due to soil type and climate conditions, this brave couple has taken up this unique challenge and is determined to make it work.
Preserving the Heritage: Heather Copley’s Vision for Liquorice in Pontefract.
The Copleys are pioneering a project to produce a variety of ingredients, from ice cream to gin and potentially even sweets, all made from the 100 plants that flowered for the first time on their estate last year. The ambitious goal is to gain a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for their product.
Heather argued that liquorice deserves to be treated with the same respect as Scotch whisky or Wensleydale cheese. She reminisced about Pontefract being filled with the subtle yet strong smell of liquorice in the past and encouraged people to preserve their heritage. Heather noted that it would take five to seven years to get something from the crop but emphasised the importance of continuing this story and giving people a sense of local identity.
Dutch Strong Liquorice: chewy and delicious with an excellent tasty and robust liquorice flavour. Proper Liquorice.